Melanie Katzman with book "Connect First"

Financial services is indeed a rough-and-tumble industry — not just because of market ups and downs but because its members — women and, yes, men too — can be reduced to tears by sexism and raunchy jokes made at their expense, as psychologist Melanie Katzman reveals in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.

A consultant to business, government and nonprofits, Katzman discusses why male-dominated financial services has been rife with female sexual harassment and why even in the #MeToo era, women are reluctant to speak out when it occurs.

(Related: What Advisors Really Think About the Fisher Controversy)

The clinical psychologist, who maintains a private practice in New York City, also opines on money manager Ken Fisher’s crude remarks made during a “fireside chat” at the Tiburon CEO Summit last month and the episode’s fiery aftermath. To be sure, she hopes the fracas will be “a warning sign for the industry,” though not lead to “paralyzing political correctness.”

Katzman then offers suggestions on how to stop bad behavior virtually in its tracks at financial industry conferences.

Founder of Katzman Consulting in 1999, her new book is “Connect First: 52 Simple Ways to Ignite Success, Meaning, and Joy at Work” (McGraw-Hill-October 2019). Establishing respect and “making others feel valued” is essential to initially connecting as “fellow humans,” she writes.

The psychologist was a senior fellow at The Wharton School’s Center of Leadership and Change Management, and held faculty positions in psychiatry at Weill-Cornell Medical Center and the University of London.

Clients of her consultancy include Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and UBS.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed the Ph.D., who was speaking by phone from Manhattan. She said that the solution to sexism in financial services, especially bad behavior at industry conferences, lies in men and women working jointly to find a way to curtail it.

Here are highlights of our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: A former Bear Stearns managing director, Maureen Sherry, wrote that on her first day in financial services, when she opened a pizza box, instead of pepperoni slices, she found condoms. But she didn’t report it. Why has humor at the expense of women been rife in financial services?

MELANIE KATZMAN: There’s a lot of nasty joking and inappropriate sexual humor that goes on man to man, and no one is supposed to say anything about it. But it isn’t always funny to the recipient — including men: They’ve got to suck it up, and women feel the same way. I hear from men who feel belittled also. These are rough places [to work].

Please elaborate on the men’s pain. 

When I show up at some investment banks, I feel like I’m doing rounds at hospitals that I trained in as a psychologist. I go in, close the door and people start to cry — men and women. So I don’t want to suggest that men are free of some of the suffering that happens in this environment. It’s just that for women, it can cross the line.

A 2018 survey by Source Media Research shows that sexual harassment is highest in the wealth management sector compared to other industries. Is something inherent in financial services that makes women susceptible to being demeaned? 

It’s an environment in which preferential treatment is given to people who are making [a great deal of] money. The attitude is that you have to be rational and cool and successful. It makes the things that women are perhaps more wired to do naturally less valued. And there’s the assumption that women who complain are going to be penalized for being emotional: Don’t be a wimp — you’ve got to keep up. So women are reluctant to voice their concerns and [if they do], are often punished either overtly or now even more covertly.

What’s your reaction to the episode last month in which Ken Fisher, in a “fireside chat” at the Tiburon CEO Summit, made crude sexual remarks that prompted financial advisor Alex Chalekian to post a Twitter video expressing his disgust — which triggered a firestorm against Fisher and his firm?  

Things happen at conferences [among attendees] that nobody would be proud of in the light of day. But this happened from the stage. I wasn’t there. However, my understanding is that people were silent, and then those who spoke internally were made to feel like pariahs until the outside world pushed in. People feel disempowered at conferences to say anything even though, as in this case, they were bystanders to inappropriate behavior.

What’s the lesson to be learned here?

You want to act in a way that aligns with what you say your values are because if you don’t walk the talk, when you’re exposed, there are repercussions.

About $3.9 billion in assets have reportedly been pulled from Fisher Investments in the furor. Do you see that as overreaction?

Yes. It’s like a guilt-driven reaction. So much of what goes on in organizational harassment is insidious. So does pulling assets make a difference? Only if it puts fear into organizations to dig deep. If it just makes them freeze and afraid to have conversations with women, then we’re really in trouble. I hope this is a warning sign for the industry. Will it ultimately lead to better behavior? Does it lead to a paralyzing, overly controlling political correctness? I don’t have a crystal ball.

In your new book, “Connect First: 52 Simple Ways to Ignite Success, Meaning and Joy at Work,” you say that it’s essential for people to first connect on a human level. Was making shocking comments Mr. Fisher’s way of trying to connect with the audience?

That’s very possible. It’s like, Aren’t I adorable? I’m funny. I’m relatable. We’re gettin’ down together. I’m not sure if that was the case, but you could argue that. It takes away from your responsibility of knowing who the audience is and to understand your context.

It’s long known that Mr. Fisher is wont to make loaded comments. So why the outrage now?

Sometimes people cultivate certain personalities, and it’s part of what makes them memorable. Maybe it’s served them well; but maybe the world has changed around them, and what was good in the “Mad Men” days isn’t good now.

But why do they hold onto that personality?

I see older male executives who behave like that, and they’re protected because of their seniority. People excuse it: “Oh they grew up in another era. The rules were different.” But this is the era in which we’re operating, and these are the rules that we have now.

About a week after Mr. Fisher made the remarks, his son Nathan posted a message on LinkedIn: “My father’s brain is wired differently from most people’s … he relates to people differently and doesn’t always interpret social cues in conventional ways.” What’s your response to that?

It seems like a weak effort to try to excuse away behavior. We’re all wired differently for different reasons. If you grab somebody’s bottom and say you’re lower on the impulse-control meter and therefore it was OK that you did it, I don’t buy that. If you have a neurological vulnerability, then think about the ways in which you need to compensate for that. So, if you’re in a leadership position, I would hope you have people who are your rear-view and side-view mirrors.

Back to women at conferences: Why are they targets for disrespect at these events?

It’s not just about making a comment about what’s happening in someone’s pants [referring to Fisher’s remark] — conferences have a lot of messaging around who’s in power and who’s not. There are subtle things: Announcements about where the bathrooms are or what time dinner will be are made by women. There are many ways in which you could identify an imbalance between the sexes.

What could be done to discourage male sexism and sexual harassment at conferences?

Conferences need to be more gender-neutral and gender-safe. [Attendees] could take a vow that if somebody is going off the rails, they’ll say something by sending an email to a conference ombudsman who’s capturing what’s going on. So if you see or hear something inappropriate, there would be someone who’s part of the organizational committee checking [for comments] twice a day: Do we need to make an announcement about this? Do we need to issue an apology? That would be [taking] immediate responsibility.

In a 2018 Vanity Fair article, you were quoted as saying: “Some well-intentioned men undermine women by protecting them…This is a return to the old concept of women as fragile.” Could that be what Mr. Chalekian may be doing in reportedly advising financial organizations on how to prevent sexual harassment at conferences?

I don’t think that women need one sole superman to sweep in with their cape. I’d like to see women and men working together in establishing how to deal with this issue. The answer has to come from a joint conversation.

Will an increase in the number of female financial advisors decrease male sexism in the industry?

It depends on the decision-makers. We need more women in power who are coming up from the ranks of the younger generation. Do I think younger women are seeing more role models of women in power? Yes. Is that an improvement? Absolutely. But there’s still a long way to go.

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