Some male managers have reportedly responded to the #MeToo movement by limiting their interaction with female colleagues, but employment attorneys say that's unwise because it robs women of opportunities and may itself constitute gender discrimination.
The experts told Law360 that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest at least some male executives are reacting to the spotlight placed on sexual misconduct in the workplace by trying to avoid interacting with female co-workers, both peers and subordinates. They also pointed to several recent reports that back up the trend.
The Society for Human Resource Management conducted a survey last year that found one-third of the executives polled had changed their behavior in the wake of the #MeToo movement to a "moderate to very great" extent. Some respondents indicated in written responses that they “don’t talk to women,” and others said that mentorship programs had been changed to eliminate “senior-junior work teams of only two individuals,” according to the survey.
Outten & Golden LLP partner Lori Deem, who co-leads the plaintiffs firm’s sex discrimination and sexual harassment practice, referenced a separate survey of workplace sexual harassment that was conducted last year by Working Mother Research Institute and the ABA Journal that found 56 percent of men believed that a heightened perception of improper behavior may surround one-on-one mentoring and sponsorship relationships.
“I took that as a really high percentage and it sort of alarmed me because that’s more than anecdotal,” Deem said. “Even though they’re not saying they’ve done it — marginalizing women or changing their working relationships —it’s clear they’re apprehensive about it. If the apprehension is that widespread, then it only stands to reason that the incidents of potential exclusion and marginalization are more than anecdotal.”
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Mentorship Programs in Peril
Where the negative impact of managers purposely limiting their interactions with women is likely to be most acute is in companies’ mentorship and sponsorship programs. Since the leadership ranks across many industries are still primarily dominated by men, any limits they place on their contact with women will deprive women of the chance to learn and to bolster their resumes for eventual promotions, attorneys said.
“I think where it crosses the line is depriving her of mentorship or sponsorship opportunities,” Deem said. “That could cross the line, particularly if that prevents her from promoting beyond where she already is, alters her continuing trajectory.”
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In addition to blocking individual women from the mentorship opportunities that can help advance their careers, Deem said that the process of diversifying leadership ranks will also be slowed the more women are excluded from access to mentors or networking opportunities.
“It’s certainly I think going to stunt leadership growth because one of the ways you get to be a leader is by spending time modeling, shadowing and being mentored by a leader,” Deem said. “And so, until the leadership structure changes to be more reflective of diversity and inclusion goals, and women are more fairly represented at the leadership ranks, cutting them off from these interactions and social engagements and these opportunities is going to compound the problem of not having representation at the top.”
‘Catch-22’ for Workers
For women caught in a situation where their bosses are essentially shunning them, it can be a tricky to address the problem without risking negative consequences or playing into the stereotype that they are prone to lodging complaints, according to Deem.
Workers' best bet in those situations is to be clear with the manager that they are seeking interaction as a learning opportunity and attempt to plant the relationship firmly on a professional footing.
“It’s a terrible Catch-22 for women I think because you don’t want to be labeled as hyper-sensitive … But on the other hand, what do you do? What’s a practical solution for this problem?” Deem said. “The best advice I can give is to be direct with the person you’re seeking the access with that you’re seeking the access for a professional reason.”
From employers’ point of view, while it can be difficult to suss out when a manager decides on his own that he no longer wants to have any substantive interactions with female colleagues, it’s something they should actively be looking for.
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Need for Adequate Training
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Employers should also be considering ways to check if any managers are improperly shunning women or any people of color, such as asking for feedback from employees about which superiors are helping them develop and then keeping an eye out for problematic patterns.
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