"There’s not a company in the world that can afford to leave talent on the sidelines because it’s female," cautions Sheryl Sandberg

By Jason Duaine Hahn and Charlotte Triggs
May 17, 2019 08:00 AM

Men in management positions are feeling reluctant to actively support women at the workplace in the #MeToo and Time’s Up era out of fears their actions could be misconstrued, according to new research released on Friday.

The results from LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey’s #MentorHer poll reveal that 60 percent of male managers report are feeling uncomfortable interacting with women in “common workplace” activities such as mentoring, socializing and having one-on-one meetings, representing a 32 percent increase from last year.

Additionally, 36 percent of them outright “avoided” these activities with women in junior-level positions because they “were nervous about how it would look.”

The study found that these sentiments have risen over the course of the last year, after the rise of the #MeToo Movement in late 2017 and the subsequent downfall of film mogul Harvey Weinstein and comedian Bill Cosby. Spurred on by a powerful social media movement, countless women and men came forward to voice their own experiences with sexual assault and harassment made by those in powerful positions.

But if men in senior positions continue to avoid these activities with female peers, they will be further stunting the growth of deserving women who are eager to move up the corporate ladder.

“The vast majority of managers and senior leaders are men. If they are reluctant even to meet one-on-one with women, there’s no way women can get an equal shot at proving themselves,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, SurveyMonkey board member and founder of LeanIn.Org, in a statement.

Sheryl Sandberg
| Credit: Virginia Tech

“There’s not a company in the world that can afford to leave talent on the sidelines because it’s female,” she continued. “But that’s what will keep happening unless all of us — especially men— commit to doing better.”

Addressing men in the workplace, Sandberg told PEOPLE, “If you won’t sit down with a woman for a one-on-one meeting, then you’ve promoted your last woman.”

When she was a young woman working for an organization she doesn’t name, Sandberg said she was considered to go on a business trip that would have been a big career opportunity for her, but a male supervisor told that even though she was the best choice to go, he wasn’t going to send her because it “wouldn’t look good.”

Sandberg said she didn’t do anything about it because she was young, he was the boss and she had no recourse, but she recognized later how unfair it was.

Early in her career, she was invited on trips involving paintball and even deep sea fishing. She said she went on the fishing trip, got sick and had a terrible day, but pretended she loved it because it was what the men wanted to do.

To avoid putting women in similar situations now, Sandberg recommended doing an anonymous survey to find recommendations for off sites that also factor in women’s interests.

Though the #MeToo movement has brought awareness to inappropriate behavior, sexual harassment still remains an urgent problem in the workplace, the study found.

Of the women who participated in the survey, 57 percent said they have “experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace, from hearing sexist jokes to being touched in an inappropriate way,” and 24 percent said harassment at work is only getting worse. Nineteen percent of men who were surveyed agreed.

“On the other hand, 27 percent of men say harassment is decreasing. 15 percent of women agree,” according to LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey.

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Taking these results into account, is calling on men in positions of power to help female employees gain leadership roles in their companies. Mentorship and sponsorship programs have helped employees advance more quickly, they said.

“Ultimately, this is about closing the gender gap at work, from the entry-level all the way to the top,” said Rachel Thomas, president of LeanIn.Org. “When companies employ more women, sexual harassment is less prevalent. And when women hold more leadership roles, company profits are higher and workplace policies are more generous. Supporting women makes companies stronger and safer. To get there, we need men to be part of the solution.”

In the #MeToo era, the survey found many businesses have actively addressed sexual harassment, and 70 percent of employees said their company has taken action inappropriate behavior, an increase from 46 percent in 2018.

“We’re heartened to see that companies are making an effort to address sexual harassment claims head on, but we hope this research helps shine a light on some of the less overt, more insidious challenges many face,” said Jillesa Gebhardt, survey scientist at SurveyMonkey and lead researcher on the study.

“Even if we completely eliminate sexual harassment,” she continued, “we still won’t reach gender equality at work if senior-level men are avoiding or excluding the women on their teams.”

To donate to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which will provide subsidized legal support to women and men in all industries who have experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse in the workplace, visit its GoFundMe page. Learn more about Time’s Up, an organization of women in entertainment combating sexual harassment and inequality, on its website.