“I can’t give you a hello hug anymore.” I found my colleague’s light-hearted attempt to acknowledge the #MeToo movement surprising and anything but light. His usually confident and friendly face showed an awkward tension between his recognition of a new day coupled with his uncertainty of how to operate within it. As a Clinical Assistant Professor of Leadership at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, I began to wonder: If one of the good guys is feeling hesitant, are men becoming increasingly anxious about interacting with women at work?
If there is something positive to come from these troubling crimes dominating the news, my hope is that leaders will take stock and take action on company policy and culture.
However, if there is an unintended consequence, men may step back in the workplace at the exact moment we most need them to take a stand.
Men are still in the majority of senior management roles and they play a critical role in leading workplace change and in mentoring and providing training and feedback to women. If men limit these important relationships with their female colleagues to avoid the risk of impropriety, we go backward in an area where we are already falling short. The 2017 Women in the Workplace report indicates that the cost for women (which is already occurring) of less executive advice and less interaction with the senior level is lower promotion rates and reduced aspiration for executive positions than their male peers. Because the number of men in positions of power in workplaces is so high, men’s time and coaching are crucial to advancing women.
For example, when leaders such as Vice President Mike Pence, use a no-dinner with women policy, they are limiting women’s access and opportunity to advance with this kind of exclusionary behavior.
Lack of male advocacy is at the root of why more women don’t make it to the top, according to a Harvard Business Review study. Interestingly, this report also indicates that both men and women struggle with the appearances of internal sponsorship, that is, how it looks to spend time together in even the most strictly professional capacity and thus making some reluctant to participate in such mentorship at all.
Yet, networking with senior leadership is a critical process for emerging leaders. In my earlier 21-year career with PepsiCo, I found sponsorship to be a mutual arrangement grounded in trust. I trusted my sponsors’ advice and advocacy and my sponsors counted on my performance and fulfilled potential that supported their endorsements. This healthy dynamic was typical of the culture and women rose to senior levels.
When this is a normal part of the environment, suspicions about meals together didn’t even enter the dialogue.
In contrast, a toxic culture affects much more than the rules of engagement in mentorship or promotion. The trust needed to level the playing field for all cannot survive in a workplace, where issues are kept in darkness and networking is met with suspicions.
According to the World Economic Forum’s The Global Gender Gap Report 2017, women will not achieve gender equality in the workplace for 217 years. However, for every sobering, disheartening report, I recall the multiple male leaders that coached my leadership skills, encouraged my development, and supported my ascension up the corporate ladder.
These relationships were major contributors to my success as well as many other women I know.
We are in uncharted territory with this sudden increase in awareness of the long-hidden abuse issue. The avalanche of cases combined with the magnitude of #MeToo posts has shaken and surprised many. While handshakes might replace workplace hugs on the surface, there is no roadmap for handling this essential conversation. With new industries and offenders added to the list each day, the collective anxiety about what to do can be immobilizing. Regardless, we must not let this tipping point slip away, nor must we shirk our duty to drive change. The stakes are too high to limit half of our population from fully contributing and having a fair shot. Let these headlines be a catalyst for courageous conversations and actions that rebuild trust. It is time to take a stand.
-Ellen Connelly Taaffe
Ellen Connelly Taaffe is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Leadership and Director of the Women’s Leadership Program at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University. She is a Public Voices Fellow.