In October of 2017, women around the world started talking about their experiences of harassment and other mistreatment based solely on their gender and used the hashtag #Metoo to flag their postings on social media. The sheer volume of stories opened a floodgate of discussion and action that isn’t expected to end anytime soon.
One of the areas it has affected is women at work. It has had the positive effect of allowing many women to experience lower levels of harassment at work, and to speak up and attempt to take action if it occurs. At the same time, not all the results of this hashtag have helped women to progress. It is even possible that it has held them back somewhat.
Unintended consequences may mean less access
As it turns out, the #MeToo movement may be causing men to become more reluctant to deepen professional connections with female colleagues and subordinates. How far does this trend go? In a recent survey, 60 percent of male managers indicated they were hesitant to engage in one-on-one interactions with women about work due to a fear of being falsely accused of sexual harassment. That kind of diminished close access can have some serious consequences for women.
Mentorships may be affected
One of the areas that could be impacted by a lack of contact is mentorship opportunities. These ongoing, real-world learning experiences typically require concentrated one-on-one discussions, project cooperations, and even meals spent together. If more men are unwilling to mentor women, there will be fewer chances for women to learn in real-time, develop business contacts, and ultimately be promoted into higher-level work.
Changes in business meetings with women
As part of what they fear, the 60% of men who answered the survey also expressed a reluctance to engage in meetings with women. While some of this could be considered positive, such as avoiding physical spaces where business had been conducted that made women uncomfortable, it has other ramifications. Being so much more careful about meeting women at all may mean that fewer of these meetings happen with both genders and that, ultimately, women are less engaged in the life of an organization.
Changes in co-gendered work socializing
The reluctance to engage in co-gendered interactions also has implications for socializing, something that often happens as part of making business deals and determining other major work decisions including promotions and project delegations. Sure, women may be at the table in meetings or seminars. However, If they’re not invited to the table at a restaurant, at someone’s home, at a bar after work, or at another social event, could they lose out? Very possibly.
Other general negative workplace responses
In addition to broader behavioral changes in male/female workplace interactions, smaller shifts have also been documented. According to a 2018 Society of Human Resource Managers survey, 11 percent of male executives at work reported they’d dramatically changed some of their behaviors in order to avoid being accused of harassment. They indicated they avoided talking to women and that they asked permission before coming any closer than 3 feet to a female colleague. These executives also reported large changes in workplace practices, curtailing some travel by gender and prohibiting after-work one-on-one meetings, requiring at least three people to be present.
One solution: More education on workplace harassment
While the #MeToo movement has provided a lot of positive changes, these unintended negative impacts are unwelcomed and unnecessary. One way to mitigate them is through providing better education on what workplace harassment is so that it is clearer when to define it and how to avoid it without women losing access to decisions and opportunities.
If people know the way that a safe, productive meeting, mentoring experience, or business dinner should proceed then they can better follow these norms. They’ll also be better prepared to identify problems and to address them if they should happen.
Another solution: Commit to #MentorHer
Another solution is for men to reverse the trend of stepping away from one to one interactions with women and, instead, to proactively seek ways to provide the kinds of support activities that will help women grow their careers. One example of this is the online movement #MentorHer.
This movement is supported by Survey Monkey’s Zander Lurie who credits his own professional success to mentorship from highly successful women including Sheryl Sandberg. Using the hashtag #MentorHer he is actively committing to mentor women and to encourage other men in power to do the same. As with the #MeToo movement he is flagging this effort on social media so that it can gain as much momentum as possible.
Clearer workplace policies are also crucial
Another necessary piece of the solution is to actively create workplace policies and an office culture which will clearly not tolerate harassment or discrimination of any kind. The policies should define what is considered inappropriate, list rules that employees need to follow along with consequences for breaking the rules, and indicate processes that employees can follow if they have questions or suspect they might have been harassed. The rules themselves should be paired with consistent follow up and an office culture that doesn’t tolerate the issue.
Hope for continued progress
The #MeToo movement was a start to identifying a serious issue and its progress is heartening. However, there are still issues with how harassment is addressed. There is hope that both genders will find ways to actively, respectfully, and productively operate together in the workplace. Organizations can only benefit from this happening.