Since the inception of the #MeToo movement, many men have reacted by trying to avoid women altogether in the workplace. In a recent survey by LeanIn.org, a whopping 60% of men in management positions said that they avoid interacting with women at work, including mentoring or meeting one to one. From refusing to hold individual meetings with women to asking “What are the rules?,” some men appear to be confused about how to behave at work. This type of reaction is both troubling and disingenuous. The rules are basic and simple: keep your hands to yourself, don’t ask for sexual favors, tell sexual jokes or make sexual gestures or noises. Basically, act like a professional and a decent human being, and all will be well. So why do men who are non-harassers feel the need to avoid female colleagues? The trope of the vengeful woman is alive and well, causing some men to fear being falsely accused. Because a false accusation turns into a he-said/she-said situation, these men feel that they cannot win. They believe that once their reputation has been smeared, they cannot recover their careers from the accusation.
Another group of men are worried that their past bad behavior will come back to bite them.
Of course, most of us have done things of which we are now ashamed and many are hoping that these events never see the light of day, especially not in any public forum. Some are wondering if the drugs they took or bad behavior during youthful drunkenness will come back to haunt them. Perhaps it will, perhaps it will not. But if it does, the responsible thing to do is to own behavior, truly apologize, and take one’s lumps for those shameful actions. And certainly, if someone broke the law by hurting someone else, the perpetrator should be willing to pay the price.
These men are not looking at the whole picture. They are looking only at their own lives and the way the “me too” movement might affect them. In reality, women have carried the burden of sexual assault, harassment, and sexism for decades, but many men ignore this reality. For the first time, men are being forced to reckon with the fact that many of their peers have violated professional behavior codes and resorted to sexual harassment and violence. Rather than tackle the problem with other men and women, this subset of men abdicates their power in favor of ultimate protection for themselves. They have the privilege of doing so while their female colleagues and employees do not.
The assumption that not meeting with women is a solution is simply not seeing the problem for what it is and relying on the privilege of being in a position of power. The fact that men hold the majority of leadership positions within most industries allows them to decide whether or not to work with women. It does absolutely nothing to improve the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace and actually exacerbates the problem by reinforcing stereotypes of women as people to be avoided. At this point, women have no choice but to work with men.
By moving into the protective stance of not meeting with women, these men are falling into the trap of victimhood. Just as most men are not sexual harassers and abusers, most women are not false accusers. While it makes sense to pay attention to what is going on around you, allowing a few stories of false accusations to fundamentally alter one’s professional life is empowering the bad actors. Just as we can only do so much to protect ourselves from other crimes like break-ins, we cannot absolutely protect ourselves from false accusations. We take reasonable steps such as locking our doors and windows for precaution against robberies, but most of us do not hire armed guards to protect our homes. Men can reasonably protect themselves from false accusations by meeting in public places and holding one-to-one meetings with an open door, for example. But refusing to meet with a woman or mentor alone is akin to refusing to leave your house because you might be robbed. By giving in to victim mentality, men are throwing women’s career opportunities under the bus, denying them access to valuable mentorship and advancement opportunities. Not only the women’s careers are at stake, but the ultimate success of their organizations.
The organizations where men work must value what women bring to the table. The benefits of gender diversity not only lead to higher profits as a McKinsey study found, but having different ideas at the table can bring about positive social change as well. For example, research has found that the presence of women on a board of directors had a significant positive impact the corporation’s social responsibility performance across three Asian markets. Women bring a different perspective and skills that organizations need. They should not be relegated to a second class role because a man is worried of a false accusation.
Like all employees, women need access to all levels of power within an organization. They need to be able to pitch their ideas to managers, sometimes in a one-to-one conversation. If a woman cannot find a mentor, or simply someone to train her on a new skill, she cannot grow in her career. With the dearth of women in management positions, the small number of female leaders cannot act as mentors for all of the women coming up within their companies, nor should they be expected to do so.
Women are not leaving the workforce, so we need to find a way to work together. Men who are feeling nervous about working with women must take a deep look inside their own hearts and figure out what is causing them to move toward avoidance instead of being solution-focused.
A more reasoned approach would be to acknowledge that there are some men (and women) who harass and exploit employees in many ways including for sexual favors. Additionally, there are employees who might resort to false accusations in an effort to either get ahead or punish others. While we cannot ever ensure that neither of these behaviors happens within our work spaces, we can adopt and enforce policies which reduce the number of incidents without completely upsetting professional interactions and preventing women from access to equal employment opportunities.
Anna Lynch is a writer, educator, and champion for all things women.