Sheryl Sandberg penned an essay on Facebook this weekend with her thoughts about sexual harassment in the workplace and how to turn this “watershed moment” into positive change.
While she regurgitated some of the pervasive victim narrative, she rightly called out the chilling effect on interactions between men and (younger) women today as well as the unintended consequences to women’s career advancement when we paint all men as monsters.
As a leading woman in business and technology, the 48-year-old Lean In author and Facebook COO is looked to as a mentor to women in the workplace. Women will eat up her advice the way women took Oprah’s words as gospel in the 1990s.
What does Sandberg say about how we can use this time of reckoning to address and stop sexual harassment? First, she positions sexual harassment – like sexual assault – as an issue of power at its core. So empowering victims to speak up and for the perpetrators to be held responsible is important. She cautions though that there is reason to worry about backlash against women in the workplace:
I have already heard the rumblings of a backlash: “This is why you shouldn’t hire women.” Actually, this is why you should.
And you shouldn’t just hire women – you should mentor, advise, and promote them.
According to Sandberg data already revealed this chilling effect was in operation well before the wave of #metoo allegations this year:
Four years ago, I wrote in Lean In that 64 percent of senior male managers were afraid to be alone with a female colleague, in part because of fears of being accused of sexual harassment. The problem with this is that mentoring almost always occurs in one-on-one settings…
We can only imagine how those numbers have changed since then. The natural reaction for many men – including those who do respect women – may be to pull back on their one-on-one interactions with junior female colleagues. That is exactly what women don’t need Sandberg says:
Doing right by women in the workplace does not just mean treating them with respect. It also means not isolating or ignoring them – and making access equal. Whether that means you take all your direct reports out to dinner or none of them, the key is to give men and women equal opportunities to succeed. This is a critical moment to remind ourselves how important this is. So much good is happening to fix workplaces right now. Let’s make sure it does not have the unintended consequence of holding women back.
Sandberg is right about unintended consequences. As we’ve seen, policies intended to help women in the workforce such as paid leave mandates led to smaller paychecks and fewer opportunities, especially for younger women. For example, when we look at European countries, which have generous mandated paid leave benefits studies, we find that fewer women are in managerial positions compared to American women and more women were working part-time and in lower paid jobs.
American women comprise 47 percent of the labor force, and we are not going anywhere anytime soon. However, there are still more men in the labor force and in leadership or influential roles than women and they play critical roles. They are allies, advocates, mentors, coaches, sponsors, advisors, and partners to women.
As Sandberg notes, coaching opportunities often occur in one-on-one settings. What we don’t need is for men to feel afraid to be alone with a woman. That is the by-product of a national conversation that inadvertently begins to demonize all men.
Sandberg pushes for more women in senior roles as a solution. That’s a welcome goal. However, those pushing for parity need to be more realistic.
Many women are choosing not to climb the ladder, not because of systemic sexism, but because they may not want senior roles which often carry demanding schedules like constant travel. Many women would trade higher pay and promotions for greater flexibility in their jobs to care for an aging parent or to raise a family. Workplaces are increasingly recognizing the value workers place on flexible arrangements (such as telework, compressed schedules, and job-sharing) and retooling to offer what is good for their workers. This is a good thing.
Sexual harassment is intolerable and unjustifiable. Now, is a critical time to haer from the victims who come forward, to punish wrong-doing and to reintroduce greater respect for women (and men) in the workplace.
As society pursues truth and justice in addressing sexual harassment, we must do so in a way that doesn’t paint all men as predators and all women as victims. The consequences could set us all back.