Last week I was coaching Mike, a Senior Vice President, and someone known throughout his company as a diversity champion. He’s managed and mentored many women and minorities, and played a central role in advancing their careers.
In the middle of our conversation, he confided to me that since the #MeToo movement, he now finds it more difficult to be a mentor to female colleagues. He also admitted that he’s been more hesitant to give direct feedback to the women on his team.
Mike is a diversity champion. Imagine how the average male manager feels?
Unfortunately, Mike’s not alone. His is a typical story of some of the unintended side-effects of the #MeToo movement.
According to a survey of over 8,000 American workers by Pew Research, 55% of men and 47% of women said that in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it’s more difficult for men to navigate workplace interactions.
And this survey by the nonprofit organization, LeanIn.Org, and Survey Monkey revealed a number of truly troubling trends:
- Almost 30% of male managers are uncomfortable working alone with a woman—more than twice as many as before.
- The number of male managers who are uncomfortable mentoring women has tripled, climbing to 16 percent from 5 percent.
- Senior male managers were 3.5 times more likely to hesitate before having a work dinner with a junior female colleague, compared to a male one
- Male managers reported feeling 5 times more likely to hesitate about traveling for work with a junior female colleague.
This is worrying because an unwillingness to coach, mentor, or include women in key meetings will decrease opportunities for them to advance their careers.
Substituting discrimination for harassment is not a strategy for managing in the #MeToo era.
Now, I’m sure many of those surveyed do not intend to discriminate, but while their behavior may be unintended, committed out of discomfort, fear, or awkwardness, it is still discrimination.
Avoiding giving feedback which could enhance an employee’s performance, or excluding women (or minorities) from meetings or social events that could lead to opportunities for advancement are forms of discrimination.
This is not just a problem for women, but for men as well. It’s definitely a problem for my client, Mike, who truly wants to support the women in his organization. And it’s a problem for all male managers whose responsibility is to manage their team.
As a manager, you can’t ignore, avoid, or refuse to manage or coach people on the basis of personal preference, discomfort, or fear.
Eventually, this will have unfortunate consequences. Not just legal consequences, but performance consequences. You have to give feedback, coach, problem solve, guide, and answer questions. If you neglect the people on your team, your results will suffer. Finally, avoiding women doesn’t circumvent the problem, but amplifies it.
Less interaction between genders creates greater gaps in understanding and greater potential misunderstanding.
Moreover, the majority of men do want to help advance the careers of women. They want a more equitable workplace. They understand the benefits of diversity. And they want to be part of the solution, not the problem.
So why is this happening, and what can we do?
If we zoomed out and took a historic view of this moment, we’d see that the #MeToo movement, like all social change movements, starts with social ferment. It’s about raising awareness, creating allies, and changing perceptions about an accepted, yet unjust social condition.
And the goal of this stage is to stop something that is wrong—to point out behaviors, call out perpetrators, and hold organizations and their leadership accountable for enabling and protecting wrongdoers. At this stage, what’s WRONG is more evident than what is RIGHT.
And this is what I see in my coaching practice—an awareness of what’s wrong, but little idea what to do to get it right.
I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth revisiting. Society doesn’t transform overnight. Revolution may stop a practice, but education creates a new one. Former communist countries did not wake up magically democratic the day after their communist governments fell.
Intolerance of a social norm spreads slowly, and only slowly does the old behavior get extinguished by the new one.
Which brings me back to Mike, and my clients. To get to the promised land where people are promoted and respected on the basis of their abilities and contributions, and not on the basis of gender or race, there needs to be a space to learn, to discuss, and to practice new ways of relating.
Regardless of your role, whether you are a manager, coach, HR professional, or employee there are things you can do to help:
Ask the Question
Studies have shown that just talking about sexual harassment can help reduce its occurrence. When you speak about something, you signal to others that it’s important.
If you are in a leadership role or have influence due to your expertise, thought leadership, or seniority, you have an opportunity and a platform. Bring up the topic with the people you manage or work with, in a one-to-one setting. Ask people who report to you or look up to you how they’re doing working with women (or men, if they are women), and if they have questions.
Don’t put people on the spot. This isn’t a formal inquiry, but an offer to help. Make it a safe conversation, and make it private.
If you’re a coach privileged enough to work with managers, raise the topic. Ask your clients if they have questions or fears. Ask them about their comfort level of managing women. Make it safe to talk about.
And if those you ask do disclose discomfort or avoidance, discuss strategies for overcoming it. Help them find a way through their discomfort.
Make space for learning
In this early phase of #MeToo, we’ve been playing defense: beefing up reporting and investigating procedures, revisiting policies, and adding more compliance training.
But policies and training alone won’t help managers navigate the gray zones of interaction—feedback conversations, coaching and mentoring relationships, meetings and travel outside the office.
Instead of formal learning or policies, people need a place for people to talk about their challenges, discuss concerns, openly ask questions, and get support from others in the exact same situation.
If are a leader or in HR, consider creating a space for confidential conversation, a peer support group for managers. Or, if you are a coach, consider running a group for managers to discuss the issues.
The therapy world has something called a peer support group, and one of the key benefits of peer support is that you get to share your concerns and get tips and strategies from others who speak your language, understand your experiences and are living those issues as well.
Talk about it in public
When the boss talks about something, it sends the message that it must be important. This is especially valuable when the topic is taboo, controversial, and difficult to discuss openly. Talking about it publicly not only signals its importance, but it also opens up the space for others to talk about it as well.
It sounds simple, but it’s hard to do because it’s easy to think that you can’t talk about something you haven’t yet mastered yourself. I once coached a managing partner of a law firm who was unhappy with the lack of diversity on the leadership team but felt he couldn’t raise the topic because he didn’t have the answers. He was afraid he’d be criticized for being a hypocrite.
This was a lost opportunity for him to use his influence to help change the culture of his firm.
The fact is, you don’t need to have all the answers. Just letting people know that you are concerned and still learning builds trust. It also creates a climate where people feel safe to ask questions and seek guidance. Leaders who don’t have to hide what they don’t know sends the message to everyone else that it’s OK to learn, take risks, and grow.
The statistics I cited at the beginning of this post can be discouraging. Headlines can be depressing. But there are things we can do, little, simple things that truly do move the needle, and move us forward towards a more equitable and healthier workplace.
What else should be on this list? What small simple steps are you taking to make this the new normal?
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