One of my first jobs out of college had me assisting a publisher who frequently shared sensitive company information with me as I drafted memos and reports, which meant we often had to close the door to his office. He’d dictate what he needed to, and we’d move on with our day. Occasionally we’d do it over lunch. I never once felt uncomfortable and I’m pretty sure he didn’t either. Because I was good at my job, the publisher eventually promoted me.
This was almost two decades ago and much has changed for women—and men—at work. The most pervasive shift, of course, has been spurred by the #MeToo movement, which not only has managed to hold power-abusing men accountable for their actions but has also changed the norms so many women have silently faced in workplaces that range from farming to fashion.
But with any movement—especially one that exists to empower women—there has been a backlash and one particular facet is the idea that #MeToo has scared some men away from interacting with junior-level female colleagues.
According to new research released today by LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey, 60 percent of male managers say they’re uncomfortable participating in common workplace activities with a woman—a 32 percent increase from research done last year on the topic. The data found that senior-level men are 12 times more likely to hesitate before having one-on-one meetings, nine times more likely to hesitate to travel with a junior woman for business, and six times more likely to hesitate to go to a work dinner with a junior woman. Thirty-six percent of men also say they’ve avoided mentoring or socializing with a female co-worker because they were nervous about how it might look.
The problem: Most managers are male and their fear is prohibiting women from proving themselves and moving up at work.
“I don’t know of anyone who’s been promoted who hasn’t had one-on-one conversations [with a superior]” LeanIn.org founder and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg told me by phone. “Women need that one-on-one time to get the mentorship and sponsorship they need to succeed.”
Sandberg knows this well. “[Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg and I spend an enormous amount of time together and we spend an enormous amount of time one-on-one,” she said. “That one-on-one time has been where he’s given me the feedback that helps me do my job, [has] told me what I need to do better, [and] I’ve been able to give him feedback. That is not happening in a group setting.”
Sandberg also said her first meeting of the week Monday morning and the last meeting of the week [on] Friday afternoon is with Zuckerberg and nobody else. “That is our partnership and without that, I don’t know where we’d be.”
As far as a solution goes, LeanIn.Org is encouraging men to do more to actively support women at work, from increasing amounts of informal one-on-one time to participating in more official initiatives like sponsorships and mentoring—something Sandberg thinks will benefit men just as much as women.
“[It isn’t] just the right thing to do to mentor and sponsor women It’s actually a good thing to do for your career [as a man] because if you’re the most senior CEO or most junior person, if you can work better with half the population, you are going to outperform.”
Being more or less invisible to a male superior is better than being uncomfortable, right? In theory, sure, but considering the vast majority of managers and leaders are men across most fields, the fact that women aren’t getting the attention they need to succeed because men are afraid isn’t doing anyone any favors, “Ultimately, this is about closing the gender gap at work, from the entry-level all the way to the top,” said Rachel Thomas, president of LeanIn.Org, in a statement. “When companies employ more women, sexual harassment is less prevalent. And when women hold more leadership roles, company profits are higher and workplace policies are more generous. Supporting women makes companies stronger and safer. To get there, we need men to be part of the solution.”