As the wave of sexual harassment allegations reaches seismic proportions, one solution touted repeatedly has been the need for more women in power.
Barack Obama suggested this month in Paris that more women should be put into power “because men seem to be having some problems these days.” Sheryl Sandberg, in a Facebook post, called for more women in leadership roles, arguing the power differential between men and women helps explain harassment. In article after article, from the Harvard Business Review to this newspaper, promoting more women into influential roles has been offered as a fix.
But will the current watershed moment lead to more women in top management roles — or could it actually hold them back? That's a question getting more attention as the #MeToo movement takes root in workplace after workplace with acute, urgent risks such as reputation-crushing headlines or expensive legal proceedings. Some experts worry any backlash to the moment — from overly cautious men to organizations with unfair expectations for the women who do get promoted — could hurt the numbers rather than help them.
Others are cautiously optimistic that the current tremors could finally start to move the needle. The recent allegations have helped to spotlight the lack of women in powerful roles, said Brande Stellings, who leads advisory services for Catalyst, a research and consulting organization focused on women in leadership.
Traditionally, she said, “one thing we will sometimes see that's part of why women don't get the top job is they're seen as a risky bet because of the stereotypes people have.” But now, she said, “maybe men are a risky bet, and people are asking about the risk of not having women in power.”
While years of headlines about the lack of gender diversity at the top have made a business case for getting more women into management, there hasn't been a lot of urgency for companies to take action. Now, ignoring diversity carries vastly more short-term risk, which could motivate employers to do more to advance female leaders.
“You would hope that companies [promote women] because diversity matters or because it’s the right thing to ensure fairness, but oftentimes companies are motivated from more of a compliance and risk management perspective,” said Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. “I think there is an immediacy surrounding this issue” of sexual harassment.
The other possibility is that an improved focus on sexual harassment and toxic workplace cultures will prevent more women from leaving certain industries, such as technology, allowing them to naturally rise through the ranks, work in more inclusive cultures and aim for top-level jobs.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and founder of the Center for Talent Innovation, said her organization's data shows that women in technology, in particular, often opt to leave to avoid “frat-boy cultures.” She added, “If we were able to change that and make them more inclusive and not so predatory toward women, women would not just stick it out — they would be much more ambitious.”
But she and others warn about the potential “collateral damage” of the #MeToo movement, in which senior executive men could cut women out of social events, one-on-one dinners and informal after-work mentoring out of fear that they could say or do the wrong thing. Before the story about the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, Hewlett's research found that 64 percent of men were already hesitant to meet one-on-one with female co-workers, because they were fearful of the encounter being misconstrued.
That figure could be even higher now. Human resources executives are reporting that they're seeing evidence of more-cautious men. Brian Kropp, who leads the HR consulting practice at CEB, said that issue has come up in 10 to 15 percent of the conversations he's had with HR executives over the past month.
“Some men — while a minority, certainly — are so concerned that something could happen that they’re reacting by not engaging women in the informal part of work where you’re mentoring people,” Kropp said.
When that happens, it creates a particular hurdle for women trying to be promoted into more senior roles. At the higher ranks of an organization, it's critical for women to have not only a mentor but also someone Hewlett and others call a “sponsor,” or a higher-ranking, more-powerful executive who not only offers advice but also actively advocates for a junior employee's career.
“No one is going to get from the middle to the top unless there are people willing to speak up for them behind closed doors,” Hewlett said.
But doing that requires more risk — speaking up on behalf of the wrong junior executive can be damaging. That's why senior executives willing to speak up on someone else's behalf need to develop the kind of trust and understanding that's typically created in social and informal settings — not in office meetings.
“You’re not about to go out on a limb for someone if, really, they’re looking for another job,” Hewlett said.
Another risk is that organizations promote women because they have a cultural problem that needs fixing and then expect them to do all the work.
“In all jobs, women do more of these service roles,” such as ending up on diversity committees, said Stefanie Johnson, a management professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “They call it organizational housekeeping.”
If that happens, playing the role of culture police puts women in a particular bind, setting them up for the risk of failure once they reach those leadership roles. As New York magazine writer Rebecca Traister put it in a recent piece, “as designated guardians, entrusted — whether as colleagues or wives — with policing men’s bad behaviors, [women] will get dinged for complicity if they don’t police it vigilantly enough, and risk being cast as castrating villainesses if they issue sentence.”
To help ensure men continue acting as sponsors for more-junior women, Hewlett suggested more communication and more accountability. One option is requiring senior managers to sponsor junior executives who don't look just like them. Also important, Hewlett said, is for companies to be clear with executives about the places and times where informal work meetings are appropriate, so there's no question about whether a meal at a restaurant would set off alarm bells.
Also critical: Make sure that both men and women are expected to “sponsor” other employees. Catalyst's research shows that women face a double bind in which they don't get credit for supporting other workers but get penalized if they don't. Men, meanwhile, get praised if they do take extra time to help colleagues but face no repercussions if they skip it.
Such steps could guard against what some see as the possible — if not inevitable — backlash. Sandberg warned about it in her post, writing that “the percentage of men who will be afraid to be alone with a female colleague has to be sky high right now” and suggesting that whether men “take all your direct reports out to dinner or none of them, the key is to give men and women equal opportunities to succeed.”
Others, too, fear a backlash — or a chilling effect.
“I hate to say that, because I want to be more positive and optimistic, but this is about power and men's dominant place in society,” Johnson said. “And I think when people feel threatened, an obvious response is to push back.”