The past few months have been quite eventful for women’s rights, at least in the Western Hemisphere. It was only October when The New York Times published its exposé of now-disgraced Hollywood magnate Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo hashtag went viral on Twitter. Since then, thousands of women have shared their stories of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace.
All of a sudden, it seemed, the march toward equality had made a huge leap forward.
In the corporate world, there are already warnings that we may be sliding back. Facebook chief operating officer and best-selling Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg worried in December that male executives and other men in leadership roles might react to #MeToo by avoiding one-on-one time with female colleagues and underlings out of fear of sexual harassment allegations.
“Four years ago, I wrote in Lean In that 64 per cent of senior male managers were afraid to be alone with a female colleague, in part because of fears of being accused of sexual harassment. The problem with this is that mentoring almost always occurs in one-on-one settings,” Sandberg wrote in a long Facebook post.
“The percentage of men who will be afraid to be alone with a female colleague has to be sky high right now,” she added.
A month later, a poll conducted by Sandberg’s LeanIn.Org foundation and SurveyMonkey confirmed the Facebook executive’s worry. Thirty per cent of male managers surveyed said they are uncomfortable working alone with female colleagues, over twice the percentage who said so in the past. Meanwhile, the number of male managers who have concerns about mentoring women more than tripled, from 5 per cent to 16 per cent. All this, despite the fact that nearly half of both men and women said they were not surprised by the recent headlines about sexual harassment and a quarter believe that’s only the tip of the iceberg, according to the same survey.
Similar worries are arising in Canada. Lori McIntosh, founder and CEO of Toronto-based Vim and Vixin, which helps place women in executive positions, is increasingly hearing from female clients who worry they will no longer be able to get alone time with their boss to showcase their work.
“I’ve had this conversation at least four times today already,” McIntosh said, speaking to Global News by phone on Tuesday.
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Indeed, McIntosh, whose firms works globally and does most of its business in the U.S. and Canada, says she has experienced the #MeToo backlash herself.
“Some men will not meet alone with me,” she said, recalling a recent incident in which she said the CEO of a billion-dollar company specifically alluded to #MeToo after requesting that a third party be present at what was to be a one-on-one meeting.
“It’s the first time in 21 years that’s happened to me,” said McIntosh.
That attitude has also garnered a popular moniker. It’s known as the “Pence Principle” or “Pence Rule,” in a nod to U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, who reportedly avoids dining alone or attending events where alcohol is served, without his wife Karen at his side.
“CEOs are very concerned about some of the stories circulating inside their organizations and how to continue to run their business,” said McIntosh. But shutting out women is not the answer, she added.
It may not seem like much, but male executives refusing to remain alone with female colleagues could make a big difference because that’s when, often, mentoring relationships are formed.
In corporate settings, she says, change tends to come from above. Male leaders need to help women climb the corporate ladder, as they have been for decades with junior male colleagues.
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It’s about men and women working together, stupid
Male concerns about accusations of sexual harassment in the workplace didn’t start with #MeToo, and the movement has prompted a lot of soul-searching at both the individual and corporate levels, said Chi Nguyen, CEO of Toronto-based Parker P Consulting, which helps multinationals, non-governmental organizations and higher education institutions promote gender equality in the workplace.
The onslaught of reports about sexual harassment has many men asking themselves “what is my complacency and what more can I do to stop this from happening,” Nguyen said.
Employers, meanwhile, are taking a hard look at their gender equality policies. Here in Canada, the Liberal government’s most recent budget hinted that a pay equity law could be coming.
France is also saying “non” to the gender pay gap by asking larger companies to use payroll software to spot and address unexplained differences in compensation between men and women.
That’s all well and good, says Nguyen, but policies and rules need to go hand-in-hand with efforts to change the corporate culture.
This isn’t about picking the token woman to sit on the corporate board or excluding men from mentoring programs, she says. It’s about executives and managers making sure they’re searching both gender pools when fishing for top talent.
It’s about creating parental leave and flexible schedules and making sure that men are equally expected to take advantage of those workplace perks.
And it’s about both men and women trying to understand each other’s perspectives and challenges, Nguyen adds.
She recalls the example of a CEO at a resource extraction company who decided to shadow an employee who was a working mom. He noticed the stares she would get from colleagues when leaving at 4 p.m. for “the dinner shift,” even though she would come to work at 7 a.m. and often log more hours from the home computer after supper, Nguyen recalled.
But female executives should mentor and shadow their male underlings, too, she added. “It’s a two-way street.”
#MeToo “is making people stop and think about their behaviours on a daily basis,” McIntosh said.
Ultimately, though, “men and women have to work together to make the change.”