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Toxic workplace culture: An enlightening evening

Sometimes things can surprise you! A couple of weeks ago an email dropped into my inbox

that looked like many we all get urging us to do something or sign up to something. I very

nearly skipped over it as junk mail but for some reason didn’t. Boy, am I glad I didn’t!

The email was actually a dinner invitation from Dr Ann Olivarius to attend a dinner of like-minded women and to meet US author Jamie Fiore Higgins, author of a new book, Bully Market. Ann Olivarius is a leading female US lawyer who many years ago challenged the misogynistic culture at Yale towards female students and created the expression ‘date rape’.

Toxic workplace culture

Bully Market is Jamie’s story about her experiences as a high-ranking woman at Goldman Sachs - what she saw and experienced first-hand in terms of misogyny and a toxic culture towards women. Including sexual advances, abusive comments, and discriminatory attitudes toward female advancement. Some of the stories she recounts in Bully Market are jaw-dropping. I urge anyone who works in banking to read it; or anyone who works in a culture that they find toxic towards women; and probably any man who has ever wondered why women complain about male behaviour sometimes!

But my learning that evening wasn’t just about the fact that the book had come out and the stories in it. Jamie was willing to discuss with us a number of questions we had for her that were triggered by the book. Here are a few questions we talked about that evening and some conclusions I came to about what I heard.

Why is this sort of male behaviour prevalent in banking and finance)?

Huge money is to be made in banking and finance with large bonuses and performance compensation on offer. Money brings power and so we discussed how much money and power can corrupt people’s (men and women) sense of perspective about what is appropriate or inappropriate behaviour. Do people lose their moral compass somewhat when large amounts of money are potentially available?

The drive to continue making money and receiving large compensations means employees can be very individually focused on what is good for them. There is a desire to ‘not rock the boat’ and so not call out inappropriate behaviour that may challenge the prevailing culture and have negative financial repercussions. So, both genders can be seduced into going along with the culture by turning a blind eye, or just leaving which many women choose to do but which leaves the behaviour in place.

Why did Jamie stay so long as do many women who work in toxic cultures?

Jamie similarly talked about recognising the culture she was working in but being so ambitious to achieve

that, like many women, she turned a blind eye and went along with it for some time. She talked about the long road she had traveled in terms of her education, family background, and career ambition to get to a senior position and the drive to not allow bad male behaviour to derail her own career. How many women stay in toxic work environments because they refuse to lose their hard-fought careers for the sake of poor male behaviour?

But this led us to talk about the long-term effects.

What does it do to women (and men) to work continuously in toxic a workplace culture?

Jamie talked about how it is easy to normalise behaviour, to slowly not realise this is not the norm in the workplace and how damaging this can be. Ultimately how working in a toxic culture can impact a woman’s sense of identity and who she actually is – I don’t know who I am anymore! Poor workplace culture cannot be good for either gender and devalues anyone’s sense of self-worth. Ultimately, we asked why did you write the book. Why not legally challenge what you saw happening?

Sometimes having our day in court can be satisfying but of course is a costly, emotionally draining and potentially disappointing route to follow. Rather storytelling can be a very powerful way to engage others in the topic and to have an impact. Storytelling brings experiences to life for others. It helps us to relate to what we hear and can empower us to believe we could do the same should we be put in that position.

I definitely spent an empowering evening in the company of Ann, Jamie, and several other strong women. Thanks to Ann for bringing us together and to Jamie for sharing her story! I'd love to hear about your experiences of toxic workplace culture...


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