Men attending the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year were worried about a lot of things. A global economic slowdown. Threats to cybersecurity. Populism. War.
And, several acknowledged at the meeting this past week, mentoring women in the #MeToo era.
“I now think twice about spending one-on-one time with a young female colleague,” said one American finance executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the issue is “just too sensitive.”
In one unintended consequence of the #MeToo movement, executives and analysts say, companies seeking to minimize the risk of sexual harassment or misconduct appear to be simply minimizing contact between female employees and senior male executives, effectively depriving the women of valuable mentorship and exposure.
“Basically, #MeToo has become a risk-management issue for men,” said Laura Liswood, secretary-general of the Council of Women World Leaders.
Last February, two online surveys by Lean In and SurveyMonkey on the effects of #MeToo in the workplace found that almost half of male managers were uncomfortable engaging in one or more common work activities with women, such as working one on one or socializing. One in 6 male managers was uncomfortable mentoring a female colleague, according to the studies, which together surveyed nearly 9,000 adults employed in the United States.
Pat Milligan, who leads research on female leadership at consulting firm Mercer and advises multinational companies on gender and diversity issues, said many of her clients had voiced concerns over saying or doing “the wrong thing” since #MeToo drew broad international attention.
The main focus now, she said, is education. When male executives tell her that they are considering deliberately avoiding women, she tells them bluntly that would be illegal. “Just replace the word ‘woman’ with any minority,” she said. “Yes, you have to talk about the right kind of behaviour, but you can’t stop interacting with women.”
Not everyone is convinced that men have altered their behaviour all that much in the #MeToo era. Stephanie Ruhle, a banker-turned-television anchor, pointed out in a Davos panel that men on Wall Street had never really gone out of their way to promote women before #MeToo, either.
“Could this be an excuse?” she said.