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Credit union executive calls out sexist behavior at CUNA conference

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Reports from a female credit union executive about harassment during CUNA’s Governmental Affairs Conference in Washington this month are raising wider questions about how well the credit union movement is adapting to the #MeToo era.

Rachel Pross, chief risk officer at Maps Credit Union in Salem, Ore., this week wrote a post on LinkedIn describing inappropriate behavior by men at the conference.

"This isn’t innocent, and it isn’t playful," Pross wrote. "It’s chauvinistic and wrong, and we need to start talking about it."

Credit unions — and CUNA specifically — have touted women’s success in the industry, but Pross’s experience comes as the wider financial services world is working to improve how it addresses issues of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination.

Pross noted that bad behavior has gotten better during the last decade or so but argues “there is plenty of work to be done on the subtle stuff, and I know fellow women out there know what I’m talking about.”

She goes on to describe several examples of sexual harassment at the event, including a male attendee she didn’t know “practically” draping himself on her and giving her a kiss on the cheek rather than shaking her hand.

“Please stop doing that,” Pross wrote.

Pross also said that she has experienced men placing their hand too low on her back to lead her to a room. She noted that another female participant was licked on the bare shoulder. A male attendee didn’t call Pross by her name and instead referred to her as “pretty face” during the event, among other inappropriate comments.

Pross did not immediately return a request for comment for this article.

Besides being made uncomfortable, Pross said her expertise was ignored by male participants. For instance, during a lunch with a “male credit union CEO from another part of the country — I was repeatedly cut off, spoken over or blatantly dismissed,” she wrote.

“While discussing the FinCEN guidance for cannabis banking (the very topic I was qualified enough to speak about in Congressional testimony last month), this man interrupted me and said, ‘No. You’re wrong. There are no rules. Read about it.’ Then, turning to my male colleagues, he said he’d be in touch. When he turned back to me, he said, ‘I’ll introduce you to my compliance girl.’ ”

Pross wrote that "ending sexism in our industry takes all of us" and called on those within the credit union industry to speak out against such behavior when they witness it. She urged others to “be brave” in standing up to such actions.

“Fixing this isn’t just up to men. It’s up to all of us,” she wrote. “First off, we need to be aware and be willing to talk about this stuff and not gloss over it or brush it under the rug. Speak up. That’s why I’m writing this today instead of posting the usual happy GAC photos with our senators.”

Jim Nussle, CUNA's president and chief executive, wrote on Twitter that he was “disgusted that anyone, particularly women, are disrespected [and] harassed” at an event and that “this can no longer be nervously laughed away, denied, disregarded or ignored.”

In his own LinkedIn post on the issue, Nussle said he has tried to “treat everyone equitably,” though acknowledged he could have made a comment at some point that made someone uncomfortable.

“Here’s what I do know: there are individuals, mostly women, who have felt everything from generally uncomfortable to personally harassed at credit union conferences,” Nussle wrote. “We — individually and collectively — can’t accept this anymore. We can’t laugh off the awkward comments and we can’t ignore the disturbing actions.”

Nussle was not immediately available for further comment.

Pross’ post had garnered dozens of comments from others within the credit union industry.

“If someone said to my staff in my office what people said to you at the conference, I would talk to them about the inappropriateness of their comments. But I don't think I would have said anything if I observed the same thing at the conference. I need to call out offenders no matter where I am. We all do,” wrote one person who identified as a female CEO of a credit union.

Matt Cropp, a Vermont-based cooperative advocate who frequently comments on credit union issues, noted that while it’s disappointing such interactions took place, it shouldn’t be surprising.

One partial fix, he suggested, might lie in adopting practices from the technology industry, which instituted a code of conduct at conferences. Anyone who doesn’t uphold the code of conduct is kicked out of the conference.

“The leadership of the credit union movement tends to lean older, whiter and maler, and all of those things kind of suggest environments that feel safe for certain types of people and not so for others,” he said.

Aaron Passman contributed to this report.

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