'I now think twice about spending one-on-one time with a young female colleague'

The #MeToo backlash is not an excuse for male execs to hide behind

#Metoo backlash: Men and women have never been equal at work. Stock Photograph: Getty

#Metoo backlash: Men and women have never been equal at work. Stock Photograph: Getty

 

The executives at Davos, the global gathering that is the equivalent of the Burning Man festival for stinkingly rich Masters of the Universe, are worried.

They’re worried about a global economic slowdown, threats to cybersecurity, war and populism. And the men at the world’s biggest manel-fest are also worried about “spending one-on-one time with a younger female colleague.”

“I now think twice about spending one-on-one time with a young female colleague,” said one American finance executive to the New York Times.“Me, too,” said another man, apparently with his tongue nowhere near the vicinity of his cheek.

Several studies have already hinted at this trend. Last years, surveys by LeanIn and Survey Monkey cumulatively assessed the views of over 9,000 adults in the US, and found that, in total, one in six male managers was uncomfortable mentoring a female colleague.

Bloomberg reported last year on the proliferation of the so-called Pence Effect , named after the US vice president Mike Pence, who has declared that he refuses to dine in the exclusive company of any woman who is not his wife. A wealth adviser quoted anonymously in the article said “just hiring a woman these days is ‘an unknown risk.’” 

The New York Times calls this “one unintended consequence of the #MeToo movement”, saying “companies seeking to minimise the risk of sexual harassment or misconduct appear to be simply minimising contact between female employees and senior male executives, effectively depriving the women of valuable mentorship and exposure.”

But is it really an unintended consequence? Or is it merely another convenient excuse?

The thing about workplace mentoring is that it isn’t supposed to happen in hotel suites among people wearing Weinstein-approved bathrobes. It isn’t supposed to happen in lapdancing clubs or late night bars. It isn’t supposed to happen, even, over cosy dinners for two. Where it is supposed to happen is in the workplace: in meeting rooms, over coffee in the office canteen, or maybe over lunch in the sandwich place across the street – professional settings with very little scope for boundaries to be crossed, or signals to be misread.

When it breaks out of the confines of the meeting room or business-focused restaurant and moves to other venues – bars late at night, say, or the golf course or sporting events – the most significant risk is not that well-meaning men will end up unfairly accused of harassment. It is that women will go on being excluded.

I’m willing to bet that the number of #MeToo cases where harassment allegations arose out of the relationship between a mentor and ‘mentee’ are much lower than the number of scaremongering headlines written about the prospect.

#Metoo backlash: Is it really an unintended consequence? Or is it merely another convenient excuse? Stock Photograph: H. Armstrong Roberts /GettyPhoto
#Metoo backlash: Is it really an unintended consequence? Or is it merely another convenient excuse? Stock Photograph: H. Armstrong Roberts /GettyPhoto

Powerful men saying they won’t interact with women on the grounds that they’re worried about being falsely accused isn’t just insulting to women, and to the vast majority of decent men, who have no concerns about having a meeting alone with a female colleague, and no intention of harassing her, either.

It is discriminatory. It is another way of holding women back in their ambitions. The reality is that women cannot be mentored only by other women, because there simply aren’t enough women in leadership roles.

Anyway, you can take a bow, Mike Pence. The data suggests the Pence Effect is already having the desired effect. The New York Times points out that the World Economic Fortune has increased its prediction for how long it would take for women to achieve gender parity in the workplace by over fifty years. In 2016, it estimated we were 170 years away from full equality at work. Last year, it raised that figure to 202 years.

It’s not as though men in positions of power were so determined to help women in the workplace before the #MeToo movement came along. It’s not as though the gaping chasm between where men and women stand in the workplace only arose in the year or so since the first high profile allegations of harassment broke.

Here, “Irish women work fewer hours, earn less money and are inadequately represented in business, the Oireachtas and in local and regional authorities” than their male colleagues, a report on the EU and Irish women shows. In 2016, Irish women made up just 13.2 per cent of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in Ireland, well below the lamentably-low EU average of 21.2 per cent.

Men and women have never been equal at work, and society has been looking for reasons to make it their own fault for decades. Women are too soft to cope with the cut and thrust of the boardroom. Women aren’t suited to the serious business of running companies. Women are too smart to bother being ambitious. Women are designed to work in caring professions. Women are happier at home with their children. Children need their mothers. Husbands need their wives. It’s just biology. It’s just life. We’ve heard it all. And now the gender gap deniers have another way of making the inequality of opportunity our own fault.

The so-called #MeToo backlash is not the reason women are lagging behind in positions of power and influence at work. But it’s a very handy excuse.

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