I’ve been delaying writing this blog for a while, in part because I have so many thoughts I don’t know where to begin. If I am being honest, it’s also a tough subject to talk about. One wrong word and you stand to greatly polarize your audience. But it’s time.
I am nervous about what is happening in the business world. I am worried we don’t even yet understand the magnitude of what has happened. I am upset that we are reticent—or perhaps nervous—to talk about this. Let me explain…
On the one hand we have one of the most courageous, heroic cataclysmic shifts of our time taking place with movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up. Stories that depict harrowing assault, demonic abuse of power, and pure evil are finally being brought to the foreground and, as a result, their perpetrators called to the mat. This is IMPORTANT and GOOD.
But we also have men and women, specifically in the business world, who are unsure of what these movements mean for their relationships moving forward. How will this impact mentoring and networking? How will this potentially alter our day-to-day interactions? Will we second-guess normative behavior in many workplace cultures like after-work drinks to celebrate the closing of a huge deal, or a hug hello with a business partner you haven’t seen in months? Are going to start second guessing all our behavior?
On Feb. 6, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, took to Facebook to share the following:
“In the aftermath of #MeToo, as several powerful men have lost their jobs (good!) for harassing women, some men have chosen to react by adopting what’s called the Mike Pence rule – never having dinner alone with a woman other than your wife. “After Weinstein, Consider the Pence Rule to Protect Your Heart and Marriage” read a headline in USA Today in November. Setting aside how this misses the point of why Harvey Weinstein’s behavior was appalling – it was about sexual assault and harassment, not marriage – headlines like this point to the possibility of a #MeToo backlash that’s deeply concerning.
If men think that the way to address workplace sexual harassment is to avoid one-on-one time with female colleagues – including meetings, coffee breaks, and all the interactions that help us work together effectively – it will be a huge setback for women. Long before the #MeToo movement, a lack of mentorship from senior leaders was already a significant barrier for women in the workplace. New numbers indicate that this is getting worse: a recent survey by Lean In and SurveyMonkey revealed that almost half of male managers in the United States are now uncomfortable participating in basic activities with women. Senior men are 3.5 times more likely to hesitate to have a work dinner alone with a junior woman than with a junior man – and 5 times more likely to hesitate to travel for work alone with a woman.
This is a big problem, because it undoubtedly will decrease the opportunities women have at work. The last thing women need right now is even more isolation. Men vastly outnumber women as managers and senior leaders, so when they avoid, ice out, or exclude women, we pay the price.
Men who want to be on the right side of this issue shouldn’t avoid women. They should mentor them.”
My heart sunk. This survey validated what I feared could happen—the fact that with any great movement often comes inevitable unintended consequences, two steps backward with every step forward. Diving into the results of the Lean In and SurveyMonkey survey reveals more troubling news for women:
- Almost half of male managers are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together.
- 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 more than tripled from 5% to 16%.
Reading the results of this study rocked me to my core, and all I could think is perhaps we haven’t even seen the worst yet.
The Importance of Sponsorship
When I look at my own career, I am proud of what I have accomplished. I make big moves, advocate for myself and keep a circle of trusted mentors and sponsors. Up until very recently, that circle has almost exclusively been made of men.
A big reason for this is I have worked in the male-dominated field of technology for the past 10 years, meaning my chance to be exposed to female mentorship/sponsorship has been limited. My bosses have almost always been men and the leadership teams on which I have sat have been the same.
Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to work for and with amazing, supportive men, some of whom have made a personal choice to sponsor my career. It’s because of these men that I was given profound opportunities—over and over again—to do extraordinary things in my career. These sponsors believed in me, nominated me for important positions and mentored me once I got there.
However this study suggests other women may not have the same opportunities—that some the very men who until now have willingly chose to advocate on behalf of women may now be cautious to do so moving forward. It’s even worse for young women. The research shows that if you are junior level, or if there is a significant age gap between you and your boss, this apprehension may even more pronounced. Some men, according to this survey, are ready to walk away from women.
We have to change that.
Now before I continue, I feel it’s important to say one thing: I don’t fully fault the men who feel like they need to walk away.
Many of them are nervous. I have talked to some colleagues and peers—wonderful, upstanding men—who are fearful that one comment or human moment could now be misinterpreted and reported. Some are unsure of what is “appropriate” in the workplace in the aftermath. For instance, can they ask a woman to play a round of golf? Can they discuss departmental financials over lunch off-site?
On the other hand, the woman needs to feel comfortable, too… making this an exceedingly challenging social issue. She needs to feel invested in, respected and supported. She needs to see that she is being treated equal to her male counterpart who is being asked to grab lunch.
There are in fact two sides to this conversation and each side’s concerns need to be heard.
We Need to Talk
I am not writing this blog with the hopes of offering some prescriptive blueprint for how to have healthy, supportive workplace relationships. Nor am I writing it to stake the claim that, “I did it right so follow my steps to get great male sponsors.”
I don’t have the answer. Conversely, I believe this is one of the most complicated business issues that our organizations will face for years to come, because relationships between two people are filled with an endless number of variables. The magic ingredients between one boss-employee relationship are the very ingredients that may never work with a different pairing.
But here’s what I do know. We MUST start talking about this. We have to ask our male and female colleagues how they are feeling after these movements and the results of this recent survey. We have to figure out what we personally need to feel safe in the workplace. We need to ask ourselves what do we need from our bosses, peers and colleagues and are we getting it.
I have talked to more men and women about this topic in the last month than I can name and every conversation has ended with something like this, “Thanks for bringing this up. I hadn’t quite given it the thought you had but it’s getting my mind going in a million directions and I am glad.”
We can’t ignore what is happening and the impact it will—and already is—have on our businesses. We have to figure out what this will mean for us, our careers and our relationships moving forward. And we have to start finding some answers together.
It’s All About Trust
I have been thinking about this a lot and what I keep coming back to is that all successful relationships start and end with trust.
In the aftermath of these global movements, trust between two people, especially when a power differential exists, has NEVER been more important. Without trust, innocuous comments can get misinterpreted; simple human acts of compassion can be escalated to HR; vulnerable, authentic dialogue can be misunderstood. But with trust, we can continue to show up at work as we would at home, so long as—and this is important—a bedrock of trust, respect and understanding exists between the two individuals.
I have no intention of changing how I interact with my male coworkers, and I know my male sponsors are not going to do a single thing differently; in fact, we have actually talked about this. So, I’ll leave you with two final thoughts:
To the women reading this… you likely have amazing men in your professional world who will not walk away from you and will continue to sponsor you. But you need to have a conversation about what’s happening with them to ensure that nothing has changed. If you don’t yet have a sponsor yet, find one—either a man or a woman. Trust your gut. You will know if they are someone who will truly advocate for you and never compromise your relationship.
To the men reading this… don’t walk away from us or be scared of us. Instead work on building trust with us because, yes, you need to trust us, too. With that trust established, we can accomplish extraordinary things together.
The Women in Leadership Nexus is actively exploring ways to continue to bring this conversation to the foreground. To join us in this cause, or to bat ideas around together, click here.
Carrie Majewski is committed to affecting change. As Founder of the Women in Leadership Nexus, Carrie is fueled by a desire to create safe space for female luminaries to convene to redefine the notion of leadership. She has forged a career around strategic writing and storytelling, having led a digital marketing agency for almost three years and today working as Marketing Principal for Trilix. Carrie is a 2017 Rhode Island “40 Under 40” honoree and a 2016 Rhode Island Tech10 Winner. In her spare time you'll find her trying out a local hip-hop class, exploring parks with her rescue dog Tori, and sipping coffee with other powerhouse women.