Men at work: Growing awareness of sexual harassment has turned the focus of our conversation about women on the men in the room

In my line of work I frequently find myself in conversation about the role of women in the workplace. These conversations often gloss over the role of men in our workplace experience—but in our “Weinstein moment” it’s clear that we are in a sea change. Thought leaders are increasingly reframing the corporate feminist discussion to highlight that the systems that characterize our work experiences are still primarily defined by the way men operate within them.

I see specific examples of this in two recent threads of conversation: Talk about men’s role as allies who will call out harassment, and talk about how men have molded environments in which it is twice as hard for women to get ahead.

In her first post for her new LinkedIn series on diversity, Melinda Gates highlights what she sees as the central detractor from women’s economic advancement: our culture of overwork. Gates characterizes the norm of overwork as a definitively male contribution to workplace culture.  

The blog’s title is “We’re sending our daughters into a workplace designed for our dads”. She sets up her argument with an image from a 1949 advertisement in Fortune magazine depicting jobs held by its quintessential readership: the Office Manager, the Vice President, the President—all male with female assistants taking notes in the background.

She goes on to unpack all the ways that office culture was shaped and formed by the fact that men had full time home managers for partners, as well as female assistants to do the administration work.

The Fortune ad’s inclusion of “Office Manager” as an archetype of male leader and Fortune reader is worth noting. Today the office manager is an emblem of occupational segregation—and perhaps what happens to a role that gets relegated the administrative and “housework” functions of an office: it becomes more female-dominated and less well paid. (GlassDoor says the average salary of a Bay Area office manager is $50K.)

The role our office managers play today is also a clear example of our tech industry’s reliance on overwork. Ten years ago an office would have separate roles for receptionist, office operations manager, executive assistant. Today I see more and more small businesses loading all these tasks onto one person; and despite consolidating a number of roles into one we still expect to pay them less.

Gates does a great service to call out the ways our offices send “you don’t belong here” signals to women—and it is refreshing to hear a critique not on ways we need to repair the pipeline, or admonish women to lean in a little harder, but instead narrows its focus on ways the leaders already in these jobs need to change the status quo.

This topic is close to my heart and mission at Talent Sonar, and if you’re interested in it as well you should join our webinar discussion on it tomorrow 11/14 with AnitaB.org.

Now that women make up 47% of the workforce, they should also exert half of the influence over what our workplaces look like and how they function. Gates argues that will require curbing and correcting the number of hours we expect of workers. It also will require more men in power to act as allies to women.  In an Oct. 13 Harvard Business Review article “Lots of Men Are Gender-Equality Allies in Private. Why Not in Public?”, David Smith and Brad Johnson set guideposts and examples men who want to be allies should follow.

The professors argue that the rate of sexual harassment is so high in workplaces for the same reason we lack equal pay, parental leave and equitable hiring and promotion practices: “Women lack genuine male allies in the workplace”.

They explain that even men who deeply value gender equality may be hesitant to speak up when they see inappropriate behavior because of our tendency to conform to whatever the group is doing. Men will often look for the woman in the room’s reaction as the cue for how or when to intervene. A woman often doesn’t interject because they are more likely to be penalized or face backlash for doing so.

For this reason Smith and Johnson say we must reframe gender equality as a leadership issue rather than a “women’s issue.” Its executives’ jobs to create a safe work environment that allows workers to flourish. When leaders allow harassment, bias and bullying to seep into a workplace, employees exhibit reduced psychological safety, take more sick leave, have lower morale and less productivity, and they are less engaged and more likely to leave the company or not have positive bottom-line impact.

In other words, a male leader of integrity is not only expected to advocate for women and champion diversity, but they also must act to correct and stop sexist and racist behavior.  

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