I remember the 1990s when the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings brought the issue of workplace sexual harassment into the light of day and gave the name sexual harassment to a set of behaviors that were previously undiscussable. Sexual harassment is defined as unwanted behaviors of a sexual nature perpetrated by a powerful person (like a boss) against a less powerful person (like an employee) as an abuse of power. In what was the precursor to the #MeToo movement, after Anita Hill’s testimony about Thomas’s behavior toward her as her boss, women began to speak out, name their abusers, and win big lawsuits against the companies that failed to protect them. Men complained that they had to “walk on eggshells” around the office to ensure they were not wrongfully accused of sexual harassment by female colleagues, especially younger female colleagues. They argued that the best way to protect themselves was to stop mentoring younger women altogether. This was BS, of course—but now it is happening again. Katrin Bennhold of the New York Times reports that many high-powered men at the recent World Economics Forum in Davos, Switzerland acknowledged concern about the #MeToo movement which, she explains, “has empowered women to speak up about harassment in the workplace.” As was true in the 1990s, these senior men are deciding to reduce their risk by minimizing contact with female employees, thereby depriving women of mentorship, sponsorship, and valuable exposure to influential networks. Two online surveys conducted in 2018 on the effects of #MeToo in the workplace found the following:
- Almost half of male managers were uncomfortable engaging in one or more common work activities with women, such as working one-on-one or socializing.
- One in six male managers was uncomfortable mentoring a female colleague.
- Men reported being afraid of “saying or doing the wrong thing.”
- Research by Sylvia Ann Hewlett found that two-thirds of male executives hesitate to hold one-on-one meetings with junior women.
- Education on preventing sexual harassment and assault is important to help men know what is and is not appropriate workplace behavior. This education is especially effective in male-only group settings. Bennhold cites Marc Pritchard of Procter & Gamble as explaining, “Men also need ‘safe spaces’ to air their confusion and concerns about what behavior might qualify as bad. We need something like Lean In circles for men.”
- Male leaders can meet one-on-one with young female colleagues in a nonthreatening environment by leaving the office door open for meetings, socializing over dinner with multiple colleagues, and not inviting female colleagues to their hotel rooms for meetings when on business travel out of town. These strategies are examples of ways to continue supporting the careers of female colleagues with less risk of misunderstanding for male leaders.