Sexual Harassment: An mPower Community Conversation

(Marcia Davies is Chief Operating Officer of the Mortgage Bankers Association. This article originally appears in the current issue of MBA Insights.)

As the leading voice for the real estate finance industry, the Mortgage Bankers Association created mPower to provide a platform for women to strengthen their networks, achieve professional growth and development, and to exchange ideas and information about our industry. Our community started as a conversation about the place women have in this industry, and the realization that we needed to continue that conversation year-round.

MarciaDaviesThese days, much of the national conversation is focused on sexual harassment in the workplace. It continues to dominate the news, from national politics to entertainment events like the Golden Globes or Screen Actors Guild awards this month. The women in mPower have been eager to discuss this issue head-on, specific to real estate finance. Ultimately, our goal is for the conversation to be productive and lead to actionable solutions.

To that end, we recently conducted a voluntary survey of mPower members to initiate a conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace and gain a snapshot of the experiences that members of our community have had with sexual harassment while working in the industry, attitudes towards the issue, and the impact we feel this has had on our professional development and career.

To be clear, this was not intended nor is it a scientific survey and we cannot attribute the results to the broader population of women working in real estate finance. The response rate reflects the experience of some–not all women in the mPower network. In addition, because we were interested in understanding the life experiences of our mPower members, our survey asked respondents if they had experienced harassment at any point in their careers in the real estate finance industry.

While there are men participating in our mPower network, and many men attend our mPower events, this poll was meant for women. Ultimately, 13.5 percent of the 2,000 women who were sent the survey responded. We thought some of the results would be worth sharing, as a means to facilitate a broader conversation.

To be sure common language was defined, we asked participants to respond based on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) definition of sexual harassment in the workplace, stated as “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or resisting of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating hostile or offensive work environment.”

Between December 11-22, 2017, mPower community members answered our survey. Our key takeaways are as follows:

–Three of every four respondents (75 percent) said they had experienced at least one work-related sexual harassment incident.

–Of those respondents reporting at least one incidence of sexual harassment, 87 percent reported that an incident occurred while they were in their twenties, followed by 56 percent reporting an incident in their thirties.

–The most frequent location of an incident was at the office and the most frequent offending behavior was inappropriate comments.

–More than 50 percent of those reporting at least one incident reported inappropriate touching and just under 50 percent reported unwanted sexual advances.

–Of those experiencing at least one incident, only 8 percent had reported an incident to human resources and only 20 percent ever told someone in the chain of command about an incident.

–And, in perhaps an initial sign of hope that our current moment portends well for the future: respondents to our survey said that recent events were more likely to make them call out perpetrators and to report incidents to someone in command or in human resources.

While our survey was quite simple, the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace undertook a massive study of workplace sexual harassments complaints released in 2016. The meta-study noted that existing studies indicated that as many as 85 percent of women report having experienced harassment in the workplace, depending on how the surveys were conducted and how that term was defined. The EEOC Select Task Force also noted that roughly 75 percent of individuals “who experienced harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager or union representative about the harassing conduct.”

From the outlined points above, we see some trends emerge. One that particularly stands out from our results is the relationship between age and likelihood of experiencing sexual harassment among our respondents. Another is that women suffering from workplace sexual harassment who responded to our survey do not feel or did not feel they have a recourse through HR or through their supervisors. This speaks to the power dynamic that makes workplace sexual harassment such an insidious and pernicious issue.

Some of our survey questions allowed participants to offer personal details of their incidents. There is a range of experiences and reactions, but it is clear that many women in our industry have had to put significant effort into dealing with workplace sexual harassment of themselves or their colleagues. We do not need a scientific survey to estimate how many women before we start to take action, because one is too many.

Time magazine named its Persons of The Year as “The Silence-Breakers,” highlighting those in the #MeToo movement and allies who at all levels of the economy and in all different kinds of industry have stood up and shared their story, making it easier for others to come forward.

While we were readying this article, Claire Weber, Chief Operating Officer of MBA-member FormFree, submitted an article on workplace sexual harassment and an incident involving a young colleague at a recent conference. It’s not easy to read, but it’s important that we do. While it is excellent that this young woman had Claire as a supervisor and female mentor at her company, able to intervene in the situation and offer her support, Claire sums up the impact this has on the career satisfaction and career development of professional women. I encourage you to read Claire’s article in this issue of Insights.

Bringing voice to this issue is so important, and we are grateful for the women in this industry who are sharing their story. The next step for the mPower community is to learn how to grow from here. How do we take the trends suggested by our informal surveys and others and turn them around? How do we proactively change corporate culture so that women, and everyone, in our industry is able to fully realize their goals as a career professional? How do we rebalance the power disparity that would prevent someone who has been harassed from coming forward?

This is the conversation we’re having at mPower. Please join us: