The effects of sexual-harassment scandals
Women in some workplaces are being deprived of a chance at promotion as men avoid one-on-one contact over fear of accusations
In Silicon Valley, some male investors have declined oneon-one meetings with women, or rescheduled them from restaurants to conference rooms. On Wall Street, certain senior men have tried to avoid closeddoor meetings with junior women. And in TV news, some male executives have scrupulously minded their words in conversations with female talent.
In interviews, the men describe a heightened caution because of recent sexual-harassment cases, and they worry that one accusation, or misunderstood comment, could end their careers. But their actions affect women’s careers, too – potentially depriving them of the kind of relationships that lead to promotions or investments.
It’s an unintended consequence of a season of sex scandals. Research shows that building genuine relationships with senior people is perhaps the most important contributor to career advancement. In some offices it’s known as having a rabbi; researchers call it sponsorship. Unlike mentors, who give advice and are often formally assigned, sponsors know and respect people enough that they are willing to find opportunities for them, and advocate and fight for them.
But women are less likely to build such relationships, in part because both senior men and junior women worry that a relationship will be misread by others. At every level, more men than women say they interact with senior leaders at least once a week, according to research by McKinsey and the non-profit Lean In. This imbalance is a major reason women stall at lower levels of companies, according to a variety of research.
“We found that they avoided one-on-one contact because they were fearful of gossip, or the suspicion that a standout female on a team is sleeping with the team leader,” said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and chief executive of the Center for Talent Innovation, a research firm that has studied sponsorship.
She noted that sponsors “have to spend some capital and take a risk on the up-and-coming person, and you simply don’t do that unless you know them and trust them.” But these relationships are crucial, she said, for “getting from the middle to the top.”
Certain workplaces have become more tense in recent months, after high-profile sexual-harassment cases at Fox News, in venture capital and elsewhere, and after the vulgar comments about women by Donald Trump that emerged during the presidential campaign. Most recently, accusations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein caused him to be fired.
The Society for Human Resource Management, an industry group, said it saw a spike in questions from members about sexual harassment in March – when cases at Uber, Fox News and military academies were in the news – and in August, when harassment surfaced again at Fox, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.
In some cases, the heightened awareness has improved people’s behaviour. “People are more sensitive to how they conduct themselves, because they’ve seen what can happen,” said a male executive in the news and entertainment industry, who spoke anonymously because of the same heightened caution over the topic that is in the air in some workplaces. “That’s presented a better working environment.”
But elsewhere, men have begun avoiding solo interactions with women altogether. In Austin, a city official was formally reprimanded last month for refusing to meet with female employees, after he ended regular mentoring lunches with one.
Some tech investors have taken similar steps. “A big chill came across Silicon Valley in the wake of all these stories, and people are hyperaware and scared of behaving wrongly, so I think they’re drawing all kinds of parameters,” said a venture capitalist who spoke anonymously for the same reason.
Some are avoiding solo meetings with female entrepreneurs, potential recruits and those who ask for an informational or networking meeting.
“Before, you might have said, ‘Of course I would do that, and I will especially do it for minorities, including women in Silicon Valley,’ ” the investor said. “Now you cancel it because you have huge reputational risk all of a sudden.”
Sometimes women avoid solo meetings with men who have made them uncomfortable or have bad reputations, as when female executives brought colleagues to meetings with Weinstein.
It has not happened in every workplace, of course, and depends in part on company culture and employees’ trust in human resources to appropriately deal with harassment. In interviews with people across industries, many said interacting with members of the opposite sex was a non-issue. People were warier in jobs that emphasized appearance, as with certain restaurants or TV networks; in male-dominated industries such as finance; and in jobs that involve stark power imbalances, such as doctors or investors.
Dr. Mukund Komanduri, 50, an orthopedic surgeon with a practice outside Chicago, said he avoids being alone with female colleagues, particularly those he does not know well or who are subordinates.
“I’m very cautious about it because my livelihood is on the line,” he said. “If someone in your hospital says you had inappropriate contact with this woman, you get suspended for an investigation, and your life is over. Does that ever leave you?”
He mentioned a hospital colleague who lost his job because of harassment allegations. “That individual has created a hypersensitive atmosphere for every other physician,” he said. “We basically stand 10 feet away from everyone we know.”
Even before the recent attention on harassment, the practice of avoiding solo meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex was not uncommon. It could mean not sharing in cabs, travel, lunches, projects or get-togethers over coffee, and not meeting behind closed doors.
Nearly two-thirds of men and women say people should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work, and about a quarter think private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate, according to a poll conducted in May by Morning Consult for The New York Times.
The effect on women’s careers is quantifiable, research has found.
Women with sponsors are more likely to get challenging assignments and raises and to say they are satisfied with their career progress, according to data from the Center for Talent Innovation. Yet, 64 per cent of senior men and 50 per cent of junior women avoid solo interactions because of the risk of rumors about their motives, according to a survey by the centre.
Good sponsors also give candid, difficult feedback, and women are less likely than men to receive it, McKinsey and Lean In found.