More than a decade before #MeToo, I could have been the poster child for workplace sexual harassment.
After I complained that my managers at Lehman Brothers were structuring housing loans in a risky manner, they brought in a male supervisor that local managers had “jokingly” nicknamed “Chester the Molester.” He fondled me, ogled me, pushed his genitals against me and forced me, on numerous occasions, to view simulated masturbation. As if the sexual acts weren’t enough, he also subjected me to derogatory racial epithets.
My employers did nothing to stop the harassment; instead, they encouraged it as a way to further their agenda to shut me up. And when the economic calamities I was warning about happened, my sexual harassment was overshadowed by the tanking of the housing market and the economy.
Before the 2008 housing crash, my colleagues and I helped process and approve mortgages for BNC Mortgage, a subprime lending subsidiary of Wall Street giant Lehman Brothers based in Sacramento, Calif. When we noticed doctored documents that violated lending guidelines, we raised red flags and reported our concerns to human resources and to both immediate and upper management.
In response, management brought in “Chester” and passively condoned his aggressive sexual and racist harassment. After countless complaints to HR, local and corporate management, I could only conclude that the sexual harassment we had collectively complained about was condoned by the company.
The harassment began to feel like a deliberate, well-thought-out corporate strategy not just to keep me silent, but to force me and five other women in my office to approve fraudulent loans for unqualified home buyers. When any of us complained, we were subtly reminded that if we processed and approved the bad loans, the harassment would stop.
The pressure to capitulate became so severe that many of us took sick leave. All six of us were ultimately forced to quit. I like to think that if we had been taken seriously, the market wouldn’t have imploded, but that’s probably wishful thinking. There was too much money to be made, and it was too easy to get rid of us.
My tipping point came when “Chester” approached me in the file room, breathed down my neck and pushed himself against my backside. I am a rape survivor. I ran as fast as I could from the office and out of the building. I was blackballed in the mortgage industry, losing both my savings and my physical and mental health.
I continue to relive the harassment I faced at Lehman Brothers daily. I am plagued by nightmares. My sense of self-worth has never fully returned. Whereas today, my #MeToo story would be on the front page of newspapers across the country, back then we were treated dismissively.
Women are rising up to demand that society and our legal system finally see sexual harassment for the workplace scourge it is, but when the six of us sued Lehman Brothers in 2005 (Colombo v. BNC Mortgage Inc.), no jury heard our story. As discovery in our case was ramping up, the housing market crashed, and with it mighty Lehman Brothers.
Today, Lehman has emerged from bankruptcy and paid off its other creditors—and the justice system is telling the six of us that we’re just collateral damage. We don’t buy it.
Our scars are just as real, our nightmares just as paralyzing, as those of more recent harassment victims. If anything, they are magnitudes worse, because now we are living with the long-term effects of unacknowledged sexual harassment.
My colleagues and I deserve the justice we are owed. We deserve our #MeToo moment. We deserve our lives back.