Denise Dudley, a business consultant based in San Luis Obispo, Calif., has traveled a lot for her career over the last four decades. She has taken business trips that have lasted for weeks, many with senior male colleagues. In those early days, she learned a lot from both her male and female colleagues. She remembers the names of those who mentored her and, unfortunately, she also recalls the names and behavior of those male colleagues who acted inappropriately.
These days, even good guys are afraid of being alone with women.
Here are just some of the comments she’s heard from would-be mentors, enough to make you never want to take a business trip in this town — or any town — again. They include ambiguous innuendos (“Ho-ho, we need to stop meeting like this!”), their home life (“My wife just doesn’t understand me”), comments about appearance (“You look really beautiful with your hair down”) and offers of help to navigate hotel corridors at night (“Let me help you find your room and make sure it’s comfortable”).
These days, even the good guys are afraid of being alone with women. An increasing number of men say they are fearful of working with female colleagues in the #MeToo era: 60% of male managers say they are uncomfortable mentoring, socializing with or even working alone with women in the workplace, up from 46% a year ago, according to a survey released on Friday by female empowerment site LeanIn.Org, the brainchild of Facebook
COO Sheryl Sandberg.
Never say, ‘You look really beautiful with your hair down.’
Those stories, and the cascade of revelations about scores of powerful men mistreating women that followed, sparked a national conversation about what constitutes appropriate workplace behavior. “If more men mentor women, it will ultimately lead to stronger and safer workplaces for everyone. When more women are in leadership, organizations offer employees more generous policies and produce better business results,” the “Lean In” survey says.
Dudley, the author of “Work It! Get In, Get Noticed, Get Promoted,” said there are two big issues facing workplaces in the #MeToo era: How female workers recognize when a male colleague is crossing professional boundaries and how to help male co-workers and managers to navigate these issues safely. If a man does something odd, but doesn’t cross a line, it could be one error of judgement. If he almost crosses that line twice or three times, it could start to look like harassment.
“I think that’s what’s happening to Joe Biden right now,” she says. “I seriously doubt he’s lecherous, but he may simply be touching women too much, a cumulative problem.” Biden, one of the many 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, has been called out by several women for making them feel uncomfortable by touching their shoulders, neck and/or back; for his part, Biden said he will adapt to what he describes as a new era for how men should behave around women.
Women get less of the mentorship and sponsorship that opens doors.
Men, especially those in senior positions, are apparently wrestling with that question more than ever. The LeanIn survey, conducted in partnership with Survey Monkey, polled more than 5,000 adults in the U.S. It found that men in senior leadership roles are 12 times more likely to be hesitant to meet with a woman than a man; nine times more likely to not want to travel on a business trip with a female colleague; and six times more likely to avoid work dinners with a woman.
“Women get less of the mentorship and sponsorship that opens doors. Whether this is driven by sexism or because men (perhaps unconsciously) gravitate toward helping other men, the result is that women miss out,” the survey notes. There’s also a fundamental difference of opinion on the #MeToo movement: 50% of men say that the consequences of sexual harassment are more damaging to the harassers, not the victims; 64% of women say the victims have more to lose.
Here are some tips from Dudley on what men should avoid when working closely with a female colleague, especially a direct report or someone who is further down on the corporate ladder:
1. Don’t make off-color jokes. “I was just joking” is the kind of thing teachers in high schools might hear from students, but this won’t go down well during a sexual-harassment complaint at words. Human resources will take your words at face value. So should you.
2. Don’t breathe down her neck. Dudley recommends keeping approximately 2 to 3 feet of personal space between people. No one wants to get up close and personal with your cologne or what you had for breakfast. If they can feel your breath, you’re too close.
Stick with a handshake as a way to touch female mentees.
3. Don’t go in for the hug. “Stick with a handshake as a way to touch female mentees unless it’s very clear to you that the other person is a hugger — and still, it can be risky. Don’t pat, pet, or poke at a female.” If in doubt, leave out. Hug your children, not your co-workers.
4. Don’t wink and make weird faces. “Avoid winking, raising your eyebrows up and down, licking your lips, or any other “nonstandard” facial expression,” Dudley adds. “They could be taken for a come on. Stick with a sincere smile.” On business trips or after hours, go easy on the alcohol.
5. Don’t assume you always know best. You will soon understand how comfortable your mentee is with your presence, and whether you need to modify the way you’re interacting with her. Ask her what you can do better, too. Being a mentor is a professional relationship and everyone is learning.
6. Don’t tell her all of your marital or dating problems. “Don’t share information about your romantic life, that is, ‘My girlfriend says…’ or, ‘I’m currently single, do you know anyone who could set me up?’ or “I’m headed out on a date, how do I look?”
7 . Don’t act as if you’re at home on the sofa. “Don’t scratch you armpits, play with your arm hair, or — God forbid — adjust yourself ‘down there,’ even subtly,” Dudley says. “I’ve seen it happen! You don’t want to deliver any ‘visual cues’ that imply sexuality or even personal sensuality.”
57% of working women say they’ve experienced sexual harassment.
8. Don’t tell her you like her perfume. “It’s better to stick to professional compliments (‘Your report was absolutely stellar,’ or ‘You did a great job leading that presentation today’) until you’ve established your relationship and built up some trust,” she says. Even then, tread carefully.
9. Don’t hog all of her time late into the evening. Just because you like to work late, that doesn’t mean your underling should be expected to stay late night after night without any clear indication of when it’s OK to leave. Be aware of your seniority and be respectful of their time.
10. Don’t have meetings at home or in hotel rooms. This goes without say. After the allegations of sexual misconduct and assault against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in 2017, which allegedly took place in hotel rooms and which he has denied, never hold a meeting at home or in a hotel room.
There’s good reason to keep these tips in your back pocket. #MeToo galvanized women in the workplace to speak out against sexual harassment, but the problem is still prevalent. The majority of women in the workplace (57%) report that they’ve experienced some form of sexual harassment on the job, whether it’s hearing sexist jokes, or being touched inappropriately, and 24% of women say harassment is still on the rise, the survey found.
That loss of interaction is becoming detrimental to female growth at work. Women are 24% less likely than men to get advice from senior leaders, according to the survey, which could hinder them from rising in the ranks at their companies since the majority of managers and senior leaders are men. Women make up just 6.6% of CEOs at companies on the Fortune 500 list, so support from male allies at work can be imperative in some cases for women to climb the corporate ladder.
The good news: Some progress is being made at reducing bad behavior. Workplaces were 63% more likely this year to implement additional training to reduce sexual harassment incidents at work, up from 55% in 2018, according to a separate survey from San Francisco-based law firm Littler Mendelson released this month. And 51% of employers updated human resources policies and handbooks this year, an increase from 38% in 2018.
“I don’t want to live in a world where men and women can’t be kind and loving to one another,” Dudley says, “but I certainly don’t want to live in a world where women are marginalized and victimized by their male co-workers.”