How to overcome male executive disengagement in the #MeToo era

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When U.S. Vice President Mike Pence once declared that he would avoid dining alone with a woman unless his wife was present, many rolled their eyes at the former Indiana governor’s seeming penchant for Victorian-era social etiquette. But it’s becoming clear that his views on 21st century gender relations aren’t necessarily so far-fetched, especially in the business world.

Reports indicate that some male business leaders are disengaging from their younger female colleagues in the workplace, seeking to mitigate risks stemming from potential sexual harassment accusations. While the #MeToo movement was born of a desire to break down gender barriers and end sexual harassment and bullying, in some cases it’s having the opposite effect.

#MeToo anxieties may, in fact, be fuelling gender discrimination and segregation.

According to a 2018 LeanIn.org survey of nearly 3,000 respondents, for example, nearly 30 per cent of male managers polled in the U.S. were uncomfortable working alone with a woman, while nearly half said they would be reluctant to socialize alone with a female colleague. One in six male managers expressed hesitation mentoring women in the workplace.   

The irony is that male business leaders who aim to mitigate risk by avoiding these interactions are likely only increasing the risk of human rights complaints or gender discrimination lawsuits. Businesses—and SMEs, in particular—face additional operational challenges when men pull back in the workplace, ranging from a potential decline in employee engagement, lacklustre collaboration and starved innovation, to the stalled transfer of institutional knowledge between generations.

So, what can entrepreneurs do to ensure that male executive disengagement doesn’t impact gender relations across their carefully-crafted workplace cultures, not to mention limiting the impact to their organization’s bottom-line performance? That question is perhaps best addressed by understanding how we ended up here in the first place. 

A 2016 study of workplace sexual harassment by researchers at the University of Missouri offers some clues. It analyzed how interpretations of anti-harassment policies may, in fact, be driving workplace anxieties and animosity. 

Their analysis found that the wording of sexual harassment policies “bore little resemblance to the employees’ interpretations of the policy. Although the policy clearly focused on behaviors of sexual harassment, the participants almost universally claimed that the policy focused on perceptions of behaviors.” 

The researchers added that, “Moreover, although the policy itself made clear that harassing behaviors were harassment regardless of either the gender or sexual orientation of the perpetrator or target, the employees focused almost exclusively on male-female heterosexual harassment. This shift is subtle but significant.” 

In other words, male participants in the study tended to see harassment policies as threatening because they believe these rules expose them to complaints from female colleagues who may or not be acting rationally, and who might perceive even the most innocuous comments or gestures as being harassing in nature.

The researchers make a valid point. I’ve personally heard male business leaders express concern that they’re operating under an increasingly-intense microscope, with their every move and utterance being parsed for political correctness and analyzed for acceptability.

Those perceptions may be irrational in and of themselves, but the worries are real—and they’re worth discussing in the workplace context. Confronting and overcoming them means mandating that everyone from senior executives to front-line managers and rank-and-file employees undergo comprehensive workplace training to educate them on your organization’s workplace policies—which must include a strong anti-harassment component—so they have a complete understanding of what is and is not acceptable workplace conduct. That includes providing practical examples and tools to help them understand when even simple joking may cross the line.

Managers should be trained to be aware of social cues, while employees should understand that it’s both their right and their obligation to speak up when they experience or observe harassing behaviour— and to make it known to the party with whom they’re interacting that their conduct is unwelcome, if they feel comfortable doing so. Practical guidance goes a long way to helping employees understand that preventing harassment is a two-way street.

It’s also crucial for anxious male business leaders to be cognizant of the employment law risks associated with treating individuals differently in the workplace based on their gender. If a male CEO is uncomfortable interacting with women in certain situations, for example, he must ensure that there is equal treatment across the board so he isn’t actually favouring male employees.

In other words, don’t take an up-and-coming male employee for a solo golf or dinner meeting then deny women of the same seniority a similar opportunity to interact with the boss. Doing so creates an unfair workplace advantage that could expose your organization to sexual harassment and discrimination allegations. There’s a very good chance that it will also negatively impact workplace morale.

While #MeToo-related anxieties may be understandable, they aren’t acceptable. It’s incumbent on progressive leaders to turn this challenge into an opportunity to address the issue head-on and ease organization-wide concerns before they grow into much larger—and potentially damaging—workplace problems that may lack a simple resolution.

More importantly, take the opportunity to help strengthen your workplace by creating a culture of mutual accountability where employees—both male and female—set the bar for acceptable conduct and enforce those standards without exception.

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