Progress has been made in terms of women’s equality and protection over the past 10 years.
In fact, it was recently the 10th anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009.
While there have been significant strides in reducing gender bias, harassment and sexual misconduct, clearly there is still work to be done. The #MeToo movement has been an important driver in bringing to light numerous cases of sexual abuse and misconduct.
However, it has also had the unintended consequence of causing men to refrain from interacting with women for fear of retaliation. Considering that male executives play a key role in advancing women into higher levels of leadership, this fear must be taken seriously because if unaddressed it leads to workplaces where there are fewer opportunities for women’s career advancement and informal coaching. Bloomberg recently conducted interviews with more than 30 senior executives that suggest many are startled by the #MeToo movement — some for good cause while others succumb to fear and retreat from supporting leadership diversity.
This is a huge problem for women, men, the companies they work for and society as a whole. When men shy away from mentoring women and helping them advance in their careers, it hurts everyone. Likewise, it is shameful and unacceptable when women are objectified, threatened or harmed.
In both cases no one wins. The outcome of the #MeToo movement should not be that we reverse progress on increasing diversity in leadership but that we are creating opportunities for women and men to thrive.
This shift needs to happen at the organizational level with changes implemented by leaders so that men can invest in the career advancement of women without fearing they will be classified as #MeToo participants and so that women will have confidence that they are working in a safe environment. These changes should include:
- Providing sexual harassment and communications training for men and women. Employees and managers need to understand what is acceptable and what is not. Men and women respond to nuance differently, and everyone needs to understand what behavior crosses the line. Insight on how to be friendly, kind and foster appropriate relationships will benefit both men and women at all levels within the organization.
- Ensuring there are confidential reporting protocols in place. All employees need to have a clear and confidential venue to report misconduct so they will not be retaliated against by their colleagues. Similarly, they need to know that because they are empowered to report any misconduct (perceived or overt), their concerns will be taken seriously and senior leadership will take appropriate and supportive action. By formalizing the process, men will feel confident that if a woman retaliates and misuses her power in a destructive way there is a recourse. Both men and women should not be driven by fear but rather they should understand that if they adhere to clearly specified boundaries and are treated unfairly, they will be supported.
- Making evaluations less ambiguous. We know that when there is ambiguity in assessments it can lead to bias. An article in the Harvard Business Review sums it up as, “Without structure, people are more likely to rely on gender, race and other stereotypes when making decisions — instead of thoughtfully constructing assessments using agreed-upon processes and criteria that are consistently applied across all employees.” When managers use comparable data to evaluate employees and include insight from subordinates, peers and other leaders as well as self-evaluations it will help ensure that constructive criticism relayed to a subordinate is not viewed as subjective, but in fact is based on data and information gathered from multiple sources.
- Rewarding positive behavior and swiftly addressing inappropriate or illegal actions. By recognizing men and women who serve as successful models of mentoring colleagues, leaders will gain confidence and others will better understand the best way to help both men and women advance in their careers. Likewise, punishing the bad actors will improve working conditions for everyone.
Men and women are asking some important and tough questions about the workplace. Women have earned a seat at the management table and are rightfully demanding it. The #MeToo movement has been a powerful force for change in bringing to light sexual harassment and misconduct and removing perpetrators from positions of power. It’s time to capitalize on that momentum and change our workplace policies — starting from the top down — so that we can turn the #MeToo era into a movement that is constructive, encourages human interaction and supports appropriate career advancement.