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Ex-Wall Street titan Sallie Krawcheck reveals the jaw-dropping sexual harassment she endured—and why she didn’t report it

A scene from "The Wolf of Wall Street" starring Leonardo DiCaprio
Source: Thewolfofwallstreet.com
A scene from "The Wolf of Wall Street" starring Leonardo DiCaprio

In 1987, at her first job after college at investment bank Salomon Brothers, Sallie Krawcheck came to work every day to a photocopy of a penis on her desk.

The former Citigroup CFO describes the sexual harassment in her new book, "Own It," which was released this month.

"The first time it happened, I didn't know what it was," Krawcheck tells CNBC. "I was like, 'What is this strange, artistic, squishy-looking distorted thing?'"

When it happened day after day, however, Krawcheck got the message.

"I was upset. And I was humiliated. And I was embarrassed. And I felt shame. And I knew they didn't want me there," she says of the men she worked with at the time.

Her response was to make jokes with her colleagues about the size of the Xeroxed penises.

Krawcheck didn't report these incidents to anyone — not HR, not her boss — mostly because she needed that paycheck.

"I had to pay rent," says Krawcheck. "This was weeks out of college. New job. Full year lease signed on East 86th Street in New York City. My parents could not afford to pay my rent. I couldn't imagine I could get another job. I really didn't feel like I had a choice."

Also, it didn't occur to her that she could assert herself in any helpful way.

"I just didn't even have a conception that you would march yourself into somebody's office and ask that this stop," she says. "So I just kept showing up."

"I really didn't feel like I had a choice." -Sallie Krawcheck, CEO of Ellevest

The culture at the time was grueling. Krawcheck was toiling away in an office where a vice president collapsed from a heart attack by his desk and came back to work a few weeks later only to be fired. Meanwhile, she says, a male leader in her department was having an affair with three female colleagues: a director, a vice president and his assistant.

"There was a day when one of them walked in on him being serviced, whatever one wants to say, or enjoying himself, with another," says Krawcheck. "It was wild. And I hated every minute of it."

So, instead, she got creative, and eventually, making jokes with her male colleagues made the hazing stop.

"The humor worked for me and they accepted me after a while," she says.

While Krawcheck found a way to keep the wolves at bay in the "Wolf of Wall Street" investment bank culture, she never felt comfortable working in such a hostile environment. Her escape plan was to save enough money to pay for business school so that she could transition into a new career.

She graduated from Columbia Business School in 1992 and got a job as a research analyst, a job she fell in love with.

Sallie Krawcheck
Photo courtesy Ellevest
Sallie Krawcheck

Through the late '80s and '90s, Krawcheck, now 52, became a Wall Street titan, shattering glass ceilings as she went. She served as CEO of Smith Barney, CEO of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and CFO of Citigroup after earning her stripes as a top-ranked research analyst.

Krawcheck began advocating for and encouraging other women. She's now the co-founder and CEO of Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women that aims to close the gender gap in investing.

"There are many more options than silence." -Sallie Krawcheck, CEO of Ellevest

Krawcheck wouldn't advise women to deal with sexual harassment the way she did. Today, she says, women usually have real choices.

"There are many more options than silence," says Krawcheck. Many offices have security cameras, for example, which can put a quick end to such egregious behavior. "Big companies have confidential employee hotlines (on boards I've been on, those calls have been reported directly to the board). So there are many more options today, and people should definitely avail themselves of them."

Another option, depending on the situation, is to have a "courageous conversation," says Krawcheck, which means directly addressing the offender.

"Courageous conversations" do not have to be long, drawn-out ordeals with all the men in your office to discuss "systematic roots of sexism," says Krawcheck.

They can simply involve calling out a man for routinely interrupting a female colleague.

"While I may have considered these 'courageous conversations' to be risky in the past (risky that I'd upset someone, or goodness forbid, come off as hysterical, or a raging feminist), I now believe that it is riskier not to have them," writes Krawcheck.

"That's because if we're not having these conversations, those old gender expectations and beliefs that have in part kept us from moving forward professionally will continue on, unchallenged."