The Village Voice has chronicled the long, depressing tale of Debrahlee Lorenzana, an ex-banker for Citibank who is now suing her former employer. It is the story of a gorgeous woman (a single mother who worked long hours climbing up the corporate ladder) who seems to have been hired by a group of men to be the office eye candy. According to the Voice, her two male managers “started making offhanded comments about her appearance,” specifically her makeup, hair and clothes. The attention given to her appearance quickly turned negative, with vibes coming from her superiors that insinuated this hot-to-trot banker babe was distracting the men.
When she complained through the proper channels — her managers, Human Resources, and eventually two regional vice presidents — she says no one took accountability for resolving the problems. In August, Lorenzana claimed she was fired and told she was not a good fit for the culture at Citibank. Her attire was mentioned in the termination discussion; her work performance was not.Citibank’s dress code (like lots of company dress codes) says “provocative” workplace attire is inappropriate. The dress code doesn’t get more specific than that however, and what is considered an appropriate appearance was up to a branch manager’s discretion. For those of you readers unfamiliar with the New York City finance culture, the nicest way to describe how women in finance dress is “dowdy.” Button-down shirts, slacks, cardigans, that kind of thing. De-sexualized, if you will. To my analysis, it sounds like Citibank was a typical “boys’ club” environment in which the men did not know how to deal with a beautiful woman like Lorenzana dressing in an attractive way.
Despite the fact that she was bringing in clients, Lorenzana said her managers placed undue focus on her appearance. No fitted suits, no pencil skirts, no turtlenecks, no three-inch heels. Lorenzana said she was asked to wear looser clothing and when she pointed out how other women in the company dressed — female tellers who wore miniskirts, for example — she was told those women were shorter, overweight and did not draw as much attention to themselves. According to her lawsuit:
“As a result of her tall stature, coupled with her curvaceous figure [Lorenzana was told] she should not wear classic high-heeled business shoes, as this purportedly drew attention to her body in a manner that was upsetting to her easily distracted male managers.”
After that discussion with the managers, Lorenzana called Citibank’s Human Resources. She claims in the following weeks she called HR three or four times a day until a rep came to her branch to interview employees about what was going on. After the HR visit, she said, the problems exacerbated and her bosses only made more daily comments about her shirts, pants, shoes, etc.
Over time, she claims the clients she brought in were passed off to her colleagues; she was eventually put on six months notice when she was behind on her sales. Around this same time, according to the lawsuit, she and a male employee were both asked to move files into a storage basement. The male employee wore flip-flops and jeans to move the boxes. Lorenzana wore flip-flops, too, but was told by her boss to put back on her high heels. That was the last straw for her. She was eventually moved to another branch location, but in a telemarketing position (essentially a demotion). She asked her managers to please find her work for which she was qualified. Shortly thereafter, she was fired.
I could go on and on with Lorenzana’s various complaints, but it is too disheartening. One wonders how women will penetrate a male-dominated field like finance when the work environment is so hostile — both in the sense that she was receiving sexual attention from male colleagues in the first place, but also because it was framed as her problem. As the blog Jezebel put it, “If Lorenzana’s account is accurate, then it seems like a clear case of discrimination. It’s also a reminder that holding women responsible for the way men react to their bodies is just as common in the West as it is in the Middle East.”
Of course, the burden is on Lorenzana to project the image the company wants to project. But considering how far she had advanced in her career before she been started working at Citibank, it sounds as if she understood well enough. (Lorenzana claims most of her closet is filled with Zara, which is sort of a fancier version of H&M, and designer clothes from Burberry, Louis Vuitton, etc., as well.) To me, the people who are most accountable in this situation are not Lorenzana (and her clothes) or even her managers (and their inappropriate comments). It’s also troublesome that both the Human Resources rep and the regional vice presidents who were made aware of this situation did not see to it that it was resolved. If a company — any company — is serious about treating its female employees as equals, serious complaints about sexual harassment from a woman would and should not be ignored.
I leave you with this thought: “If being less good-looking, means being happy and finding love and not being sexually harassed and having a job where no one bothers you and no one questions you because of your looks,” Lorenzana told the Voice, “then, definitely, I’d want that. I think of that every day.”
Thanks to commenter ClickClick for pointing out an error in the post about what Citibank told Lorenzana about wearing heels. According to the original article in the Voice: “She was also forbidden to wear pencil skirts, three-inch heels, or fitted business suits.”
By email, Citibank issued the following statement, via Citi Public Affairs coordinator Natalie Riper:
Ms. Lorenzana has chosen to make numerous unfounded accusations and inaccurate statements against Citibank and several of our employees. While we will not discuss the details of her case, we can say that her termination was solely performance-based and not at all related to her appearance or attire. We are confident that when all of the facts and documentation are presented, the claim will be dismissed.