Essma Bengabsia at BlackRock’s headquarters in New York City in 2019, where she stands steps away from the trading floor she worked on near the Office of the CEO.
My name is Essma Bengabsia. I am a hijab-wearing Arab-American Muslim woman of color, and I was sexually harassed and discriminated against on the grounds of my race, religion, and gender at BlackRock.
I wrote this shortly after I left BlackRock in 2019 but delayed publishing due to my own hesitation. However, in the 2 years since I left, I continue to see Black and Brown employees at BlackRock facing the same racism I faced, and they continue to leave the company in droves due to the mental anguish that BlackRock’s hostile working environment has caused them, while the perpetrators face little to no accountability.
BlackRock will not change its ways until we hold it accountable. So today, I hold BlackRock accountable.
Ilhan Omar said that “if we want to stop being the caged lion, then we must start roaring.”
This is my roar.
I joined BlackRock through a diversity cohort within the 2017 summer internship program. I then returned as a full-time analyst in 2018, starry-eyed and excited to take on the world in a company I thought was sustainability-oriented and committed to diversity and inclusion. I was a woman on a mission: I was going to work my way to be an unapologetic Muslim woman of color impact investor. Sure, Wall Street chases women and people of color out all the time (let alone hijab-wearing ones). But I was made of thicker skin, I told myself. I got this.
I was one of the first hijab-wearing women to work on any trading floor at BlackRock, and the only one on a trading floor in BlackRock’s headquarters in New York. I was thrilled to break a glass ceiling and chart into new frontiers on behalf of marginalized and underrepresented communities. I did it while working for the largest asset manager in the world, in fact on the same floor as the company’s CEO, with my desk literally steps away from his.
My glee didn’t last for long. In my first month on the trading floor in August 2018, I had several strange encounters. One Managing Director mimicked and mocked how I said “Assalamu Alaikum” after he overheard a phone conversation I had with my parents. One colleague explained to other colleagues how “they stone people in the Middle East” because “there are no governments there.” An older male colleague often leered at me, making my skin crawl.
At first, I thought these encounters would stop and that I could handle them. After all, I grew up in a post-9/11 America and survived each day under the presidency of a man who demonized and dehumanized my people (Donald J. Trump). My skin is thick, and my strength is made of steel. I was not going to let bullying, though hurtful, shake me.
But the bullying did not stop. Instead, it escalated.
In September 2018, as my team discussed upcoming business travels to the Middle East, one senior investor stated that Middle Easterners are overly strict Bedouins and desert dwellers. He asked me, “what do they do for fun? Party in the deserts?” When I resisted his stereotyping, he responded, “I don’t care what you say, it’s true.”
That same week, I met a Managing Director who worked in human resources (HR) and helped lead BlackRock’s diversity efforts. After I introduced myself, she insisted that my name is not American, and I could not possibly be American. I explained that I was born in Brooklyn, raised in New Jersey, and have only ever lived in America.
Another colleague consistently came to my desk to tell me he hoped to see me fail in my tasks and role. He often greeted me with statements like “You’re such a mess,” and “I hope you fail.” I took breaks during the workday to pray in BlackRock’s prayer room because in Islam, we pray five times a day (each prayer is a few minutes long). Often after my prayer breaks, this colleague publicly rebuked me for being off my desk and insisted that I did not work hard enough, although I communicated with him my need for prayer breaks.
During a holiday party in December 2018, many of my colleagues wore Christmas holiday sweaters to celebrate the season. I never owned a holiday sweater, so I came to work that day wearing my usual work attire. A senior investor on the floor berated me in front of our colleagues for not participating, even after I explained to him my background: I am Muslim, Christmas is not a holiday celebrated in Islam, and therefore I do not even own a holiday sweater. “Why don’t you just be American for once?” he yelled. He then called me the Grinch and promised to buy me a Grinch sweater to wear at next year’s holiday party.
As for my oddly-attentive colleague, I resolved to completely ignore his creepy stares. “Perhaps he’ll get the message and leave me alone, or perhaps this is just in my head,” I thought to myself. But on October 2, 2018, as I sat at my desk working, he bumped into my chair from behind me forcefully, almost knocking me over my computer and desk. I heard his voice behind me. When I did not turn around, he said to my colleagues who sat behind me, “Damn. I keep forgetting I’m like a decade older than her.”
(For the record, he is closer to two decades older than me.)
All I could think, frozen and shocked, was “Oh. My. Goodness. This is not just in my head.”
On October 11, 2018, I stood at my desk and had just wrapped up a call. I still had my headset on my head as I focused on my computer screen. Suddenly I heard, “Should I do it? Should I touch her? Does it count as sexual harassment if I touch her?”
He stood about one foot behind me, repeating this question to my colleagues. About 10 of my colleagues stood close to him and watched, some laughing, others daring him, “he’s not gonna do it. I know him, he’s not gonna do it.” One woman responded to him, “it doesn’t count as sexual harassment if you touch her.”
I wanted to turn around, scream at him as he joked about sexually harassing me, yell at my colleagues for egging him on. I wanted to do something, anything. But I froze. I felt paralyzed, abused.
Just five days before, I stood on the steps of the Supreme Court leading thousands of women protesting the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. I spent hours passing the megaphone to dozens of survivors who shared their stories. As a survivor myself, my wounds were open from the countless accounts of sexual violence I heard. I could not believe what I protested just five days ago was unfolding to me in this moment.
I was shocked and utterly frozen.
After what felt like an eternity, he walked away and said “No, I’m not gonna do it,” to which my colleagues amusedly responded, “I told you.” I was turned into a piece of meat for their amusement.
Shortly after, I requested a seat change to be moved further from him on the trading floor. Yet the sexual harassment did not end, nor did the racism or Islamophobia I continued to face. The magnified pain of women of color is that we not only face harassment on the grounds of our gender, but also on the grounds of our race. And in some cases, as in mine, our religion too.
“The magnified pain of women of color is that we not only face harassment on the grounds of our gender, but also on the grounds of our race. And in some cases, as in mine, our religion too.”
I started a spreadsheet to document my experiences, not because I intended to sue, but because I needed to answer the question I kept asking myself: “Is this all in my head? Am I crazy?”
Since then, I have come to learn: I am not crazy, but as Gloria Steinem says, the system is crazy.
I set out to find a solution for myself. I asked senior leaders at the firm to help transfer me out of my team and advocate for me. I begged for the intervention of those who brought me into the firm under the celebration of “diversity and inclusion.” I spoke to my team heads, division leaders, and HR officials.
I hesitated to file a formal report with HR because three of my mentors advised me not to, each of whom were senior-ranking investors at BlackRock who have been at the firm for about 10 years respectively. Each of them, in separate conversations, gave me the same honest insight: they have seen “this kind of thing” at BlackRock before. If I filed a report with HR, they advised, I would be offered a transfer to a different team, likely in an office in a different state or country. Then HR would use vague performance-related arguments to push me out of the firm. I should only file a report with HR if I was willing to accept this, they suggested.
Strangely enough, in my two years since my departure, I have seen this process play out repeatedly with other people of color at the company. I have come to learn that this is BlackRock’s HR playbook: they receive an HR report on discrimination, try to quietly address it by moving the victim to a different team in a different office, then build up a performance-related reason to delay the victim’s pay raises or promotions and/or socially ostracize the victim until they are left with no choice but to leave the firm.
But I didn’t know better in 2018, as a 21-year-old in her first job out of college.
So based on the advice of my mentors, I bit my tongue and tried to find a quiet workaround for myself by getting transferred to a different team without filing a report of my experiences to HR.
By February 2019, I was drained. Every plea for help I made was met with empty words of sympathy and little to no action. My psychologist had diagnosed with me PTSD, anxiety disorders, and situational depression due to my experiences at BlackRock.
I was crumbling.
At this point, I had nothing to lose if I went to HR, so I did.
I filed an extensive report with HR about all of my experiences. I ran through my spreadsheet and provided dates, times, locations, and names of witnesses for each incident of sexual harassment, racism, Islamophobia, and abusive work environment.
HR informed me that they would launch an investigation into my allegations. On May 9, 2019, I had a call with the lead investigator on my case from the HR team so he could share with me the investigation results. They “could not find evidence to corroborate my claims” on sexual harassment, he said. My mouth dropped. I gave him exact dates, times, names of almost a dozen witnesses… and I saw cameras on every part of the trading floor I worked on. “No evidence” was HR’s response.
As for my colleagues who were racist and Islamophobic to me, HR was going to send one colleague to counseling to learn “more sensitive communication,” and as for the remaining colleagues, HR told me that my experiences were a strong indicator that the division I worked in needed a diversity training, and that they would make sure that training happened.
BlackRock addressed almost a year of harassment that I faced through one suggestion for counseling, and a promise for more diversity trainings.
That was it.
HR then offered me a transfer to another team in another office. I could hear the advice from my 3 mentors ring all too loudly in my ears. I was not playing into this sick game.
Less than a month later, I quit.
I had no other choice.
This is my story, and the story of many more. Until now, BlackRock has been able to pay its way out of true accountability. The company pays hefty severance packages or legal settlements with strict non-disclosure agreements to people of color who leave, exploiting our need for financial security and thereby captivating us into silence. Meanwhile, BlackRock carefully crafts a public image of diversity, equity, and inclusion, when the reality within its walls is the stark opposite.
And the discrimination continues. The perpetrators keep their jobs at BlackRock, pocket their hefty bonuses, and harass the next class of Black and Brown analysts who come in starry-eyed like I was. The analysts then face the same racism I faced, experience severe trauma, quit after only a few years of being at the company, and the cycle goes on.
I am here to break the cycle. Enough is enough.
What do I want BlackRock to do? What is the path forward from here?
I have four demands of BlackRock:
1. Make a public commitment to not sue, defame, or otherwise try to silence ANYONE who speaks out about the harassment or discrimination that they faced at BlackRock.
2. Hire an independent firm to investigate ALL your internal reports on harassment and discrimination.
3. Settle with all those seeking reparations for the discrimination and harassment they faced at BlackRock.
4. Establish an independent Oversight Committee that will oversee critical transformational shifts that BlackRock must work on.
What can you do to help?
My friends, my allies, and my community:
I need you to sign this petition to stand in solidarity with me to demand that BlackRock ends its racism and discrimination. And after you sign the petition, I need you to share it everywhere.
BlackRock won’t listen to me as one voice. But they will listen to me if my voice is alongside thousands of others.
If you are part of a community organization, coalition, investment firm, institutional investor, pension fund, political office, student club, or any other group:
Issue your own statement of solidarity, condemn BlackRock’s discrimination, and demand that they meet the demands listed above. Include this petition in your solidarity statement. Share the petition on your social media pages, in your email blasts, and across your platforms.
Sign, share, and amplify the petition.
BlackRock Employees and ex-Employees:
If you faced racism, discrimination, or harassment of any kind at BlackRock, now is your chance to speak out. Email me at my encrypted email: [email protected].
We are documenting all accounts of people who come forward. From there, you can choose to share your story publicly (through speaking to reporters and/or co-filing a lawsuit), or you can choose to remain anonymous. The choice is completely yours.
Your experiences may not have been as bad as mine, but I want you to know that you matter. Your story matters. No struggle is too little, no voice is insignificant.
BlackRock employees who witnessed racism and harassment — whether you saw what I went through on the 7th floor trading floor at BlackRock’s headquarters or any other incidents you may have witnessed — I need you to come forward too. You can be a witness anonymously or non-anonymously. The choice is yours.
And finally, to all my previous colleagues in Credit Group — I need you to own up to your actions and come forward as well. I write this not to come for you (which is why I didn’t include your names). I am a firm believer in the principle: “Attack systems, not people.”
I believe in attacking and dismantling systems of oppression, white supremacy, racism, misogyny, and Islamophobia. I write this to hold BlackRock accountable for upholding these problematic systems through its HR and investment practices. If you are one of the perpetrators of what I faced, or you were a silent bystander who watched it continue, now is your time to step forward. I need witnesses who can affirm what I experienced to media and potentially in court. You can do so anonymously or non-anonymously.
Now is your chance to make amends.
Media, Reporters, Lawyers, Advocacy Organizations, & Organizers:
I am open to all opportunities for collaboration and organizing — joint statements, PR opportunities, full-blown advocacy campaigns: let me know what you can bring to the table, and let’s get to work.
Media outlets are welcome to quote this piece so long as you quote full sentences and quote everything within context.
For further comments and/or collaboration: [email protected].