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#MeToo and the Pence Rule: A Roadmap for Business Leaders and HR

On October 15, 2017, the actress Alyssa Milano sent a tweet asking readers who had been sexually harassed or assaulted to reply to her tweet using the hashtag #MeToo; the swift, global response reignited a movement started by activist Tarana Burke in 2006. Milano’s tweet was in response to the sexual harassment and assault allegations raised by Hollywood actresses against former Hollywood film producer, Harvey Weinstein. The troubling claims raised against Weinstein gave rise to an onslaught of accusations and complaints of sexual harassment and assault from women against men across multiple industries in the U.S. To date, upwards of over two hundred men were removed from their roles due to the #MeToo movement. 

 

Time Alone at Work with the Opposite Sex: Results From Two Polls

As companies continue grappling with the legal, compliance, and reputational fallout from #MeToo, one unintended consequence of the movement is quietly gaining traction. Some male business leaders are reportedly hesitant about hiring, having one-to-one meetings, and mentoring women in the wake of #MeToo. 

LeanIn.org and Survey Monkey

Online polls conducted in early 2019 by LeanIn.org and Survey Monkey, confirmed that upwards of 60% of male managers are reportedly uncomfortable engaging in everyday job-related activities with women, such as mentoring, working together, or socializing; one year ago, this number was at 46%. Senior men are reportedly more hesitant to work with junior women than junior men across a range of activities, including one-on-one meetings. Senior men are 12 times more likely to hesitate to meet with a woman than a man. On business travel, men are reportedly nine times more likely to avoid traveling alone with a female colleague, and six times more likely to avoid a work dinner with a female colleague. In addition, the LeanIn.org and Survey Monkey online poll1 found that 36% of men say they’ve avoided mentoring or socializing with a woman because they were nervous about how it would look.

The 2017 Morning Consult Poll Conducted for the New York Times

A 2017 poll conducted for the New York Times by Morning Consult suggests that men and women are concerned about spending time alone together at work, albeit for different and interesting reasons. The poll found that “men and women are wary of a range of one-on-one situations. Around a quarter think private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate. Nearly two-thirds say people should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work. A majority of women, and nearly half of men, say it’s unacceptable to have dinner or drinks alone with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse.”2

When surveyed regarding the appropriateness of dining alone with a member of the opposite sex who was not a spouse, 35% of women found it appropriate, while 53% of women found it inappropriate; 43% of men found it appropriate to dine alone with a member of the opposite sex, while 45% of men found it inappropriate. The same question was posed regarding lunch and 43% of women found it appropriate to have lunch with a member of the opposite sex, while 44% found it inappropriate; 52% of men who were asked the same question found it appropriate, while 36% found it inappropriate to have lunch with a member of the opposite sex.

On the question of whether a one-to-one work meeting with a member of the opposite sex was appropriate, 63% of women said it was appropriate, while 25% said it wasn’t; 66% of men found it appropriate to have a one-to-one work meeting with a member of the opposite sex, while 22% found it inappropriate.

The Pence Rule

Some have attributed, at least partially, the results of the LeanIn survey on comments made by then member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Michael Pence in 2002 to The Hill, a political newspaper. Pence reportedly told The Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without [his wife] by his side, either.3 These comments by Pence surfaced again during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

During his twelve years in Congress, Pence reportedly had rules to avoid infidelity temptations or even rumors of impropriety. These rules were reported to include requiring that aides who had to work late to assist him be male, never dining alone with a woman other than his wife, and not attending an event where alcohol is being served unless [his wife] Karen Pence was present. Pence framed these rules as "building a zone around your marriage." Pence also reportedly told The Hill that he declines dinner and cocktail invitations from men. Pence explained that while he did not believe Washington D.C. was a “predatory” town, it was important not to “inadvertently send the wrong message by being in certain situations.”4

While it is unclear whether the vice president continues to subscribe to the views he articulated in 2002, when his 2002 comments resurfaced during the 2016 election cycle, they ignited a Twitter battle along gender, political, and religious lines. Some supported Pence’s views and believed he and his wife were entitled to set standards for their marriage, while others argued that his comments were damaging to women.

Sheryl Sandberg and Others Respond to the LeanIn Survey Findings and the Male/Female Professional Dynamic

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, Inc., and founder of LeanIn.org., and Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at P&G, a partner of LeanIn, responded to the LeanIn survey results by co-authoring an article in Fortune Magazine in May 2019 where they offered blunt counsel to male leaders observing that "the vast majority of managers and senior leaders are men and that men, [therefore], have a huge role to play in supporting women's advancement at work—or hindering it. If [men are] reluctant even to meet one-on-one with women, there's no way women can get an equal shot at proving themselves. Instead, women will be overlooked and excluded, which is a terrible waste of talent, creativity, and productivity. It's not good for business or for anyone.”5 Sandberg and Pritchard asked leaders to "go further" by understanding that isolating, ignoring and refusing to hire and mentor women "must be unacceptable too."6

Male attendees at the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, also reported concerns about mentoring and spending one-on-one time alone with women.7 In response to the #MeToo observations in Davos, Pat Milligan, a Mercer consultant on female leadership, noted that some of her clients raised concerns over saying or doing “the wrong thing” since #MeToo drew international attention. Milligan believes that employers should focus on education; she explained that “when male executives tell her that they are considering deliberately avoiding women, she tells them that would be illegal.”  Milligan advises men: "[j]ust replace the word ‘woman’ with any minority.”8 Milligan encourages her male clients “to talk about the right kind of behavior, but [she also cautions that they] can’t stop interacting with women.”9

Federal Legislation on Gender in Employment

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Federal agency responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), are clear that the law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment.10 When male leaders hesitate or refuse to hire, interact with, mentor, or sponsor women in workplace activities that men routinely benefit from, the behavior amounts to gender discrimination. Unequal treatment based on gender is discrimination under Federal and numerous State and local laws in the U.S. 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s June 2016 Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace

In 2016, an EEOC Task Force issued a report on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.11 The Task Force was comprised of 16 members from academia, unions, plaintiffs and defense counsel; the Task Force spent 18 months examining sexual harassment in the workplace. In June 2016, they issued key findings noting that workplace harassment remains a persistent problem, that it too often goes unreported, that leadership and accountability are critical, and that new and different approaches to training should be explored.

While the EEOC Task Force findings and recommendations were issued before the explosion of #MeToo complaints that unfolded in 2017, they are an important roadmap for employers seeking legal compliance and leadership guidance surrounding sexual harassment. To most large employers with sophisticated HR teams, the EEOC recommendations were not new; however, what was new was the agency’s focus on the importance of conducting risk assessments and collecting metrics to “measure the prevalence of workplace harassment based on sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender identity).”

How Should Employers Respond?

Beyond the need to ensure that organizational processes and controls comply with the law, employers would be wise to also examine their cultures. The results of the LeanIn and Morning Consult polls, as well as the 2016 EEOC guidance, point to skepticism and a lack of trust from employees who believe that employers will not discipline bad actors, especially those bad actors who hold power and rank in organizations. 

Many employers have responded to #MeToo by strengthening internal controls. While this is an important piece of building a culture of compliance, it does little to address cultures where harassment, misconduct, and even questionable practices regarding professional interactions between men and women may be systemic. Moreover, solely focusing on legal compliance sends the message that sexual harassment is a problem for HR to solve. Often, a perceived lack of trust in HR is driven by employees’ view that HR is rarely empowered to consistently terminate bad actors.12 C-Suite leaders and boards of directors must play a role, alongside HR, in transforming their cultures. This work includes actively focusing on strategies to eliminate toxic cultures where sexual and other forms of harassment can flourish and actively root out even subtle forms of exclusion that impede the development of, often, but not exclusively, female employees. Legal compliance absent a focus on prevention ultimately results in a whack-a-mole approach to addressing harassment issues; organizations may be focused on policies and training while failing to address the root cause of the issues, which are often steeped in the culture of the organization.  

Senior leaders must do more to train, coach, and educate male leaders in understanding how avoiding one gender in favor of another impacts women. The engagement strategy should include targeted surveys, live training for all leaders with hiring and mentoring responsibilities, and highly interactive discussion groups or training centered on real-time feedback and coaching. Metrics and monitoring activities should be formed to track progress and monitor accountability. C-Suite leaders and boards of directors must lead by example - consistently and visibly modeling hiring, mentoring, and promoting women.  

Since 2017, more than two hundred, mostly high-profile men, were terminated as a result of #MeToo complaints. Unfortunately, the #MeToo era has done little to meaningfully increase the number of female leaders in the workplace. Of the Fortune 500 companies, just 33 had female chief executives in 2019, up 4.8% from last year’s total of 24 female CEOs.13 Given the current structure of power within most organizations, it is crucial that CEOs and boards of directors focus on creating strategies to transform toxic cultures that feed misconduct and carefully examine notions regarding male-female professional interactions in all facets of conducting business.


1 LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey survey, February 22-March 1, 2019.
2 Claire Cain Miller, TheUpshot, July 1, 2017.
3 Ashley Parker, The Washington Post, March 28, 2017.
4 Aaron Blake, The Washington Post, March 30, 2017.
5 Sheryl Sandberg and Marc Pritchard, The Number of Men Who Are Uncomfortable Mentoring Women is Growing, Fortune Magazine, May 17, 2019, http://fortune.com/2019/05/17/sheryl-sandberg-lean-in-me-too/.
6 Id.
7 Katrin Bennhold, Another Side of #MeToo: Male Managers Fearful of Mentoring Women, The New York Times, January 27, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/27/world/europe/metoo-backlash-gender-equality-davos-men.html.
8 Id.
9 Id.
10 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, EEOC.gov, https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/sex.cfm.
11 Chai R. Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic, Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, June 2016, EEOC.gov, https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment/report_summary.cfm.
12 Caitlin Flanagan, The Problem with HR, The Atlantic, July 2019.
13 Claire Zillman, The Fortune 500 Has More Female CEOs Than Ever Before, Fortune Magazine, May 16, 2019.