In a post-#MeToo world, many men report feeling uncomfortable about mentoring female colleagues. But it’s not hard to avoid being a creep – and women need good men to support their careers.
This letter isn’t addressed to all of you. I’m not writing to men like John Legend, who see nothing complicated about supporting women who have experienced sexual violence. I’m not writing to men like Orange is the New Black’s Matt McGorry, who take steps to educate themselves on intersectional feminism. I’m not writing to men like my male colleagues or my closest guy friends or my brothers, who have responded to the conversations raised by #MeToo with empathy and respect and reflection.
Instead, this letter is addressed to those of you who consider yourself fundamentally decent, yet feel a little uncomfortable about interacting with women at work in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Who are fairly sure you’ve never sexually harassed anyone, but are nevertheless petrified of being falsely accused at any moment. Who, when it comes down to it, would rather distance yourself from your female colleagues, instead of doing the hard work of confronting gender inequality in your workplace. If any of those descriptions sound familiar, I’m asking you to read on.
Because, men, we have a problem. Over a year since #MeToo went viral, we have not solved the problem of sexual misconduct at work. The number of men felled by the movement remains relatively tiny, and non-disclosure agreements are still being used to silence allegations of workplace harassment.
Yet in a new report from the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, The New York Times quotes several men as saying they feel wary about “spending one-on-one time with young female colleagues” in a post-#MeToo world. Pat Milligan, who leads research on female leadership at consulting firm Mercer, also told the newspaper she knows many men who now “avoid going to dinner with a female mentee”, or who feel “concerned about deploying a woman solo on-site with a male”.
Why are so many men acting as though they’re the ones with something to fear? After all, according to a 2018 report by the House of Commons’ women and equalities committee, it is women who are significantly more likely than men to experience workplace sexual harassment, while perpetrators are disproportionately male.
Well, research has shown that over two-thirds of male executives in the US fear that meeting one-on-one with female colleagues will be misconstrued. Almost half of male managers now feel anxious about participating in activities such as mentoring, working alone or socialising with female co-workers, according to a 2018 survey by LeanIn.Org – and the number of male managers who are uncomfortable mentoring women has more than tripled from 5% to 16%. Which means that women aren’t just more likely to be harassed in the workplace: they’re also far less likely to get the support and mentoring they need to excel, too. Great.
Here’s the thing, men – it’s not difficult to not harass someone. I do it all the time! If you genuinely feel confused about The Rules in this topsy-turvy new world, here are some simple tips to cut out and keep: look at your female colleague’s face when you’re speaking to her, not her breasts or crotch. A handshake is fine; all other physical contact is unnecessary, unless she’s choking and needs you to bang her on the back. Avoid making comments or asking questions about her appearance, sexuality or love life. Don’t draw attention to your penis in any way. Ever. See? It really is quite simple.
‘Wait a minute,’ you might be thinking, outraged. ‘I’m not a caveman! I’m nervous about false allegations, not my own behaviour.’
And honestly, I don’t entirely blame you if you’re worried about being falsely accused. If you read certain publications and accept the angry denials of certain famous men, it’s perhaps understandable that you’d believe the planet is swarming with vindictive women, just waiting to slander men with lies about harassment, assault and rape.
But that vision of the world is inaccurate. Speaking out about sexual harassment in the workplace remains a scary and risky endeavour; it is no one’s idea of fun. Many organisations still don’t have effective HR policies in place for tackling the problem, and it’s particularly daunting if you’re freelance and/or accusing a senior figure with the power to make or break your career.
Even if a person’s harassment claim is properly investigated, the perpetrator may be allowed to slither out the back door without any real punishment. And while some people do make false allegations about sexual assault, the scale of the problem is often wildly overemphasised. Research conducted by the Home Office in the early Noughties – the most detailed study ever carried out on sexual assault reports to UK police – showed that just 3% of reported rape cases were proved to be false.
Consider how women are often treated when they go public with claims of sexual assault, and ask yourself: do you really think your junior female colleagues are looking to spice up their life – and ruin yours – with false allegations? I think, deep down, you know the answer.
I hope this doesn’t sound like an attack, men, because the reality is that we want you to stand with us on this. The vast majority of women still work in fields where the top jobs are male-dominated: men hold more than three-quarters of senior leadership roles in the UK, and a report by the Fawcett Society last year found that women made up just 6% of FTSE 100 chief executives and 9.8% of other business executive roles.
All of this means that we can’t just rely on senior women to give us the professional support we need to climb the career ladder, because those women often don’t exist. Instead, we need decent guys to be our allies, champions and mentors in the workplace. We need men like you.
If you refuse to support us because you’ve been spooked by #MeToo, a whole generation of women will lose out. And considering that we’ve done nothing except belong to a gender that has been subjected to sexual harassment for centuries, that hardly seems fair.
Ultimately, we want you to see women as your teammates in the workplace, rather than your adversaries. Your real enemies should be the genuine sexual abusers out there – not the women who called them out.
Images: Samantha Sophia/Unsplash, Getty Images