As soon as I got the opportunity, I traded in that uniform for a pantsuit and managed a small party race, on behalf of a political consulting group, during a national convention in Los Angeles.
Upon checking into the hotel, where the event was being held, I discovered a room hadn’t been reserved under my name. Reassured by a female superior that I’d have a place to stay, I carried on with the campaign.
It was late in the evening when my boss, a man 30 years my senior, requested I meet him at the hotel bar for a debrief. I grabbed my clipboard and pen and dutifully marched over.
He had already ordered two drinks and started walking away from the crowd, motioning me to follow him. We eventually arrived at his hotel room, which was furnished with a bed, a chair and a desk.
I opted to sit in the chair, clipboard tightly clenched in my hands — guarding my torso. My eyes were fixed on the room’s only exit. Suddenly, he dispensed with the formalities, discarded his jacket and invited me to join him on the bed to watch a movie.
I sheepishly declined so as not to irritate him and insisted we get some work done. He ordered me to try my drink and started flipping through the channels.
My heart began to pound when he informed me that his room should be sufficient for my stay at the convention.
He reinforced his argument by pointing out that we were on a tight budget and remarked, “You’re not a princess who needs her own room, are you?”
At first I froze but, thankfully, my fight-or-flight instinct kicked in and I managed to leave.
The next day, my fresh-faced candidate unseated an astonished incumbent. In no state to celebrate the victory, I returned home, only to be met with news of my termination.
For some time, I struggled with the complicated feelings that arose from the unequivocal fact I got fired for not sleeping with my boss.
I had naively thought I immigrated to a country that functioned as a meritocracy. Like most women, I never complained. I could afford neither legal advice nor therapy. And the prospect of telling my family and friends would only deepen my humiliation.
My new ‘uniform’ only exposed my hands, neck and face so that I couldn’t be accused of being ‘distracting’.
Though I had joined another political consulting firm, with a supportive male mentor, the pain and isolation continued to magnify until it extinguished my passion for a career in politics. I told myself I could start fresh and reinvent myself in a new industry.
So, at age 30, I entered the high stakes world of private equity. The opportunity to work with some of the most brilliant investors in the world, titans in their respective industries, ignited my intellectual curiosity and rekindled my ambition.
As I rose through the ranks and successfully raised institutional capital for investment firms worldwide, I adapted to being, in most cases, the only woman in the room.
My new ‘uniform’ only exposed my hands, neck and face so that I couldn’t be accused of being ‘distracting’ during meetings. That said, I couldn’t be seen in loose fitting clothing either, so as to avoid being asked if I was hiding a pregnancy.
I even once dyed my hair brown, so that I would be called by my first name rather than just be referred to as ‘the blonde’.
I learned to control my facial expressions at sexist comments, how to steer a conversation away from overly personal inquiries and how to bear the brunt of humiliating jokes. Most women I know possess these skills, they are just not listed on their resumes.
Token talk from the beginning
When I was approached by AMP to head up their North American distribution efforts in 2016, I engaged in a rigorous interview process.
Being intimately familiar with some of the pitfalls to avoid in a work environment, I zeroed in on their corporate culture over their portfolio of assets. I inquired about AMP’s diversity and inclusion policy, female staff retention, equality in compensation, and – since I was in the midst of family planning – I drilled down on how they accommodated working mothers.
I was informed AMP had just hired two pregnant women, one of whom went on paid maternity leave immediately. This news assuaged my greatest fear – of needing to choose between having a career and having a family.
I did my due diligence and thought I had found a firm I could grow with, a place where I would be safe, where my personal and professional choices would be supported and respected.
Everyone now knows how deeply mistaken I was… I never imagined that as an experienced and qualified professional in a company that holds the public’s trust, I would still be treated no better than when I was a waitress in that restaurant.
The same individuals who shamelessly touted AMP’s culture to encourage me to join were also the ones who demanded I return to work for my harasser even after my credible complaint against him was investigated and verified. What may come as a surprise is that these individuals were all female.
When I was hired in 2016, AMP was one of the biggest financial institutions in the world and one of the top 20 companies listed on the Australian Securities Exchange. One in four Australians was an AMP customer.
Since July 1, 2020, when news of my 2017 sexual harassment complaint broke, AMP shares fell approximately 40 per cent or $2.8 billion in market capitalisation. Between last July and March of this year, investors withdrew $9 billion in assets under management from AMP Capital — approximately $2 billion in corporate pension assets and about $8 billion in total wealth management products.
A number of pension funds withdrew hundreds of millions from AMP’s ethical investment options and a $5 billion property fund recently changed ownership. Currently, there is speculation two more funds will also change hands. Now, this 172-year-old company is no longer in the top 20 or the top 50 on the ASX – and its market capitalisation continues to shrink.
Over the past year, dozens upon dozens of talented senior and junior staff have left, not to mention almost every single executive. My harasser, however, is set to finally depart next month, with a reported $50 million golden parachute.
I think it should be painfully clear, especially to the stakeholders, how a company’s toxic culture — where sexual harassment is not taken seriously and handled with the dignity and urgency it requires — can degrade and devalue not only the survivors who report it but an entire company’s global workforce and its underlying market value.
Companies like AMP ultimately serve a broad cross-section of the population as customers. These companies must conduct themselves within the moral and ethical norms of their customer base, or rightly risk extinction.
Simon Mawhinney of Allan Gray, one of AMP’s biggest shareholders, summed this up when he said: “Companies must have a social licence to operate above all else or ultimately it will be your company’s downfall.”
Many things had to line up for this case to catalyse corporate Australia’s #MeToo moment but none more instrumental than when some of the major shareholders, and their representatives like ACSI, held AMP to account — sending a firm message that sexual harassment is simply bad for business.
A 2018 report by Deloitte quantified the cost of sexual harassment at $3.8 billion to the Australian economy.
Investors recognise that poor corporate culture ultimately impacts on investment outcomes and it’s investors who can, and should, push companies to reconsider the serious implications of continuing to do business as usual by prioritising short-term gains over long-term sustainability.
Those of us who do decide to speak up almost never work in our chosen professions again.
Beyond its consequences for enterprise value, workplace sexual harassment is a notoriously under-reported human rights issue, a health and safety violation and a professional crisis — not just a personal one.
Calling out sexual harassment cannot, and should not, exclusively rest on the shoulders of the survivors. Those of us who do decide to speak up almost never work in our chosen professions again.
And I would be remiss not to mention that my experience would undoubtedly be exponentially worse if I still spoke with an accent, worked for minimum wage, lived in a non-democratic country, didn’t have white skin, wasn’t able-bodied, didn’t possess a resilient mind or identified as anything other than heterosexual.
Now I realise that my years of education and experience, and the attention I paid to what I wore and how I was perceived, could never immunise me from an experience I share with women everywhere.
We are all in the same storm, just in different boats, anchored by systemic sexism and misogyny.
I’m grateful to Louise Davidson, CEO of the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors, and Kate Jenkins, Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner and member of the Australian Human Rights Commission, for the work they continue to do on behalf of all employees and investors.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you all today and hope you join us in demanding greater transparency and accountability so we can set a new standard for the global community. Thank you.
This is an extract from Julia Szlakowski’s speech at the ACSI Annual Conference.