At a time when men need to step up to the challenge of the #MeToo movement, it appears many of them are doing the opposite and standing back. A new survey finds that 60% of male managers say they are uncomfortable participating in regular work activities with women, especially one-on-one like mentoring and socializing. Senior-level men are particularly hesitant about one-on-one interactions with a junior woman—whether that be a private meeting, business trip, or work dinner. I have seen this caution in my executive coaching clients.
As business leaders, we are taught to see the opportunities presented by difficult challenges. An unexpected technological development might disrupt in the short term, but can also be a chance to innovate. Climate change is an opportunity to reinvent old ways of doing business.
The #MeToo movement is no different. While high-profile cases of sexual harassment understandably have companies on edge, the underlying questions of gender and power are not new and are not going away anytime soon. Leaders who embrace the moment and welcome difficult conversations have the chance to be ahead of the curve. Their organizations will be more diverse and inclusive, more connected with the communities they serve, and better at decision-making.
The cost of playing it safe
The kind of one-on-one contact some men are avoiding is precisely the kind of interaction that builds trust and rapport—and which can transform a supervisor or mentor into an advocate. What one study calls “the sponsor effect” is instrumental in helping women break the glass ceiling. As a Harvard Business Review article about the study summarizes, “Mentors proffer friendly advice. Sponsors pull you up to the next level.”
Unfortunately, the new trend of men playing it safe around women comes at a time when the number of female chief executives is falling, and when progress toward increasing gender equity in upper management appears to have stalled.
Numerous studies find that sexual harassment is far more likely when the C-suite is male-dominated. Therefore, a policy of supposed risk avoidance will only increase risk in the long term. Playing it safe is not the answer.
Embrace diversity and differences
True diversity and inclusiveness start with acknowledging and celebrating differences. Men and women generally view the world through different lenses and bring a distinct set of experiences to the workplace. Gender diversity results in greater cognitive diversity.
I encourage my executive clients to improve their decision-making by seeing the world through a variety of lenses. Bringing more women into positions of power and influence will similarly enlarge the perspective of your organization and your teams. It is not surprising that teams with more gender diversity—as well as diversity along racial and cultural lines—perform better and make smarter decisions.
Putting more women in positions of authority will inevitably generate discussions about gender and power dynamics, and those conversations will not always be easy. Yet smart leaders know that difficult conversations produce growth. Rather than being threatened by the #MeToo movement, they will see the new spotlight on gender equity as an opportunity to evolve, individually and organizationally.
Setting a new tone
As Brad Johnson and David Smith point out in their book Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women, breaking down gender barriers in mentoring is a win-win for all. In choosing a mentee, it can be tempting to reach out to someone similar to yourself. However, when you step outside of your comfort zone and mentor someone unlike you, you evolve as a leader.
Men who go out of their way to mentor women send a signal that their organization is not going to settle for playing it safe. In doing so, they can help create an inclusive culture that values mentoring and collaboration across gender, race, culture and other lines.
Addressing legitimate #MeToo concerns sometimes involves tweaking well-worn practices. For example, Sheryl Sandberg tells a story about a Goldman Sachs VP who realized he tended to meet mentees over drinks and dinner after work—a setting that might not be comfortable for women, or at the very least raise questions. He adjusted his routine and started conducting mentoring meetings over breakfast or lunch instead. After a while, he was mentoring women and men equally.
Men who make an effort to promote women and equal the playing field will find they have elevated their organizations and raised the level of their own leadership. The #MeToo movement can be a healthy disruption to old ways of doing business if we embrace it as an opportunity instead of fearing it as a threat.