Is the bigger issue a lack of trust of those who don’t “look” like us?
A month ago I had a conversation with a guy who worked for me in my corporate days. We were discussing the #MeToo movement, and he said, “I’m no longer sure where the line is drawn.” This surprised me because over the two decades I’ve known my friend he has never been anything but great to work with. When someone like him is concerned about crossing an invisible line, it scares me. To me, the #MeToo movement has started a conversation that could end up improving opportunities and working conditions for women, or hardening the glass ceiling.
Before the “you don’t know what women have gone through” mail starts, let me say I deeply understand the pain and anger that drives #MeToo. I’ve been inappropriately propositioned in a board room and at industry events more times than I can count. But what was much harder to deal with as I moved up in my career was getting a boss who really didn’t think women should run sales organizations and dealt with that by doing everything possible to destroy my credibility with his boss and my team. I won’t go into details, but I left for a job that paid twice as much and the best boss I’ve ever had.
Those experiences have taught me the primary driver of sexual harassment and discrimination often isn’t guys who see the office as a dating pool. The real driver is men who like being part of an old boys’ club and don’t really want to change. The worst in that group openly looks for ways to marginalize women, either keeping them in “acceptable” roles or creating a work environment so toxic that they leave the organization. In homogenous management teams, those bad actors often work to subtly increase bias against women with negative comments timed in ways that build subconscious consensus.
All that said, I don’t think publicly shaming men who behave badly and instilling fear in the rest of them is the best way to eliminate bias and harassment in the workplace. In fact, it works against women. We all trust the person who looks back at us in the mirror the most. And we convey assumptions of competency automatically when someone reminds us of our younger selves. We also tend to have a little bias in evaluating the competency of someone who is different from us in gender, ethnicity, race, dress, mannerisms, speech patterns or other characteristics. In short, we don’t give folks with noticeable differences quite as much benefit of the doubt as we give those who remind us of our younger selves. To achieve a truly bias-free workplace, our “evaluations” need to be made purely on skills and competencies. A predominately male environment that has folks constantly worried about saying the wrong thing to a woman on the team won’t achieve that elimination of bias.
To me the good that the #MeToo movement opens up is the conversations we can now have about the issues many career women face and start to address the subtle discrimination that really does exist in many workplaces. Case in point: In my last corporate job I was the first female corporate officer the company had ever had. They decided the best way to integrate me into the senior management team was to schedule lunches with every VP and key board members for the first two weeks I was there. The relationships I built as a result of those lunches were outstanding. I’m convinced they also eliminated a lot of potential bias that might have existed if those individuals hadn’t had one-on-one chats about the business with me. We built connections by finding common values and ideas. In male-dominated companies, up-and-coming men get those facetime opportunities, but women are sometimes excluded because an invitation for offsite socialization might be taken the wrong way. So, one good conversation to have at work might be, “Are up-and-coming women in your organization getting the same opportunities to build relationships at higher levels as their male counterparts?”
#MeToo has also firmly established there always will be lines that shouldn’t be crossed. If a colleague indicates a specific behavior bothers them, that behavior shouldn’t be repeated. If it continues, it should be reported. If it becomes obvious that someone in the office is specifically bullying or harassing a woman (or anyone), those who notice it should report it to HR or an appropriate member of management. In short, those are common sense rules that don’t need to be legislated for women only, and we should all be a little more sensitive to supporting a person who becomes the target of someone behaving badly.
On the flip side, I think women also need to ask hard questions about the impression they are trying to make. One of the points my friend made was that when a woman wears an extremely low-cut blouse, it is hard to focus on her smile. That side of the equation needs to be addressed as well. If we as women want to be treated with respect, we should dress appropriately for the jobs we perform. If a male engineer showed up with rippling muscles in a tank top and biker shorts, would you be focusing on his project or his glutes and abs? Like it or not, we all have a brand. No one owns their brand; they just influence the perception of it through their appearance, behavior and accomplishments. From that perspective, we all need to ask, “What brand image am I selling?” Yes, sex sells, but it’s time-limited. Competency sells for a lifetime.
Creating discrimination- and harassment-free workplaces takes more than a social media campaign. The best way to move forward is through discussion and focus on what unites rather than divides us. From my perspective, we are lightyears ahead of where we were in the ’80s and we need to continue to build on those accomplishments. #MeToo presents an opportunity to have a more robust discussion, but we need to think carefully about the direction that conversation ultimately takes.