In 2008, investment executive Jordan Wimmer's boss e-mailed her sexually explicit jokes and took her to a strip club. In 2010, stockbroker Karen Lo's boss sent her inappropriate text messages and an explicit video of himself. Both sued for sexual harassment.
Though these two cases have grabbed headlines, they contradict recent sexual harassment reporting trends.
According to data compiled exclusively for FINS by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. body that enforces discrimination laws, the number of sexual harassment charges in finance, insurance and real estate has decreased by roughly half from 2005 to 2009 -- from 287 to 119. Over the same period, sexual harassment charges across all industries remained relatively flat, hovering around 13,000 nationwide.
But some women's advocates have not been quick to celebrate. Fewer charges being filed doesn't equate to fewer incidences of sexual harassment, they said. It may just mean women are more reluctant to report them.
"The number of charges is always artificially low," said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center. "We assume that the complaints we receive don't come close to representing the amount of harassment in the workplace because so many people fear making a complaint at all."
Fearing retribution after lodging a sexual harassment complaint is nothing new. But in a skittish economy in which finance layoffs have become commonplace, calling attention can be a dangerous move. Women may figure that complaining could result in their termination. And pressure is also coming from other sources. In a recent piece by New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams, women are advised to keep quiet and "just learn to deal with it."
For their part, banks and finance firms have implemented policies designed to prevent hostile work environments. Morgan Stanley, Bank of America and Barclays, for example, all claim zero tolerance for sexual harassment.
Employee handbooks may not be enough, however. One employee at a large firm who did not want to be named said she regularly encountered clients who acted inappropriately toward her, whether in the form of unwanted touching or inquiring about her marital status and plans for the night. Still, she wouldn't complain because "[she] would look like someone who couldn't handle the stress of a workplace, and [she'd] be treated differently."
"We don't know why exactly the numbers of charges have declined," said Elizabeth Grossman, regional attorney at the New York District Office of the EEOC. "The economy may be a factor, both in the fact that there may be fewer jobs as well as that employees may have developed increased concerns about the ramifications of complaining." She added that though the problem has decreased at certain companies, she doesn't think there is less harassment overall.
Since experts don't trust the reported numbers, quantifying and therefore addressing the problem is made more difficult. According to Grossman, the longer that women accept sexual harassment as an invariable part of the financial workplace, the harder it is to persuade them to come forward.
The statistics shed some light on the issue, even if they're not entirely accurate, says Deborah England, an attorney specializing in employment law. "The more focus this gets, the more it changes. The Anita Hill hearings caused a lot of women to sit up and take notice. Change needs to come from all sides; combating sexual harassment is a full-frontal effort."
In early May, an employment tribunal ruled against Jordan Wimmer, finding that she had "not been a persuasive witness." She now owes approximately £100,000 to pay for legal and court fees. Lo's case is still pending.
Write to Julie Steinberg
Related: Women Fight for Equality on the Trading Floor