The light of justice that exposed the sexual harassment of women banking professionals has begun to be obscured by the larger issue of women's advancement in the financial services industry.

Sexual harassment charges eliminate unwelcome male conduct, but they have also exacerbated the politics of exclusion - a much larger problem that prevents women from reaching senior executive positions.

Rather than resulting in a more educated and sensitive work environment, the escalating number of sexual harassment charges has caused a backlash in the banking community.

Adding Fuel to the Fire

Growing numbers of male managers, fearful of spurious charges, are excluding women from the informal networking opportunities critical to advancement. While this type of exclusion is not new, the recent spate of sexual harassment charges has added fuel to the fire.

The scenarios are painfully familiar to women banking executives. A manager may choose a male employee over a female employee if the project requires a business trip or late-night work. He socializes at lunch with other men with whom he feels safe in his behavior.

Worse, the politics of exclusion prevent women from earning the trust of a male manager, which most often is developed during the day-to-day process of working together. As a result, a competent female may be passed over for a high-level position simply because she has missed opportunities to interact with the decision maker.

Likewise, diversity experts agree that even in the best-intentioned and most progressive financial institution, the climate of male fear of sexual harassment charges will keep women out of these informal channels of information, where important decisions about job advancement, sometimes crystallize.

How critical is this? In a recent study of 201 of the nation's top CEOs by Fortune magazine, 31% said women are not becoming CEOs sooner because they "have not built up solid networks of connection and support."

Adding to the confusion and paranoia of male banking executives is the recent instruction of three federal circuit courts that men must relate to women at work as if they themselves were women.

The third, sixth, and ninth circuit courts of appeals have ruled that a "reasonable woman" standard must be applied in deciding sexual harassment claims brought by women.

This means that a court or jury would have to, decide whether a "reasonable woman" would have considered the conduct severe enough to have altered a condition of other employment and to have created a hostile environment.

Rather than ensuring that women participate in the workplace on an equal footing with men, the reasonable woman standard is likely to perpetuate the very stereotypes that women banking professionals seek to eliminate; namely, that women are not tough enough to compete in the financial arena.

No Risks, No Rewards

By legitimizing the concept that women think differently from men, males may conclude that women need to be treated more delicately, shielding them, for example, from the difficult but potentially rewarding assignments that often lead to promotions.

Ironically, male banking officials who quiet their fear of sexual harassment charges by avoiding women co-workers set themselves up for a worse problem. Women who feel they have been wrongfully excluded may be protected by law since certain courts have held that "harassing" events need not be sexual in nature to be actionable, and certainly the prompt gender discrimination.

Rather than being fearful, men must feel as comfortable with women as they now do with men in senior management positions if women ate to receive equal opportunities.

This may only be achievable if gender-blind standards are mandated by the courts, as they have been in certain other areas of employment law. Efforts are being made now on the state and federal levels to investigate and remedy the plight of women in this respect.

A More General Test

While endorsing legal standards that incorporate the different perspectives of men and women, the New York State Governor's Task Force on Sexual Harassment has proposed adoption of a "reasonable person" test that is not solely based on a sexual double standard. Rather, the test focuses on all the characteristics of the victim, which include sex, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, and age.

In another example, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 established a "glass ceiling commission" to study the problem and make recommendations regarding the elimination of workplace barriers to minorities and women.

Male managers and the managements of banks must be prepared to respond to these legal initiatives by creating a business environment that fosters a cooperative nonsexist approach to work, so that women are not excluded from workplace activities, both formal and informal.

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