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18 Months Into Me Too, Male Bosses Are Afraid To Meet With Female Employees


In October, two years will have passed since Harvey Weinstein’s downfall broke the Me Too dam, inviting a surge of revelations about powerful men—some overdue, others undue—into the media spotlight. By the time one website’s brunch aficionados got around to Aziz Ansari in January 2018, the waters had already started to muddy, and public perception of the movement’s value started to shift. There was concern about the standards for purging accused men from public life, but also about Me Too’s effects on daily workplace dynamics. Eighteen months into the Me Too era, new evidence suggests those fears were warranted.

A recent poll commissioned by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization found some men are increasingly struggling to interact with women in professional settings. Here are a few key bullets pulled from Lean In’s report on the study, which was conducted by Survey Monkey earlier this year:

60% of managers who are men are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together. That’s a 32% jump from a year ago.

Senior-level men are now far more hesitant to spend time with junior women than junior men across a range of basic work activities. They are:

  • 12x more likely to hesitate to have 1-on-1 meetings
  • 9x more likely to hesitate to travel together for work
  • 6x more likely to hesitate to have work dinners

As for why this is happening, 36% of men say they’ve avoided mentoring or socializing with a woman because they were nervous about how it would look.

That Survey Monkey found a “32% jump” in male managers who were “uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman” over one year is striking, especially since it came during a period in which the Me Too dust had started to settle. If accurate, the survey’s findings suggest women are already losing out on opportunities after Me Too, and in a wide variety of ways.

To the extent Me Too induced these particular struggles—confusion over co-ed business meals and mentorship and meetings and travel—it’s possible this was always inevitable as a growing pain of women joining the workforce in large numbers, which seems old to twentysomethings like myself, but actually happened over the course of our mothers’ lifetimes. If that’s what it is, we need to make the most of the moment. Lean In’s findings indicate that’s not at all what’s happening.

Interestingly, the numbers excerpted above were found among senior-level men and male managers. In other words, leaders are experiencing discomfort and hesitation about interacting with their female colleagues. Nobody seems to know what the boundaries are or should be post-Me Too. It seems in practice they’ve already narrowed, but whether they’ve narrowed too far is another question. I certainly don’t have the answer.

For her part, Sandberg’s prescription is “Group lunches for everyone. “If there’s a man out there who doesn’t want to have a work dinner with a woman, my message is simple: Don’t have one with a man. Group lunches for everyone. Make it explicit, make it thoughtful, make it equal,” she told CBS. “Men need to step up. We need to redefine what it means to be a good guy at work. It’s not enough to not harass, and I think too many people think that’s sufficient. That’s necessary, that’s a basic, but it’s not sufficient.”

Oddly enough, “group lunches for everyone” might be an idea Vice President Mike Pence could get behind. Indeed, there’s a fair debate as to whether a total elimination of one-on-one interactions would ultimately help or hurt women. That cost-benefit analysis has not yet been settled.

It would be silly to expect a movement with so much gray area to immediately produce black and white answers. Yet workers obviously need better guidance, and some moral clarity would help. Unfortunately, moral clarity is especially hard to come by in this era of sexual confusion. Perhaps that’s always been the problem.