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Avoiding women at work is not a solution, it’s discrimination


While there are many important takeaways from the #MeToo movement, there is one in particular that strikes a very concerning chord. In the wake of #MeToo, men have expressed fear and concern about being falsely accused of harassment. Their answer? Simply don’t interact with women in the workplace – limit conversations, don’t talk with them, and certainly don’t meet with them alone in a room. And while this rumbling of concern has been heard most loudly in the financial sector, it surfaced again in recent days at – of all places – the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The New York Times and the Washington Post both detailed the situation from what is supposed to be one of the leading summits of human thinking. Fear of mentoring and working with women in the #MeToo era was discussed right up there with war and cyber-attacks. 

“I now think twice about spending one-on-one time with a young female colleague,” one executive told the Times on the condition of anonymity.

This attitude is sadly not new. A report from February 2018 found that:

  • Almost half of 9,000 male managers surveyed were uncomfortable engaging in one or more common work activities with women, such as working one-on-one or socializing
  • One in six male managers was uncomfortable mentoring a female colleague 
  • Almost 30 percent of male managers said they were uncomfortable working alone with a woman

While these reactions aren’t surprising (it has been a bit turbulent during the last 18 months), the percentages are startling. The misperceptions about women and underlying fears of men need to be addressed. If not, they will undermine all the good work organizations have done to build diverse workplaces with cultures that reflect fair and respectful treatment for all.

#MeToo might be new, but discrimination is not

It might be easy to presume this is just backlash from the explosive allegations against high-profile men that began making waves in late 2017. But really a hesitation toward working with women has been around for a long time; #MeToo just brought it out into the open – and has apparently provided air cover for the behavior.

There have always been men who wouldn’t take women to golf events with clients or who focused their mentoring on other men. But men are now more willing to be up front about their actions – even if at the root of this sentiment lies a word no one wants to hear: discrimination.

Saying you won’t mentor a younger woman or that you won’t take her to a client dinner is admitting that you’re intentionally blocking her from the kinds of opportunities vital for career advancement. That’s, by definition, discriminatory. But as bleak as this sounds, it’s possible that there is a bright side. Male executives’ willingness to talk about discrimination means no one can try to argue that discrimination doesn’t actually exist. And in that, lies the potential for real progress.

Avoidance is bad – for all of those involved

Progress is definitely needed. A recent article from the World Economic Forum focused on leaders in the #MeToo area, noting that in 2018, there were only 24 women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. In senior manager-level positions, men outnumber women two to one – and only 23 percent of C-suite members are women.

These numbers are obviously problematic. If left unchecked, male executives’ refusal to work with women attempting to climb the corporate ladder will only make the problem worse. It will also stymie initiatives underway across corporate America aimed at making organizations more diverse. If women have limited mentors to help them rise through the ranks, it will be near impossible for them to get to the top, or even to the middle.

This is not only harmful to the women affected, but to organizations, their clients and their partner companies. More and more companies are requesting (and even requiring) diversity within the organizations that they work with. That means #MeToo-inspired discrimination as described from Davos could lead to potential revenue loss – not to mention the toxic cultures created along the way that can affect overall productivity and performance.

Of course, the women who don’t get the opportunity to advance might leave, once they find employers who value their work and a diverse culture.

What should organizations do?

Organizations must start at the root cause of this problem: Higher-ups’ fears that women are going to make unfounded, and possibly career-ending sexual harassment claims. In many cases, men don’t trust their employers to believe that they’re innocent or fear they will become the next person fired for harassment. But, if employers deal with sexual harassment claims responsibly and transparently, this fear should be alleviated.

There are plenty of steps organizations can take, all of which begin with creating a culture of understanding. This is where employees trust problems will be investigated thoroughly and fairly and that the response will be appropriate.

Here are some suggestions for organizations to create cultures of understanding:

  1. Avoid knee-jerk reactions. Employers should never take a side or assume they know an answer to a harassment claim before understanding the whole story. An organization should have clear steps in place so when a complaint comes in, there is a standardized way of handling it. Reacting too quickly or without all the facts is a sure way to destroy trust in your process.
  2. Build trust. At the root of the fear expressed by men is a belief that they won’t be believed if falsely accused. Combat this misperception by working to increase transparency in your harassment prevention program and practices. While you can’t reveal specific information about individual cases, you can share aggregated information about your organization’s efforts as a company to combat harassment. This can include overall investigation statistics, remedial actions that have been taken without revealing confidential information, or your investment in training and other culture initiatives. Employees should know the process is there and that it is working.
  3. Train managers. Managers have an obligation not to engage in discrimination. Managers cannot favor men over women, even if it is rooted in an irrational fear. Revisit training on workplace discrimination so managers understand what it is and how to avoid it. And be sure to specifically explain that refusing to mentor a woman but being willing to mentor a male is discrimination and prohibited. If you won’t take a female employee to lunch, then you can’t take male employees to lunch. Instead, managers must find a way to give both men and women equal access to their time and advice for advancement.

In the end, the behavior discussed in Davos and elsewhere is discriminatory – and illegal. It’s setting women back, and it’s harmful to all parties involved. Organizations should seize on this moment in time as an opportunity to learn – and to make sure their employees learn – the right lessons.

By Ingrid Fredeen

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Ethics &Compliance Matters ™, Navex Global ®

Ethics & Compliance Matters™ is the official blog of NAVEX Global®. All articles posted on the Inside Internal Controls blog originally appeared on NAVEX Global’s Ethics and Compliance Matters Blog. The blog leverage the news, insights and best practices you find here to stay ahead of GRC trends, and take your compliance program to the next level. Read more
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