Another Side of #MeToo: Male Managers Fearful of Mentoring Women

By Katrin Bennhold

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For years, all-male panels at Davos were a common sight, and the proportion of female participants has only marginally increased in recent years, reaching 22 percent this January.CreditCreditGian Ehrenzeller/EPA, via Shutterstock

DAVOS, Switzerland — 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.”

“Me, too,” said another man in the conversation.

The #MeToo movement, which burst into the spotlight in the fall of 2017, bringing down powerful figures in Hollywood, the media, politics, sports and more, continues to reverberate 15 months later. It has empowered women to speak up about harassment in the workplace and forced companies to take the issue more seriously. More than 200 prominent men have lost their jobs, and nearly half of them were succeeded by women.

But in one unintended consequence, 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, an organization for former and current female political leaders.

It’s a problem many have acknowledged. 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 six 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 the 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.

“A number of men have told me that they will avoid going to dinner with a female mentee, or that they’re concerned about deploying a woman solo on-site with a male,” Ms. Milligan said. “People are concerned and have questions.”

“If we allow this to happen, it will set us back decades,” Ms. Milligan said. “Women have to be sponsored by leaders, and leaders are still mostly men.”

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 behavior, but you can’t stop interacting with women.”

Such hesitance among male managers, while intensifying in the #MeToo era, has long been an issue. Research by the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett found that two-thirds of male executives hesitated to hold one-on-one meetings with women in more junior positions, for fear they could be misconstrued. Vice President Mike Pence has said that he never dines alone with a woman other than his wife, a maxim that has become widely known as the Pence Rule.

Beyond the mentorship issue, some indicators of gender equality are slipping, though it is hard to establish any link with #MeToo.

In its December report examining educational opportunities, life expectancy, pay equity and other factors, the World Economic Forum predicted that it would take 202 years for gender parity to be reached in the workplace. That is significantly more than the estimate of 170 years in 2016.

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Vice President Mike Pence has said he never dines alone with a woman other than his wife, a maxim that has become widely known as the Pence Rule.CreditAlex Wong/Getty Images

Of the Fortune 500 companies, just 24 had female chief executives in 2018, down from 32 a year earlier. While the number of female heads of government has more than doubled since 2000, they still make up just six percent, according to data from the United Nations.

“Gender fatigue,” Ms. Milligan said, noting that the #MeToo movement had come after an intense decade of raising awareness on gender imbalances.

“The business case for women had been made,” Ms. Milligan said. “We were rocking it. And then #MeToo happened.”

One challenge is to assess the risk of sexual harassment in a company and to identify men who make women uncomfortable — or worse, harass them. Traditional tools like employee surveys are not effective, said Ms. Milligan, who recommends technological tools that allow for real-time and anonymous chats.

Once companies have identified those who make women uncomfortable, they have to assess whether the men are “clueless, creepy or criminal,” Ms. Milligan said.

“If you think they are clueless, you can coach them,” she said. “Clueless can become creepy very quickly if you don’t address it.”

“If they are creepy, you have to act,” she added.

Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer of Procter & Gamble, said it was important to show zero tolerance to bad behavior of any kind.

“It’s not enough to stand by when toxic masculinity is on display,” he said. “It’s not enough to stand by and say ‘that’s not me.’ You need to be a role model for the next generation.”

But men also need “safe spaces” to air their confusion and concerns about what behavior might qualify as bad, he said. “We need something like Lean In circles for men,” he said, referring to the movement inspired by the Sheryl Sandberg book to empower women in the workplace and beyond.

Shelley Zalis of the Female Quotient, a company dedicated to achieving workplace equality, spoke of a climate of “microsensitivity.”

“I tell women, before you take offense, make men aware that you are uncomfortable, as it may not be intentional,” she said. “Women and men must work together to write a new script for what’s O.K. in the workplace so we all feel safe.”

Otherwise, she said, men may avoid women more, making the path to senior leadership positions even trickier.

Not everyone is convinced that men have altered their behavior all that much in the #MeToo era. Stephanie Ruhle, a banker-turned-television anchor, pointed out in a Davos panel titled the Future of Masculinity 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.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Citing #MeToo, Davos Elites Express Fears About Mentoring Women. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe