Men: Please Meet With Women
Now’s the Time for Men to Double Down on Sponsoring Women

“I’m not going to meet with women alone until I understand what the new rules are,” said a male friend the other day after a meeting we both attended (with over 20 other men and women). This middle-aged man, CEO of a venture-backed company, with deep Silicon Valley experience over the last 20 years, is shaken to the core by the consistent drip-drip-drip of stories of men he knows being forced out of the companies they’ve founded or served in senior leadership roles in because of accusations of their inappropriate behavior, toxic leadership styles, or sexual assault.

He is a bit shell-shocked by the realization that he too has made women feel marginalized or uncomfortable. Like so many men I know in business, asking the question of women he works with, “Have I ever made you feel uncomfortable, at risk or marginalized?” has yielded more than one “yes” answer.  So many men I know are sheepish with the naivete they feel about the issue and their own unintended participation in it. “I had no idea this was going on, or that I was complicit in it,” he said, visibly troubled. “I can’t meet with women alone again. I don’t know what I did so I can avoid it in the future.”

“I don’t know what to do, Lee, except not meet with women until someone tells me the new rules.”

And then he asked; “That hasn’t happened to you, Lee, surely.”

To which I responded, “No woman I know in business over 35 has NOT felt threatened or compromised by a male colleague sometime in her career.” Yes even loud, ‘confident,’ ‘direct,’ and ‘athletic built’ me… more times than I can count. And no, I didn’t say anything about it early in my career. I was fortunate to have bosses who prepped me for what might happen when I met with men alone, and who showed me how to extricate myself before I was physically hurt.

I was a bit emphatic when I told him, “Not meeting with women is NOT the answer! That actually hurts women even more. Now is the time to have MORE meetings with MORE women.”

Why? Because without male sponsors, mentors, and allies, women will never reach the parity and quality MOST people — men and women — seek. And it’s impossible to have effective sponsors – people who know their sponsorees VERY well — without good quality and a good quantity of one-to-one time. Therefore, men, we need you to meet with women…more women, more often. It also requires men being open to and accepting feedback. If a woman says she has felt uncomfortable, at risk or marginalized, it is an opportunity to raise one’s awareness and make positive changes to correct one’s behavior. This is a moment for acceptance and change, not a time to mend a bruised ego.

Athena Rising
Athena Rising

Brad Johnson and David G. Smith, the co-authors of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women, outlined their compelling point of view in Harvard Business Review in May 2017 in response to the revelation that Vice President Mike Pence has invoked what’s commonly referred to as the Billy Graham rule and refuses to take meetings or have dinner alone with women other than his wife. Read the well-articulated article here.

These professors at the US Naval Academy and the Naval War College respectively, argue that the “rule is wrong on nearly every level” and is a “20th-century American iteration of sex-segregation” which quantifiably limits “their options for advancement, let alone professional flourishing.” The more men exclude women from activities that help promote understanding and trust – networking, dinners, after-work drinks, one-to-one coaching and mentoring, the more they ensure that “men alone will be the ones securing C-suite jobs.” Elevation comes with significant sponsorship by professionals who go out of their way to support ensure their proteges are considered and championed. Without close relationships, that championing is next to non-existent.

This is not just true at the highest level. According to McKinsey and Lean In, research has definitely proven that “at every level, more men than women say they interact with senior leaders at least once a week.” This “imbalance is a major reason women stall at lower levels of companies.” It’s no wonder that the Public Relations industry, which is dominated by women, is led by more men than women. The PR Council, the trade association for PR agencies in the US, started the SHEQUALITY Project in 2017 to help address this issue.

The Billy Graham/Mike Pence/Any-man-in-Silicon-Valley rule of not meeting with women alone also simultaneously undermines men, assuming that they are all raving sex maniacs incapable of not keeping it in their pants, and blames women for being the “temptress” who cannot be rebuffed. Please.

(Don’t get me started on how the Adam and Eve story is told through a man’s POV, and Eve is blamed for tempting Adam as if he couldn’t have said “no thanks” to the Apple.  As my rector from my grade school years, The Rev. Thomas Lehman, said in 1974, “One of the problems with all of this is, of course, is that the Bible itself, like the Hymnal and Prayer Book, was put together by men, for men, and necessarily was written from a typically masculine point of view.” I could go on.)

“Dude, do you, or do you not, have a functioning frontal lobe?” W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith

Men, Meet With Women More Often

So, contrary to the reflex to stop meeting with any women for fear of being tempted or falling into a trap or being wrongfully accused, now is the time for men in leadership to double and triple down on meeting with women of all ages. This will help them get closer to understanding the issue, know professional women better, and get into a strong position to champion women for leadership positions when the time is right. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett, CEO of The Center for Talent Innovation says, these sponsor relationships are crucial “for getting from the middle to the top.” (Read more from the New York Times’ Justin Philipps on the unintended consequences of sexual harassment scandals here. And Emma Gray’s take on why the lesson of Harvey Weinstein isn’t to stop meeting with women here.)

Until more, better, closer professional relationships happen, women will always be at a disadvantage in the workplace, and workplaces will suffer from not having the full complement of the best and brightest in positions of leadership and authority.

So what are the new rules? (Funnily enough, they look like the old rules that women all knew, but apparently weren’t articulated or heard outside the ladies’ rooms of America.)

What We Think You Know, But Just In Case

  1. Don’t touch a woman on her face, head, chest, lower back, or body below the waist. Don’t, for instance, stick your hands between a woman’s legs like one popular chef in San Francisco Bay Area allegedly did.
  2. Don’t talk about sex at work. Don’t tell your female colleagues that you “really want to have sex” with her. Yes, that happens.
  3. Don’t wait for the interns’ boss to leave the room and then talk about sex, sex and more sex as soon as someone who could take you to task is gone, like this CEO did.
  4. Don’t name products sexually-charged names such as “Dickens Cider” …. “Dick inside her” or compare products, food, or situations to womens’ body parts.
  5. Don’t grab, kiss, lick, hit, hold down, or pinch a woman – anywhere, anytime, anyplace.
  6. Don’t have work functions at strip clubs, “gentlemen’s clubs” or at male-only venues, like the bathroom.
  7. Do expressly ask the women in your team their opinions so that everyone can hear them. Pay attention when they talk. Acknowledge their contributions.
  8. Do pay attention to your language; don’t use pejorative words for women’s behavior when the same male behavior is honored. For instance, as authors Andie Kramer and Al Harris outline, don’t say she’s a “self-promoter” and he “knows his worth,” or she’s “selfish” and he is “too busy to pitch in.”

I’ve written about about Kramer and Harris’s excellent book Breaking Through Bias which outlines specifically here and here. They review these types of language biases in minute detail these types of things. Buy it now. Read it now. Apply it now.

Rules You Might Not Know, So We’ll Spell Them Out

  1. Never invite a woman to your apartment or hotel room for a meeting alone or when she would be the only woman there. Ever. Go to Starbucks – all locations have WiFi.
  2. Don’t offer a quid pro quo – sex for a deal.
  3. Don’t get drunk or tipsy or high in a work-related environment.
  4. Do invite your women colleagues to your home to meet your partner and family.
  5. Do talk openly in the workplace about supporting relationship-building meetings. Laura Sherbin of the Center of Talent Innovation recommends designating a restaurant for senior leaders to take junior colleagues to lunch and breakfast.
  6. Do have dinners in well-lit, popular restaurants so it’s clear you’re not trying to hide anything.
  7. Do acknowledge that this is a difficult time and that you want to be part of the solution.
  8. Do ask if these women have a request of you – Mentor? Advice? Introductions? Do what you can to support their requests.

You can read more here and here.

Next Steps

  1. Choose a restaurant for breakfast and lunch; choose another for dinner.
  2. Identify 8 women you know already and invite them to breakfast or lunch in the next 6 weeks, expressly to talk about the climate right now.
  3. Meet with each of them. Your job is to LISTEN. DO NOT wax poetic on the issue or try to problem solve or talk broadly about the #MeToo movement and how destructive it might be to men’s careers. LISTEN. ASK what you can do to know and understand more. ASK how you can support them.
  4. Do what you can to support them.
  5. Reflect on these conversations. Check back in with these women within 60 days. Advance the conversation.

And if you need to know more about what women can do if they feel they’ve been harassed, read this 8-point Forbes article.

Then read this 1993 HBR article, The Memo Every Woman Keeps In Her Desk, and KNOW THAT MOST WOMEN TODAY FEEL THE SAME WAY… 25 years later.

Men, please don’t allow yourself to be swept up in the Mike Pence rule… You will hurt more women than you know. Women, please be open to talking with your male colleagues about the issue. Offer concrete examples. Ask for help if it’s offered.

The only way to get to the other side of this issue is to expose it wherever it is, and then together co-create a new mutually respectful normal.


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