Men, Women, & Working Together in the #Metoo Era
Updated: Apr 4, 2019
For men who want to remain “one of the good guys”:
I wrote this piece for thoughtful men who want to make sure they remain “one of the good guys” that female co-workers don’t have to worry about. It’s for those of you who don’t want to “give the wrong impression” to women you manage or work with. And it’s for those who want a little more clarity in navigating these waters (without getting tangled up in a #metoo situation).
(If you also mentor female colleagues, check out my companion piece, “For the "Good Guys": Mentoring Junior Women in the #Metoo era.)
Based on the latest research on women in the workplace, and backed up by dozens of conversations with male bosses and female rising stars, here is my advice the most common questions about being a “good guy” in the current #metoo era:
What if I unintentionally cause sexual harassment?
You won’t. You don’t just accidentally pull a Harvey Weinstein, or a Matt Lauer; the kinds of acts that end up in the media or courtroom are explicit, extreme, repeated, and well beyond the grey area. You would know.
What if someone accuses me falsely?
This is a terrifying prospect, especially as it relates to your reputation, your career, and your income.
Luckily, it’s incredibly unlikely. Incidents of fraudulent reporting occur only .05-5% of the time (National Sexual Violence Resource Center).
Men are much more highly likely to be the victim of sexual assault than to be falsely accused of it (Fact Check, 2018). And, men are 14 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder (National Board of Exonerations) than sexual assault.
Also, as long as we’re talking numbers: 81% of women experience sexual harassment in some form, so you are much more likely to need the answer to, “How can I help a colleague who is being sexually harassed?”
So, how do I help a colleague who tells me she is being sexually harassed?
It’s always disturbing to hear that someone has been through something hard like sexual harassment - especially someone close to you. Know that it takes a lot of courage to share something like this, especially in a work setting.
To be “one of the good guys,” you can thank her for telling you, and listen openly. Don’t press for details. And, certainly, don’t question her perspective or truthfulness or the intent of the other party. Unless you are the HR manager or her manager, your only job is to support her, not to fix it or get to the bottom of it for her. If relevant, reassure her that it’s not her fault.
Also, a lot of men like to jump in when things are emotionally hard to problem-solve, but in this case, try to refrain, unless she explicitly asks you for help figuring out what to do.
Good things to keep in your back pocket for if/when a friend at work confides in you are: “That is so awful. I’m really sorry. That should never have happened. How can I help you?” or “Thank you for telling me. How gross. Whatever you decide to do, I have your back.”
So I’m a “good guy” - can I hug my female colleagues?
Not really. Save your hugs for your pals outside of work.
Don’t touch ladies at work in ways you wouldn’t touch a male colleague. If you wouldn’t hug a male colleague for 10 seconds, touch his lower back as you scoot past, or pinch his thigh under the table during a meeting to show enthusiasm for his project, don’t do it to a female colleague.
Handshakes, smiles, cheers, fist bumps and high fives are good, safe bets regardless of gender.
How do I compliment a woman? (Can I even say “nice shirt”?)
The best way to compliment a woman at work is to focus on her work. “Great report!” “Nice presentation!” “I really appreciated the work you put into that assessment.” “You’re a real wiz at programming.”
If you must veer into the more personal, stick to compliments you’d give any gender. If you wouldn’t tell a man, “you look like a lot of fun outside the office” or “your spouse is one lucky person” (actual comments I’ve gotten in the past year) don’t say those kinds of suggestive remarks to your female peers.
It’s tricky to be able to tell a female colleague that they look great - without making them feel a bit icky. It’s just a delicate art, so it’s safer to avoid it.
Do not say anything that could be interpreted as you checking them out. Women often report that creepy office guys often say things like “nice blouse” when it’s clear they mean something more like “nice rack.”
If you have to say something about “looks” focus on her effort/creativity, not her body/hotness/weight/fitness (i.e. “I love that neon green you chose!” “Cool mixing of stripes and polka dots”).
The truth is: women are under loads of social pressure to look flawless (thin and young and 100% together and smart and hot, but not too suggestive!). So even a looks-based compliment that’s meant in the best way, like “nice socks” or “cool scarf” reminds women of the constant surveillance they are under.
So, can we still do drinks after work?
You’re the best one to decide this, of course, but my best recommendation is no - especially not one-on-one. If you want to greatly reduce confusion, grey-area vibes, and set-ups for making bad decisions, don’t drink with your colleagues, especially not alone.
This, of course, makes intuitive sense - but in practice, many find it harder to implement especially in certain alcohol-heavy industries. But, if you want the best facts on the topic, here it is in a correctly named study, “the prevalence of male heavy drinking, the embeddedness of permissive workplace drinking norms, and the gender harassment of female coworkers” (Cornell, 2004.)
Omitting alcohol from work events may have seemed like unrealistic advice even a few years ago, but in light of the #metoo era, many corporate booze-fueled holiday parties are on a sharp decline, and even bars are coming up with new policies to protect female bartenders from harassment.
How can I show interest in her personal life without seeming creepy?
Connecting about outside interests deepens the business relationship, for sure. At the same time, saying something careless or overstepping about someone’s personal life can cause a fracture.
Topics to avoid when trying to bond un-offensively with a female colleague commonly include dating, workout routines, romantic relationships, weight changes, pregnancy, work-life balance, etc.…
Instead, focus on finding a few everyday outside interests in common that you can talk about when not discussing work, like sports, books, hobbies, art, or travel aspirations.
What about chivalry?
You’re not on a date; you’re at work, so treat all co-workers professionally. If you’re the sort who likes to pull out a chair for a woman, makes women exit elevators first, walk on the outside of the sidewalk, or opens doors for women, it’s better to keep those behaviors outside the workplace.
Women often report that these kinds of acts in the workplace, even when coming from a genuinely kind place, can heighten the sense of unequal treatment of the genders, and can feel patronizing. A good test: if you wouldn’t treat a male who is senior to you in a certain way, don’t treat a female colleague that way.
(So, what if I actually want to date someone at work?)
Statistically, tons of married people meet at work, so I hear you. It’s def not without loads (loads!) of risk and awkwardness if it doesn’t work out. But, you know that.
If you’re going to go for it, make sure she’s worth it on the life partner front (i.e., if she’s a dime a dozen, hit Tinder or the local yoga class). Run away if she’s not a peer in the company ladder - and if she is at the same “level” as you are in the corporate structure, ask her out quick before one of you gets promoted! Ask her out once and only once. Asking once is totally fine as long as you hold no power over her and she is 100% free to say no with zero repercussions (except maybe a little awkwardness for a day or two). More than once and you’re edging into creep factors & harassment.
Be direct and clear: Don’t be like “we should get drinks sometime and compare inventory spreadsheets” if what you mean is “can I take you to dinner because I think we might have a good dating vibe percolating here.” Move on ASAP if the answer is no.
Copyright © EMMH, LLC, 2019.
Written by Emily Howe, Corporate Gender Strategist; leader of the Executive Women's Forum at the Commonwealth Club, San Francisco; coach for ambitious women in male-majority fields; expert media source/writer/speaker on workplace gender inclusion; and founder of the American Association of Corporate Gender Strategists.