Banning ‘Bro Talk’: Sam Polk on Why Men Need to Step Up Their Treatment of Women in the Workplace
Here’s a welcome call to arms: Sam Polk, a former hedge fund trader, recently made waves when the New York Times published his article, “How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down.” Placing the onus on men to stop the overt sexism that flourishes within the financial industry, the piece was met with the internet equivalent of a standing ovation—and, for many women, recognition. Polk is now a father, husband, entrepreneur, and the author of “For the Love of Money,” a memoir about overcoming wealth addiction, out this week. We talked to him about holding men accountable for their treatment of women, and why he chose to speak up now.
Why were you bothered by “bro talk” when so many other men go along with it? Who showed you that it was a problem?
I learned that it was wrong from two places: 1) in my family, my dad was a dominating, controlling, angry guy, and I always had reservations about how he treated my mom; and 2) right when I started on Wall Street, I began seeing a counselor to help get through a breakup and deal with some issues I had with drugs and alcohol. The counselor is Native American—her name is Linda Redford—and we talked a lot about how women are treated, both at home and in the workplace. It was from those discussions that my sensibility grew.
For a lot of men, a domineering father might have had the opposite effect.
I was heading down that path, and one of the reasons I started seeing that counselor was because I got dumped by a girl I was deeply in love with—but I was also cheating on her and not treating her well. If not for that counselor, I probably would have kept going in that direction. [Ed note: You can read more about this in Polk’s 2014 op-ed, also in the Times.]
Once you started to make the shift, was it difficult to interact with male colleagues who weren’t on the same page?
It all had to do with the power dynamic. Over time, I gained my voice with subordinates and peers. For example, there was one time an intern made a really inappropriate comment about women, and I pulled him aside and told him so. I was nice about it, but I made it clear that I didn’t appreciate that kind of talk. But by my last year on Wall Street, I still hadn’t summoned the courage to speak up to bosses about it.
You don’t mince words about misogyny in your Times piece. Were you nervous about backlash?
I had a feeling that a lot of women would react positively to it, but I expected to get criticism from men, because I’d effectively broken ranks. In reality, I’ve been shocked by the response. I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of positive feedback from men who have said, “This has bothered me too, but I haven’t found the words to speak up about it. Thank you for sharing.”
Even the negative comments on the piece seemed to actually bolster your point, not weaken it—at least from my perspective.
My wife said that, too. She said she basically didn’t find a good argument against it. I’ve talked about these issues a lot with her. She’s a medical doctor, and started off as a surgeon, so she went through a surgery residency and experienced quite a bit of sexism during that time. She had no idea that I was writing this article until I finished it. I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses from a lot of people, but the best response was having her read it for the first time and then burst into tears.
Most women—myself included—have encountered “bro talk” in the workplace and beyond, and the prevailing wisdom is to laugh it off and try to rise above it. How would you recommend that women respond in a way that encourages respect?
I don’t want to give advice to women about how to handle this, because it is so difficult for women to speak up about it—much harder than it is for men. For me—and I don’t mean this to sound casual—that’s sort of like saying, “What outfits should a woman wear so that she’s not sexually assaulted?” In other words, I don’t think that it’s a woman’s job to do anything about that. It’s a guy’s responsibility to be respectful to women, and to stand up for them when other guys aren’t.
That’s what I was trying to do with my article—make guys aware that the way you speak about women, even when they’re not in the room, has a strong impact on the culture that women experience on a day-to-day basis. It is our responsibility to change, not women’s. Despite that, women have done the bulk of standing up and filing lawsuits and writing articles, without any support from men. I commend women for how they’ve grappled with this issue.
Do you have a specific strategy for calling someone out?
I do it in a really understanding manner. I recently started a new business called Everytable, and some of the guys who work in the company’s kitchen were talking about women in a way that I’ve heard my entire life. I pulled them aside and said, “Look guys, no judgment, because that’s how I was taught to speak about women my whole life, but this is not the place for that. In this work environment, whether or not women are around, they are to be spoken of with respect and kindness.” And it wasn’t that big of a deal.
Do you think that as more women rise in male-dominated industries, there will be a natural shift?
It’s all about speed. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I think that’s true. Even if guys don’t take initiative, talented women will eventually rise up the ranks and advocate for better treatment from a position of power. But right now, the halls of power are still dominated by men. If men could see this as a human issue and a culture issue and an economic issue—which it is—instead of just a women’s issue, then we could speed up that change.
In addition to your counselor, were there other women in your life who encouraged and inspired you to shift your views?
The most simple answer is my wife. I had to change internally before I was ready to meet a woman like her—and certainly before she would be open to a guy like me. My wife carries herself with an amazing amount of self-respect and dignity and grace; prior to my growth in that area, those qualities were not what I looked for in a woman. I also currently work with a woman named Anar Joshi, and I think about her whenever I think about Wall Street, because her level of capability, drive, competency, and intensity just blows me away. If she wanted to, she could be one of the top hedge fund traders in the world, and seeing her level of skill makes me shake my head at industries that have not made space for the incredible contributions of women.
You mentioned being nervous about publishing this piece. Ultimately, what made you decide to do it?
I sat down with my wife and talked about it. She was incredibly supportive, and like most parents, we’re ultimately motivated by what’s going to be best for our daughter. We want to do whatever we can to create a world where our daughter can grow up and not only feel respected, but feel safe when she’s in the company of men—which, if she were an adult today, would not be the case.