A stunning 60% of male managers said they’re uncomfortable mentoring, working one-on-one, and socializing with women at work, according to a survey released Friday morning by LeanIn.org, the women’s advocacy group founded by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg.
That’s an increase from last year, when 46% of male managers said they were uneasy working with women after several prominent men lost their jobs over sexual misconduct claims.
In this year’s survey, men also said they were much more likely to hesitate to travel or have dinner with a junior woman for work.
It might seem like men avoiding women at the office is a fine solution to the problem of sexual harassment, but men still overwhelmingly hold positions of power at work. For better or worse, women need their support to get ahead. Notably, women are rarely asked if they’re afraid to interact with men ― even though they’re mainly the ones who’ve reported harassment and assault.
Even before Me Too, men were more likely to mentor or advise other men, said Rachel Thomas, president of LeanIn.org. Men were also more likely to “sponsor” more junior male employees ― meaning they talked them up to others, paving the way for promotion. Those cliches about men doing deals and schmoozing on the golf course exist for a reason.
That men are doing even less of this work in the wake of MeToo adds “insult to injury,” Thomas said. “If men want to be part of the solution, then pulling away from women is the wrong thing to do.”
Why exactly men are pulling back from women isn’t immediately clear from the data. Thirty-six percent of the men surveyed said they avoid mentoring or socializing with a woman because of how it could look to others. Others might feel a heightened awareness that their actions could make female colleagues uncomfortable.
Some men also like to claim that women are fabricating claims. Those fears are largely unfounded, Thomas said. She points out that the same myth surrounds sexual assault. False accusations make up a very low percentage of reported rapes, according to several studies — in line with other types of crime. When you factor in the percentage of sexual assaults that go unreported, the proportion of false reports goes down even more.
And considering the negative attention and career risks for women who speak up — I have spoken with dozens of women who’ve lost jobs, or have been blacklisted from entire industries, or even wind up homeless — the idea that women voluntarily make up harassment for personal gain seems even more preposterous.
In the wake of Me Too, men are simply afraid to interact with women at work, said John Singer, a lawyer who gained some attention for his work with men who’ve been fired for sexual misconduct. His firm also represents women in sexual harassment cases.
“MeToo has had a chilling effect on the relationship between men and women in the workplace. Men are either scared to be alone with female colleagues or clients or more skittish about what to say,” he said, adding that male and female clients both have told him that women are getting excluded from meetings and social outings.
That isolation isn’t just keeping women from moving up ― but making it harder for them to simply do their jobs, meeting with clients or teaming up on sales calls, he said.
If men want to be part of the solution, then pulling away from women is the wrong thing to do. Rachel Thomas, president of LeanIn.org
For the survey released Friday, LeanIn partnered with SurveyMonkey on two online polls of more than 8,000 adults conducted in February and March. The results were weighted to reflect the demographic composition of adults over 18 in the U.S.
LeanIn did ask senior women how they felt about interacting with more junior men. Women didn’t seem to have much of an issue ― they had no hesitation in having a one-on-one meeting with a man. Meanwhile, men were 12 times more hesitant to have a one-on-one meeting with a woman who was junior to them, compared to a more junior man.
The mentorship and guidance of more senior leaders, many of whom are men, is crucial in helping women advance. Ultimately, getting more women into leadership positions will help lead to less sexual harassment, Thomas said, noting that organizations with more gender equality have fewer problems with misconduct.
Thomas and LeanIn are encouraging more men to take the initiative and mentor women. But it is worth noting that these relationships can go awry: In one recent study, one-third of women surveyed said that a male mentor had actually sexually harassed them.
The problem of men avoiding women is acute on Wall Street ― already a boys club — where men are apparently “walking on eggshells” around women, according to a report from Bloomberg late last year.
It’s hard to get men to talk about this. Some told Bloomberg anonymously that they’re trying to be like Vice President Mike Pence ― who notoriously avoids one-on-one interactions with women in social settings. Some said they won’t meet with women in windowless rooms or get on elevators alone with them, according to the report. One said he won’t have dinner with women under age 35.
This behavior could wind up backfiring, as the story notes. Treating women differently in the workplace can end up forming the basis for a discrimination suit.
There’s an easy fix for this, Thomas said. If you don’t want to have dinner with women alone ― don’t have dinner with men alone, either. Go out for breakfast. Treat both men and women equally in how you socialize. If you’re uneasy meeting alone in your office with a woman ― leave the door open.
Men and women usually know where the line is on what’s appropriate.
“My real message is: Get over it,” Thomas said. “You know what respectful behavior is. If for some reason you’re still reticent, don’t use that as an excuse. There are easy ways to give women equal access and support.”