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Here’s What We Can Do About Men Who Don’t Want to Mentor Women in the Era of #MeToo

Convincing them that their fears of false accusations are unrealistic requires a perfect storm of empathy, bribery and — silly as it may sound — a ‘safe space’ to discuss their fears openly

Earlier this year, Lean In, a women’s empowerment nonprofit organization, conducted a survey on the state of working relationships in the #MeToo Era. The main takeaway from their findings: Nearly 60 percent (32 percent higher than last year) of male managers aren’t interested in participating in common work activities with a woman if they can’t pepper their professional guidance with at least a suggestive (but professional) graze of the shoulder, or unsolicited lament as to why their wife no longer wants to fuck them. 

Okay, fine, that wasn’t the exact verbiage used to describe the survey’s findings, which stated that “60 percent of managers who are men are uncomfortable participating in mentoring, working alone or socializing with a woman,” of which 36 said they were “nervous about how it would look,” per the survey. 

Either way, it’s a revealing glimpse into the male psyche with regard to male-female relationships in the workplace. Primarily, the survey showed that an increasing number of “senior-level men” are hesitant about mentoring women out of fear of how this mentorship might be interpreted. The resulting practice of avoiding women in the workplace entirely, so as to never be accused of improper behavior, has been nicknamed the “Pence Effect” or “Pence Rule,” after Vice President Mike Pence, who became the subject of ridicule after he said that “he avoids any appearance of impropriety by never dining or having drinks alone with a woman other than his wife.”

But according to Richard J. Reddick, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, there is, practically speaking, no evidence to justify the Pence Rule. “You often hear about men being falsely accused of sexual harassment,” he says. “[But] the University of California, San Diego Center on Gender Equity and Health conducted a study recently that revealed that two percent of men and one percent of women had been falsely accused of sexual harassment or assault, so in fact, accusations, and particularly false ones, are exceptionally rare.” 

A commonly cited 2010 study, published in the peer-reviewed international journal Violence Against Women, likewise indicates that false reports account for two to 10 percent of all reported sexual assaults, per Pacific Standard. But when you consider the fact that most sexual assaults go unreported — up to 80 percent — that puts the number of false allegations with regard to the total number of actual sexual assaults that take place, not just those reported, somewhere between .02 and one percent.

Despite this, in interviews regarding the survey’s findings, founder of Lean In and chief operating officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, told the Washington Post, “she’s spoken to many male executives who say they have been told by their human resources department or by senior leadership ‘don’t put yourself in that position; don’t be alone with a woman.’”

She’s definitely not making false allegations on this point, either: Nearly every male manager I spoke with suggested that they, too, are more hesitant to be alone with women they work with out of fear that they’ll be accused of inappropriate behavior. “The downside is just so much greater than the upside,” one male manager at a tech startup tells me. “If I get accused of behaving inappropriately or touching someone in an inappropriate way, that’s it. I’m done.” Another claimed that he’s “not sure what even is acceptable anymore,” so he’d rather just not deal with women and “risk it.” 

Other men have pointed to the increasingly blurred lines at startups with “flat structures,” believing it makes it more likely for them to be accused of inappropriate behavior in the workplace. “This is increasingly common I’m afraid, it’s getting too ‘buddy-buddy’ and the separation of work and personal time is increasingly being broken down especially at newer companies,” writes one redditor

Sadly, it’s not a particularly surprising response. Sophie Soklaridis, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, and author of an article in the The New England Journal of Medicine on men’s fear of mentoring in the #MeToo Era and its impact on academic medicine, tells me that it’s easy to let our fears cloud what would normally be good judgement. “When we hear about things in the media about women coming out to disclose the sexual harassment that they’ve experienced, along with the exposure [of] the mostly powerful men who have been the perpetrators of this abuse, it can cause a fear reaction in some men, who then choose to withdraw or become reluctant to mentor women in a professional environment,” she says. “Some men will use things like #MeToo as a scapegoat to justify their fears of mentoring women.”

It’s an attitude that’s affecting their female colleagues in more ways than one. Samantha Rosman, a pediatric emergency physician, told MedPage Today that after she publicly shared her own account of being sexually harassed, some of her male colleagues joked that they couldn’t give her a hug anymore. “She viewed their comments as a ‘fear tactic,’” writes Shannon Firth. “These men tried to ‘minimize the seriousness of the situation’ by implying that women are simply ‘misinterpreting friendly behavior,’ Rosman said.”

In terms of how it impacts women’s careers, “I know men on Wall Street who will no longer meet alone either in the office or out with a woman,” says Karen Finerman, CEO of Metropolitan Capital Advisors and a panelist on CNBC’s Fast Money. “[There is] a lost opportunity for women to advance in the workplace that can be achieved with the backing of a strong mentor. For women that enter fields that are primarily male dominated like Wall Street, this is particularly problematic.”

Mentorships are often the only way for women to gain access to historically male-dominated networks in many industries, says David M. Mayer, a professor in the management and organizations area at the University of Michigan. “Generally, it’s not a deliberate attempt to keep women out, but men tend to hang out with people that are similar to them,” he says. “I think gender and race are big factors that influence who gets mentored. Ultimately, that can have really negative effects for women. If you just look at the representation of higher levels of management, on average, it tends to be more male, and so that’s important.”

Interestingly, Mayer adds that research shows men, especially white men, are the least likely demographic to face any backlash if they advocate for diversity. In other words, not only are white men so often in the positions that can most help women succeed in their careers, but when they do, it’s virtually no sweat off their backs. “Whereas a woman or an ethnic minority speaks up and says why it’s important to have a diversity initiative, they’re more likely to face some level of backlash from people in the organization,” he says. “So in a lot of ways, white men are in a really good position to get to advocate for women without facing that backlash. They’re most likely to be in the highest level position and have access to the highest networks. Yet even though they’re least likely to face backlash for [mentoring women], we’re seeing them have some fear around that type of mentoring.”

To that end, Mayer stresses that men’s fears around being accused of inappropriate workplace behavior just aren’t realistic. “The dialogue and the media frenzy around this conversation has made things worse for men to believe in the bias and the hysteria,” he says. “False allegations are very rare, and yet, they’re heightened [because of] the way that the media works. I think the risk is very much exaggerated.” That said, he’s reluctant to dismiss men’s fears altogether. “Is it valid? There’s no use in telling someone their feeling is not valid, right? I wouldn’t do that,” he says. “I think part of the fear, too, is there’s not much worse than to be called sexist, maybe racist. The penalties are really severe now, or they potentially are. And I think those are the things that are driving that fear.”

Mayer believes that it’s up to higher levels of leadership in organizations, male or female, to take a stronger stance on this issue. “To say that this is an expectation of our leaders, that we make sure that we’re mentoring — and mentoring not just people who look like us,” he says. “So when you evaluate managers, part of it is: Are you helping to develop the next line of leaders that’s going to lead the organization? And that needs to include a diverse [mix of] people. [These should be] things that get rewarded — then it’s not just the words of higher levels of management, it’s followed with actual implications for your own advancement, [so] it seems more valid or it’s taken more seriously.”

Another way to mitigate men’s fears around male-female mentorship, according to Soklaridis, begins with men being much more reflective about issues of power, equity, privilege and diversity. “I think men who understand that we don’t live in a meritocracy and that gender bias exists is a start,” she says. “I think reading about what women have experienced in the workplace would help men understand more about systemic gender biases that exist. We still have pay gaps between men and women. Women still don’t get promoted at the same rate as men. Women aren’t afforded the same advantages as men at the workplace. I would say to men who are worried, you don’t have anything to worry about if you become an ally and help us right some of these wrongs.”

Mayer believes that it could be more powerful for men to hear directly from women they work with exactly how their actions can be interpreted as inappropriate, or to a greater extent, harassment. “Women shouldn’t have to do this, but it would be helpful to have some type of a forum where women are able to speak up and say, assuming the best intentions of all the men in the room, ‘Here are some types of things that have happened to me that, I don’t think were always intentional, but that really hurt me,’” says Mayer. “And I think that men could hear that and wouldn’t feel attacked, and could get some ideas about certain things or certain statements that they should avoid.” 

Additionally, Mayer thinks that men will need a safe venue to comfortably speak to some of their fears in order to overcome them. “We’ve talked a lot more about safe spaces for members of stigmatized groups,” he says. “It’s a tough issue now, because it’s so politically charged to say that white men need a safe space, but you need to have men in a room to talk about this issue. You could set some ground rules, but the goal would be to actually get men to say how they feel. Because now, I think [white men] are closeted, and I think they’re quiet about it.”

While Mayer admits that the idea of creating a safe space for men — let alone white men — sounds like a self-parody, it’s true that dealing with men’s unrealistic fears around false accusations will require unfamiliar amounts of self-reflection on the part of the men in question. It may take some hand-holding, the conversations around this issue are likely to get uglier, and the men participating in them are likely to get more cagey before they open up. But it has to be done — even if that means giving guys a place, without judgement, to discover amongst each other and for themselves, why a hand on the shoulder is rarely as “professional” as it seems.