Sexual Harassment Disaster Puts “Good Men” in a Quandary

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An unfortunate – albeit unintended -- consequence of the sexual harassment catastrophe in Hollywood, in state Capitols and across the country is that “good men” – meaning those that have not mistreated, harassed or otherwise degraded women – are starting to retreat to their own corners.

An article in the New York Times sums it up well: “What we’re seeing now is men are backing away from the role that we try to encourage them to play, which is actively mentoring and sponsoring women in the workplace,” said Al Harris, who has been running workplace equality programs and writing on the topic from Chicago with his partner, Andie Kramer, for many years. “There’s apprehension on the part of men that they’re going to be falsely accused of sexual harassment.”

It’s a slippery slope. On one hand we need to send the message loud and clear that ANY sexual misconduct, harassment, or degradation of women is completely unacceptable. But at the same time we don’t want to discourage men who genuinely are working hard to support and advance women in the workplace in an appropriate and respectful manner.

In her Upshot column in the New York Times Claire Cain Miller reports “In interviews, the men describe a heightened caution because of recent sexual harassment cases, and they worry that one accusation, or misunderstood comment, could end their careers. But their actions affect women’s careers, too — potentially depriving them of the kind of relationships that lead to promotions or investments.

In fact, some characterize the issue as disastrous for both women and men. An article in USA Today reads “You can’t win,” says a Hollywood insider unwilling to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the topic. “The guys who are shutting up are being accused of being accomplices. The guys who speak are being accused of being liars. It’s gotten a little McCarthy-esque out there.”

What can we do?

In addition to encouraging relationship building during work hours and in public places there are some simple things both men and women can do to isolate and call out the bad actors and at the same time encourage the good ones.

  • “Good men” can share their stories highlighting how they have appropriately mentored, sponsored or coached women in their career development and pursuit of leadership opportunities. They can be an instrumental part of leading the change by creating and promoting a positive and healthy working environment for both women and men.
  • Likewise, women can share their stories about men who have upheld a zero tolerance policy and have advocated and supported them. It’s important for both men and women to feel respected and appreciated and men who have consistently fought for more gender diversity should be recognized.
  • An article in the New York Times offers an interesting idea: “another way is for companies to explicitly support relationship-building meetings. Some companies, for instance, have designated a certain restaurant where senior leaders take protégées for breakfast or lunch. “Once you see it happening out in public, then it becomes the norm,” said Laura Sherbin, director of research at the Center for Talent Innovation.”
  • Lastly, men should know that it’s okay to ask for guidance. I just had a conversation with a former male MBA student who reached out to me on LinkedIn asking for assistance as he was tasked with starting a men's group in his company to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace.

While I certainly wish it was not an issue I am glad that so many women have come forward to detail the pervasive problem of sexual harassment and misconduct. I’m hopeful that their stories will lead to a massive cultural change. I’m also hopeful that “good men” will feel empowered by this discussion and not embarrassed as it is imperative that they teach the future generation of leaders how to be ethical workers who have integrity and utmost respect for their female (and male) colleagues.

Dr. Bernice Ledbetter is Practitioner Faculty of Organizational Theory and Management at Pepperdine Graziadio School of Business and Management where she chairs the M.S. in Management and Leadership degree program. Her research and teaching interests focus on values-based leadership, peace leadership, and gender. Dr. Ledbetter founded the Pepperdine Center for Women in Leadership to empower and advance women in the workplace.

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