The unintended consequence of the #MeToo movement — that men are now more fearful of working one-on-one with women — is getting worse. Much worse.
Or at least, that’s the take-away from a survey released last month by LeanIn.org, the women’s self-empowerment organization founded by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. The survey found that 60% of male managers say they are uncomfortable doing common workplace activities with women such as mentoring, socializing or having one-on-one meetings — sharply up from 46% last year. Meanwhile, senior-level male managers were nine times more likely to say they hesitated to take work trips with junior women than they were with junior men, a gap that grew from just five times last year.
The rise was startling enough that Sandberg herself is speaking on it, offering brief interviews about the findings at a time when headlines involving her name are far more likely to focus on her handling of the social media company’s massive privacy scandals or its response to Russian influence operations than her perch as the mid-2010s maven of workplace feminism.
When LeanIn has been in the news of late, it’s faced more questions about its role in a post-#MeToo world — a movement that showcased how powerless women’s individual efforts to get ahead can be against institutional barriers — or even how much the organization remains identified with Sandberg following a series of bruising headlines.
Sandberg said there has been “not one bit” of distancing between herself and LeanIn.org, calling the organization “the main extracurricular thing I do.”
“It’s too important,” she said. “And by the way, knowing what’s happening for women, I think, makes me a better leader at Facebook.”
Asked about the intense criticism she and the company have faced in recent years, Sandberg said it had “definitely” changed her job and its priorities.
“We made mistakes at Facebook, and we missed really important things,” she said. She added that she was “scared” to testify before Congress, but that “when things go wrong, we should be held accountable publicly. I think there’s a lot of responsibility that I need to take and I think I should own that.”
On the survey results, Sandberg said she was upset to see them, if not surprised. (The survey, which included a national sample of more than 5,000 U.S. adults, was co-released by SurveyMonkey, the software company where Sandberg serves on the board and her now-deceased husband was the former CEO.)
She said she’s spoken to many male executives who say they have been told by their human resources department or by senior leadership “don’t put yourself in that position; don’t be alone with a woman.”
That so many senior-level men are reporting that they are uncomfortable taking work trips, having a work dinner or taking a one-on-one meeting with junior female colleagues is a particularly bad sign. “I really think we are facing a very serious crisis for women in getting promoted,” Sandberg said.
The problem with this knee-jerk fear, of course, is that to get promoted, younger employees need the kind of informal face time and one-on-one interactions that build trust and develop relationships, giving senior-level managers the confidence to take a risk on promoting them. When senior executives — who are often disproportionately male — back away from those relationships, it can make it harder for women to get promoted.
One criticism of Sandberg’s 2013 book, after which the organization is named, has been that it offered too much individual advice that women — particularly professional, white-collar women — had to follow on their own, putting the onus of change on them rather than on the underlying systems and biases of corporations or society itself.
Asked, therefore, what companies or employers can do to keep men from backing away — or what Facebook itself is doing to try to prevent this from happening — Sandberg said it’s up to leaders to be clear about what’s expected.
“I’m sending the survey myself to so many CEOs, and so many people, and I’m hoping that they’re going to go to their teams and they’re going to say ‘let’s make sure we’re not telling men not to be alone with women,’ ” she said.
At Facebook, “I’m explicitly saying on many occasions and will continue saying — the rule here is you make access equal,” she said, adding that “I think you get to institutional change by making people aware of a problem.”