February 12, 2018

Look Out for a #MeToo Backlash

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:

Imagine that, after decades and generations of legitimate complaints relating to sexual harassment and abuse being played down and dismissed, they were — finally — being taken seriously. In the worlds of business, politics, and entertainment, powerful men are being forced out, as each day brings a new series of allegations and a new group of accusers being treated as credible. And imagine, on the heels of that historic breakthrough, instead of a public sphere of greater respect and inclusion, you have a public sphere where the remaining powerful men are simply afraid to engage and interact with women. In that setting, women continue to be the target — not of harassment, but of ostracism and limited opportunities. And “#MeToo” becomes “#MeAgain.”

Based on a recent survey, that might be exactly what is happening. This year, LeanIn.org and SurveyMonkey partnered on research on “#MeToo” experiences and found that a surprisingly high proportion of men in the workplace are responding to the perceived increase in successful complaints by distancing themselves from female colleagues. Could that be playing out in the law as well? Anecdotally, yes. An associate of mine shared a story last week about judging a law school mock trial competition, and when it came time to greet the competitors, one senior male attorney judging the event quipped to a female student, “I won’t shake your hand because I don’t want a sexual harassment lawsuit against me.” I doubt that level of defensive insensitivity is common, but to the extent increasing awareness and increasingly effective response to sexual harassment issues is prompting a backlash at all, that is important to lawyers at two levels. First, for those who advise companies’ leadership teams and human resource departments, it should serve as a warning to not allow legitimate issues to serve as an excuse for illegitimate discrimination. Second, for the law firm, it’s a reminder to continue mentoring young women in the firm in order to move toward greater gender equality among partners, litigators, and firm leaders.

The Survey

In two surveys, the researchers polled a total of nearly 9,000 participants in January and February of this year. The data were weighted for age, race, sex, education, and geography. 

LeanIn’s highlights are as follows:

  • Almost half of male managers are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together.
  • Almost 30 percent of male managers are uncomfortable working alone with a woman—more than twice as many as measured previously by the same source.
  • The number of male managers who are uncomfortable mentoring women has more than tripled from 5% to 16%. This means that 1 in 6 male managers may now hesitate to mentor a woman.
  • Senior men are 3.5 times more likely to hesitate to have a work dinner with a junior-level woman than with a junior-level man—and 5 times more likely to hesitate to travel for work with a junior-level woman.

Rachel Thomas, President of LeanIn.Org. said, “That means women are getting less valuable interaction with senior leaders.”

The Implications: Companies

It would be a fulfillment of the law of unintended consequences if women’s success in pushing for greater accountability and safety led men to fearfully isolate themselves from women in a business context, leading to fewer opportunities for engagement and mentorship. Fox News analyst Brit Hume recently tweeted: “[Vice President] Mike Pence’s policy of avoiding being alone with women other than his wife is looking better every day,” and the survey results seem to confirm that this view is not an anomaly.

In a recent Forbes article, Facebook Chief Operating Officer and LeanIn.Org founder Sheryl Sandberg explained that men’s increasing unwillingness to mentor their female colleagues “undoubtedly will decrease the opportunities women have at work,” adding “The last thing women need right now is even more isolation. Men vastly outnumber women as managers and senior leaders, so when they avoid, ice out, or exclude women, we pay the price.”

In response, she initiated a companion movement to “#MeToo” earlier this month hash-tagged, “#MentorHer,” encouraging male leaders in business and other fields to step up and commit to mentoring women, especially those who are younger and newer to the job. Ideally, of course, women should be as likely to be mentors as to need mentors, but in the reality of workplaces and levels of leadership that are male dominated, that mentorship will often need to come from men. Based on research showing that women with mentors are far more likely to persist and succeed, companies generally would be well advised to embrace the “#MentorHer” movement.

The Implications: Law Firms

Women in law firms aren’t immune to the challenges faced by women in other settings and professions. In fact, in some ways the challenges are greater. Based on a recent McKinsey & Company research study (2017), women in law firms face a wider gender gap than in other professions. Specifically, only 19 percent of the equity partners in America’s law firms are women, and female associates are 29 percent less likely than men to reach the first level of partnership. Just a quarter of the executive leadership positions in law firms are held by women. Women of color face even greater rates of attrition, and comprise just three percent of equity partners.

Based on this research, females in law firms experience about the same rate of attrition as male attorneys until they get to the point of partnership, then it drops off dramatically. While there is some debate over the reasons for that, it stands to reason that at least one factor would be critical to associates making that jump: a mentor. If the legal profession is going to move toward greater parity, the willingness of experienced attorneys to mentor female attorneys needs to be greater not lesser. So the males in that privileged and powerful position need to show that willingness and commit to #MentorHer.

And, as always, for anyone with a fear of a harassment claim: Don’t harass.

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Other Posts on Gender and Harassment: 

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Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license
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