Will Harvey Weinstein Make It Harder to Champion Women?

The recent workplace sexual harassment scandals—from Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly to, now, Harvey Weinstein (the worst in recent memory)—may have an unintended consequence: Rather than helping women by bringing to light how easily harassment can occur, the scandals may make male executives skittish about championing young women they believe in—especially if championing means a lot of one-on-one time.

An article in The New York Times last week noted the impact of male fear of harassment in the workplace on female advancement. It’s already an issue. Vice President Mike Pence reportedly has a long-standing policy of never dining alone with any female employee. Does that put his female employees at a disadvantage? I would say, yes, because there is a kind of professional development and mentoring that occurs when you develop a one-on-one relationship with a boss that his female employees have missed out on.

In my own career, I have experienced the discomfort of men sharing one-on-one meals with me. At my first job (a short-lived job), in which I didn’t have a department to work with, but, rather, would have been working most of the time directly with my boss, for my welcome lunch, he felt the need to pull in a male colleague to join us. He didn’t say his own discomfort, or protection, was why he had asked the male colleague to join us, but it seemed that way to me.

At a Human Resources conference that used to be held on a cruise ship that sailed the New York harbor, I witnessed the almost-panicky anxiety of a man who found himself dining alone with me one night. The seating was by assignment, and somehow, it ended up being just the two of us. He anxiously kept inserting into the conversation, “I really love my wife,” “I just love my wife so much.” As if I ever questioned it, or had any interest one way or the other! Would this male executive have been able to champion my career, providing me with the same one-on-one developmental experiences he provided to his male employees? I don’t think so.

It’s commendable that many man are so protective of their personal relationships with girlfriends and wives, but it’s also a form of sexism, or chauvinism, when it affects the opportunities that women employees get compared to their male counterparts.

A couple years ago, my male boss in his 60s was invited to accompany a business associate to a Broadway show when the associate’s mother backed out at the last minute. Would that business associate, who also is male and in his 60s, have felt comfortable making the same offer to me? You can say that outing was purely social, but as many have discovered, the most valuable networking, and business plans can be laid when people are relaxed and in a social setting.

When I was twice denied a spot on a magazine I wanted to work for at my company, despite the editor-in-chief repeatedly telling me how much he liked me, I wondered about the less-obvious dynamics that might have come into play in his decision not to hire me. I wondered if I made him feel uncomfortable because of my gender and looks—perhaps that took precedence over my personality, work history, and proven abilities.

All the times male cliques of employees and business associates go out to eat at my office, the question of whether I would be included if I were a man pops into my head. In that case, it wouldn’t be a fear of being vulnerable interacting one-on-one with a female colleague, but a feeling that including a woman might make it a less casual, comfortable meal—that it would be adding an odd-man-out (so to speak).

Funniest of all? I have a male business associate who is unlikely to e-mail me back if I e-mail him without ccing at least one other person (preferably his wife or a male colleague). I’ve never been anything but professional in my communications—no conversations about my weekend plans or my cat’s favorite toys—so I wonder why all the precautions.

When male employees are afraid to have one-on-one interactions with female colleagues, it reveals how they truly perceive women, however much they say they respect us. It shows that first, and foremost, they see young women as temptresses or femme fatales—not the future department head or CEO.

How do you create a workforce in which women employees have the same one-on-one access to mentoring and sponsorship from senior male leaders as their male peers?

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