Sexual harassment in the financial services sector is a symptom of the crisis at the heart of leadership

Sexual harassment in the financial services sector is a symptom of the crisis at the heart of leadership

Changes to a few male personnel at companies like AMP and QBE, while important, is not enough for women to be safe from predatory leaders using sexual violence to control them.
financial services

 In 2020, women who go to work are at risk of being groped and sent explicit sexual images by male colleagues. In some cases, men will single out women at work events, only to rub their crotches against them without consent.

Elsewhere female middle managers can expect to receive ‘inappropriate’ texts and emails from their company’s CEO. These are real examples of sexual harassment reported at the financial services companies AMP and QBE.  

The culture of violence against women at AMP went all the way to the top. In August Boe Pahari stepped down as the CEO of AMP Capital after details of him harassing a female colleague were made public.

In his case, an inquiry found that he harassed the much younger woman by persistent calls for her to extend a work trip in London to buy clothes to go on a date with him.  He said that if she said no, it would be equivalent to saying he had a ‘limp dick’.

It was only when Pahari’s case became public that action was taken. That scandal that finally emerged led chairman David Murray and director John Fraser to resign.

Their resignations were rightly justified. Pahari had been promoted to CEO even though he had been penalised for sexual harassment in 2017 by AMP.  AMP appeared to prefer to back its ‘rainmaker’ while silencing women with legal settlements. 

At QBE Pat Regan was stood down as CEO this month after a complaint from a female employee that breached the code of conduct.  Details beyond that are unclear, but this became public knowledge at a time when the financial services industry was already under the spotlight for the behaviour of its male executives. 

What caused all of this? Much of the focus has been on holding individual men to account for their wrongdoing. Others have pointed to the corporate culture of AMP, the unreconstructed values of its executives, and the silencing of reporting. 

But there is much more to this than men’s behaviour in a single rogue organisation. Focussing on AMP obscures the real scale of sexual harassment, and its cover-up. AMP isn’t a ‘bad apple’, it is a symptom of a much more fundamental problem with leadership. 

In our research we have found that addressing the broader structural and cultural barriers to women’s safety at work is what is needed. This means overcoming the low reporting of harassment and violence at work. To effect change, we need to fundamentally rethink how we understand and practice leadership. 

The idea of leadership originates with male power and hierarchy. This is too often translated into feelings of superiority and entitlement by people in leadership positions. It is this very condition that fuelled Harvey Weinstein and so many other male leaders’ ability to get away with sexual harassment and assault for so long.  

To its credit, the #MeToo movement has made visible the extent of sexual harassment and encouraged its reporting. But corporate leadership has not learned enough from the lessons of #MeToo.  

Changes to a few male personnel at companies like AMP and QBE, while important, is not enough for women to be safe from predatory leaders using sexual violence to control them. As long as leadership is based on power inequality and while most leaders are men, the abuse of women at work will continue. 

To address the normalisation of harassment, tackling leadership inequality is a way forward. This includes increasing the number of women in leadership positions. People have been saying that for decades, but far too little has been done to make any real change. Another part of the solution, and one usually overlooked, is that the traditional understanding of leadership as a form of dominance needs to change.  

The leadership needed is one that not only supports changes towards greater equality, but also disrupts the hierarchy, power and regimes that perpetuate inequality. This leadership is one that is not defined primarily by male values of domination, competition and victory. It is a leadership that sees justice, equality and empathy as the hallmarks of excellence.  

By Alison Pullen, Celina McEwen and Carl Rhodes

Alison Pullen is Professor of Management and Organization Studies Macquarie University 

Celina McEwen is Senior Research Fellow in Management, University of Technology Sydney 

Carl Rhodes is Professor of Organization Studies, University of Technology Sydney 

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