From recent Bloomberg and New York Time articles, to Tiffany Dufu’s MSNBC interview (shared right here on LinkedIn), to an email I just received from my sons’ school – subject title: “Raising Kids in the #MeToo era” – it looks like the #MeToo movement continues to gain traction, and that’s a good thing… or is it?
On the one hand, it’s heartening to see we’re still talking about harassment, appropriate behavior and the importance of speaking up even when you feel all alone; movements like these tend to come and go like shoe trends. On the other hand, an all too predictable reactive backlash doesn’t bode well for male-female relationships in the workplace.
When the #MeToo hashtag started gaining traction, I’ll admit I was skeptical it would be anything but a social media fad. Yet, story after story supported the momentum of those two words taking #MeToo beyond viral hashtag and building a real movement with action, consequences, and change.
What was at the core of this shift? The challenging of a powerful filter and the empowerment of women!
- #MeToo helped us realize how culture and systems made us accept unacceptable behaviors. From crass comments to groping, leering strangers to ambiguously uncomfortable engagements with male supervisors and superiors, women (myself included) have historically accepted and resiliently pushed through the myriad of distressing interactions that pepper our interactions with men.
- #MeToo helped us realize that we insulted males everywhere by assuming these behaviors were a natural part of being a man. This assumption is embodied in our willingness as a society to dismiss those who misbehaved with statements like: “that’s the way it’s always been, this is what guys do.”
- #MeToo allowed women all around the world to reframe their experience. We shifted from feeling alone, isolated and vulnerable, to fully recognizing the universality of these experiences. The fact is every woman can share multiple experiences of sexual harassment (it goes WAY beyond bad pick-up lines and “innocent” compliments declared by admiring strangers). This very specifically allows us to challenge one of the more damaging and isolating filters we have, the “It’s Only Me” filter. “It’s Only Me” isn’t just expressed in our unwillingness to speak up when we’re harassed, it shows up when we have ideas, feelings, or reactions that run contrary to our peers. It keeps us from sharing our thoughts and value and holds us back from standing out, stepping up and being as successful as we can.
#MeToo has made it possible for women to speak up, to share our stories with other women and men. It has given us a chance to work together and build a more honest and trusting relationship… or at least that’s what it could do for us.
When individuals and companies, don’t deal with the real issue, and instead segregate and perpetuate the ‘us vs. them’ culture who will suffer?
As is the case with anything this polarizing, there’s a variety of responses one can expect: the positive kind, outlined in the last paragraph, and the less positive kind. With #MeToo we’ve seen this less positive response expressed as concerns that men are under attack; the victims of a witch hunt*, at risk at any moment of being accused of improprieties they have not been party to. It shows up in fears voiced by mothers of boys who seem worried that their sons will be powerless to avoid being blamed of harassment (I have two sons, I have no such worries). And apparently, it is showing up in some men’s and some corporations’ efforts to minimize inter-gender professional contact.
In plain speak, many men are making efforts to reduce non-public contact with female peers or employees. Closed door supervisions, mentoring, business trips (5x more men won’t travel with women), and the proverbial coffee or lunch meeting are being avoided at all costs. “Companies [are] minimizing contact between female employees and male executives,” thus reducing opportunities for mentorship, leadership training and an essential exchange of ideas and value. This is a huge issue.
This reactive response could be called irrational, too emotional, and excessive, but more than anything else it is problematic. When men perceive women’s willingness to speak up about harassment as a threat to their own safety, when they confuse the volume of #MeToo stories for a witch hunt, rather than a simple unveiling of the problem, they get scared and fight or flight takes hold. When individuals and companies, don’t deal with the real issue, and instead segregate and perpetuate the ‘us vs. them’ culture who will suffer?
“Companies should be concerned that they are either dealing with or perpetuating rampant mistrust among their employees.”
At first glance, it’s women who, yet again, will bear the brunt of this. Speak up, minimize harassment but also minimize mentorship, leadership opportunities, and the ability to collaborate closely with male colleagues. Or leave things as they are, reclaim those opportunities, but ignore the improprieties of some men, what’s stranger’s hand on the lowest part of the small of your back as compared to the opportunity for advancement?
The reality is everyone suffers. I’m not going to rehash the data already out there on the positive impact of gender diversity (with inclusion) and females leadership for businesses. Less contact, means less exchange of ideas. It means less creativity, innovation, and effectiveness within and across teams. It also means less female leadership and apparently, that means lower profit margins. Not to mention that denying mentorship, undermining #inclusion and collaboration will not only hold women back, it will also drive them away from your business.
The solution is certainly not to stop talking about #MeToo, but it is clear that there needs to be more education around this issue. I understand that men aren’t sure anymore what will or will not get them in trouble (beyond the most obvious harassment). Staying away from women won’t get them any closer to figuring that out. Furthermore, companies should be concerned that they are either dealing with or perpetuating rampant mistrust among their employees. Inherent in the belief that any random innocent male could be falsely accused by a woman of sexual impropriety is the assumption that their female colleagues are malevolent, have poor judgment, are unable to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate boundaries, and are fundamentally untrustworthy.
This seems to be a huge issue companies will need to address if they, in fact, hope to foster positive work environments, encourage a dynamic and innovative exchange of ideas, and build effective and profitable teams. For forward-thinking companies that actually want to get the best from their talent, the first step is to bridge the gap. They can do this by fostering open, honest, and filter-free communication between the men and women. This will require teaching the women on your team how to speak up, filter-free and fear-free, and helping men likewise speak up, but more importantly listen filter-free.
More contact, more communication, more close collaboration, not less is the answer.
Is your company striving to create a workplace where men and women can come together, collaborate and thrive? Do your teams struggle with how to communicate and connect on these harder issues? Do women who work for you feel empowered to share their value and thrive?
As a psychologist, coach and speaker I can help you bridge the gap, one conversation at a time. Contact me to build better communication, better teams, and a better bottom line.
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