“If we allow this to happen, it will set us back decades. Women have to be sponsored by leaders, and leaders are still mostly men.”
— Pat Milligan, a business consultant who advises companies on gender and diversity
My career has been propelled by mentors and managers who spotted glints of potential in me when I was toiling away on the bottom rungs of the journalistic ladder. They reached out with opportunities, helping me take each step up. And they were mostly men. Of course, newsrooms, like so many industries, are old boys’ clubs in flux — meaning men still mostly run the show, but that’s slowly changing.
But what if these men hadn’t put their weight behind me because they felt it was risky to mentor a woman? It’s a question I couldn’t shake as I read a dispatch from Davos, Switzerland, by my colleague Katrin Bennhold about an unintended consequence of #MeToo: Companies minimizing contact between female employees and male executives, effectively putting women at a disadvantage.
As Pat Milligan, who advises multinational companies on gender and diversity issues, told Ms. Bennhold: “If we allow this to happen, it will set us back decades. Women have to be sponsored by leaders, and leaders are still mostly men.”
The article raised plenty of questions, many of which were voiced on social media: Are women now expected to cater to the fears of men who are their superiors — fears that women would ultimately pay the price for? If these men are not doing anything wrong, what are they worried about? Were powerful men really clamoring to help that many women before #MeToo? Is this behavior actually becoming commonplace, or is it simply a narrow outlier expressed by a privileged few?
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. As Jia Tolentino put it in The New Yorker: “No successful woman could ever abide by the same rule.”
A 2017 Morning Consult poll conducted for The New York Times found that many women, particularly religious women, also find it inappropriate to meet with men one-on-one at work.
Of more than 5,000 men and women polled, around a quarter thought private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex were inappropriate. Nearly two-thirds said people should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work. The concerns of the women, though, seemed to differ from those of men: that is, fearing harassment versus fearing being accused of it.
The article by Ms. Bennhold showed how this mentality has reached the highest ranks of business — with some male leaders at last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos saying they were avoiding one-on-one time with junior female colleagues because, as one man put it, the issue is “just too sensitive.”
Ms. Milligan said that when male executives tell her that they’re considering deliberately avoiding women, she tells them 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.”
So what’s a solution? She recommends that companies ditch employee surveys and use technological tools that allow for real-time and anonymous chats to identify men who, at the least, make women uncomfortable.
Then companies must assess if these men are “clueless, creepy or criminal,” Ms. Milligan said. “If you think they are clueless, you can coach them.”
“Clueless can become creepy very quickly if you don’t address it,” she said. “If they are creepy, you have to act.”
Readers — I’d love to hear your stories. How important have mentors been in your own careers? Have you ever felt reluctant to work with someone of the opposite sex out of concern for your position? If so, let me know at email@example.com.
New study: Adults take girls’ pain less seriously
When asked to gauge how much pain a 5-year-old child experienced based on observing identical reactions to a finger-stick, American adults believed boys were in more pain than girls, according to a new Yale study in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology. The researchers attributed the difference to “culturally ingrained, and scientifically unproven, myths like ‘boys are more stoic’ or ‘girls are more emotive.’”
What else is happening
Here are five articles from The Times you might have missed.
“They will be crueler than in the past.” Afghan women fear peace with the Taliban may mean war on them. [Read the story]
“You become the mother of the team.” Recent promotions at an elite law firm underscore how far big firms have to go to elevate women and people of color. [Read the story]
“A more inclusive form of masculinity.” These fraternity brothers are teaching men that it’s O.K. to deviate from traditional ideas about masculinity, and fostering an atmosphere of love and respect. [Read the story]
“I felt quite scared and alone.” Ireland’s vote to end its abortion ban was hailed as an extraordinary victory, but women seeking the procedure must still contend with a deeply ingrained opposition. [Read the story]
“It’s grim and exploitative.” Hustle culture is obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor, and — once you notice it — impossible to escape. [Read the story]
From the archives, 1898: ‘Should wives work?’
In this 1898 article published in The Times, a novelist named John Strange Winter was the first of several people to weigh in on the question of whether wives and mothers should work outside of the home.
“Can any woman work and not feel the strain thereof?” he asked. He wondered what it would look like when “the ordinary girl will take up a trade or profession as naturally as a boy.”
“Can any woman be man and woman?”
What makes these words particularly striking is that he wasn’t a man at all. John Strange Winter was a pseudonym used by the writer Henrietta Eliza Vaughan Stannard. She was slowly outed as a women after 1895, but not in time for The Times to get wind of it, as there’s no mention of Winter’s identity in this piece.
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