Women in the workplace have been making collective strides toward a business environment that includes, empowers and respects them following the #MeToo campaign. More women than ever before feel safe reporting the harassment they've faced in the workplace. As a result, perpetrators of sexual harassment are being fired in droves — and women are replacing them.
A Morning Consult poll found that nearly two-thirds of both men and women agree that workplace employees should be taking extra caution around the opposite sex in the office, and another quarter think that private work-related meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are downright inappropriate. Another survey from the Center for Talent Innovation suggests that some may not know how to navigate solo interactions. As such, 64 percent of senior men and 50 percent of junior women just avoid alone time with people of the opposite sex at work.
But research suggests that women would benefit from professional private conversations with senior staff, many (if not most) of whom will be men who might serve as advocates and mentors for their male subordinates. If senior male employees refuse to interact with women one on one, and senior leaders inherently lack trust in women's integrity or ability to tell the truth, these precautions could run the risk of hurting women's progression in the workplace. After all, research shows that both being a team playing and establishing genuine rapport with senior staff are two of the perhaps most important contributors to career advancement. Specifically, women with sponsors—who can provide valuable feedback that women statistically receive less than men—are more likely to receive challenging assignments and earn raises, according to a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy.
We spoke to men who avoid women in the workplace to understand why they avoid interacting with women at work, despite the harm it does to ensuring gender equality in the workplace.
"My business partner (also male) and I are very careful when we have one-on-one discussions with our female employees," says Matthew Ross, the co-owner and COO of RIZKNOWS and The Slumber Yard, which operate multiple internet properties, including popular websites, YouTube channels and a mobile application. "Obviously, we try to be cordial and courteous to all employees, male or female, but we also acknowledge the current social environment we live in. We typically always leave the door open and make sure we are in view of other employees. We want to make sure none of our words or actions can be misconstrued later. We've also taken other steps, as well. We recently purchased EPLI insurance to protect ourselves and our company from lawsuits pertaining to wrongful termination, discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation."
Ross adds that, to be clear, his my business partner and he do not partake in or condone prejudicial actions towards female employees. Rather, he says that they take these steps "to be extra careful given the contentious environment in the United States right now."
Men at all levels reported feeling concerned about misunderstandings, accusations, rumors or more that could jeopardize their careers.
"I try to avoid being alone with women at my work because of everything that's happened recently — I don't want my words or actions to be taken for something they're not," says Erjan, an information security analyst. "I wouldn't say I avoid women. But I don't feel comfortable being in a situation when no one else is around. If I need to talk with a female colleague one on one, I'll just grab a meeting room, and since they all have glass walls, it helps. If one of those rooms isn't available, perhaps we grab lunch somewhere in a public place where we can still talk and hear each other."
"I own a small business-to-business advertising agency where we strive to treat all employees with equal respect — but we do make sure that we're careful in what we say and how we act, especially to and around women in the workplace," says the owner. "That said, since we don't have so many one-on-one conversations with women in private settings, we also don't have these conversations with men in the same settings. Because our team is very gender balanced, we really have pretty mixed meetings. We try to treat everyone equally and hold everyone to the same standards. But, of course, there's always room to improve."
While these policies are often intended to respond to the #MeToo movement in a positive way, men must consider what impact their actions — or inactions — have on women's careers and consider why they have anxieties around false reporting, which is incredibly rare. Understanding biases around our understanding of sexual assault is a strong next step in embracing #MeToo.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.