As the #MeToo movement has galvanized public attention around the problem of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, an unintended side effect of this scrutiny has been increased anxiety among men of “accidentally” harassing a female colleague—i.e., having an innocent remark or gesture misinterpreted as sexual and being accused of an offense he had not intended. In some cases, this is leading male corporate leaders to shy away from spending any time alone with the female colleagues or subordinates who work for them. The Washington Post took a look at this phenomenon last month:
In Silicon Valley, the chief executive of a midsize company asked his human resources manager what he should do about the undercurrent of tension around issues of sexual misconduct. Stop having dinners with female employees, he was advised. In fact, stop having dinners with any employees. Lunches are okay, dinners no way, HR told him. Another investor said his colleagues have canceled their one-on-one meetings with female entrepreneurs.
LeanIn and SurveyMonkey recently put some hard numbers behind these anecdotes, finding in a survey that “almost half of male managers are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together,” and that 30 percent are uncomfortable working alone with a woman: more than twice as many as said so before the recent series of high-profile sexual harassment stories were reported in the media. Also, the number of male managers who are reluctant to mentor women more than tripled from 5 to 16 percent since these stories came to light.
This reaction to the intensified public scrutiny of sexual harassment creates a new problem for women in the workplace, because mentorships, business travel, and one-on-one meetings with managers are essential components of the relationship-building that helps employees advance in their careers. If women are excluded from these activities, their underrepresentation in corporate leadership will never be rectified; indeed, it may even worsen. Therefore, LeanIn has launched an initiative to encourage male executives to commit to mentoring women, which LeanIn founder and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg announced in a Facebook post earlier this month:
[The #MentorHer initiative] urges men to step up and use their power to support women in the workplace, with research-backed information for why mentorship matters and tips for how to be an effective mentor to women. People with mentors are more likely to get promotions – yet women are less likely than men to be mentored, and women of color get the least support of all. If we’re going to change the power imbalance that enables so much sexual harassment in the first place, we need to ensure women get more mentorship and sponsorship, not less. That’s how we get the stretch assignments that lead to promotions. That’s how we build the networks that put us on the path to exciting opportunities. That’s how we get the respect – and recognition – we deserve.
A number of high-profile executives have taken the #MentorHer pledge, Leah Fessler reported at Quartz:
Among those to make the commitment thus far: Oath CEO Tim Armstrong, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey, Disney CEO Bob Iger, and more. The roster also includes several female executives, such as GM CEO Mary Barra and Hearst chief content officer Joanna Coles.