Vice President Mike Pence sparked significant controversy when he told The Hill that it is his policy never to share a meal in the company of a woman who is not his wife. Activists declared that this kind of attitude is what leads to practices that unfairly impact women’s opportunities for professional development and mentorship. Pence maintained that his only intention was to remain true to his Evangelical beliefs and to respect and honor his union with his wife, Karen.
“How Mike Pence’s Marriage Became Fodder for the Culture Wars” – The Atlantic
Mr. Pence’s statement was immediately mocked and criticized by many in the media. However, the extreme noise from all the jokes at his expense prevented many people from hearing the rationale behind his reasoning. The idea came from rules that Billy Graham had developed to combat temptations of sexual immorality that stem from long days spent away from spouses and family. To avoid any situation that might have even the slightest appearance of compromise or suspicion, Graham advised that a married man should never travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than his wife.
In my 25 years of consulting with senior leaders on Diversity & Inclusion (D&I), most successful managers have recognized the integral role that women play in our economy. Even as these senior leaders sometimes wrestled with their organization’s effort to foster gender equity, none ever expressed an interest in the kind of practices that were suggested by Graham or Pence.
However, when the #MeToo movement emerged, a clear shift began. More women vocalized the inequalities that they faced at work, and they not only demanded systemic change within organizations but behavioral changes in men. They demanded consequences for behaviors that were previously either not acknowledged or not seriously addressed. I began meeting with male managers who were genuinely surprised by some of the perspectives of their female colleagues. Many of these men were perplexed by some of the feedback they were receiving about their behavior.
These conversations led to the creation of The MeToo Imperfect Ally assessment and workshop. I thought there was a clear and urgent need to enlighten and change attitudes and to generate productive dialogue and action towards gender equity.
Enter “Creepy Uncle Joe”
The accusations of unwanted touching by Joe Biden have triggered a mixed reaction. Regardless of personal political positions, Biden was generally well-liked by individuals on both sides of the aisle. Witnessing the sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 going from the presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee to a punchline on Twitter feeds and late-night talk shows has led many of both genders to question the real objective of the #MeToo Movement.
While it is reasonable to question Biden’s behavior, we should consider a few key things.
1. Historical Context Matters
Many of the policies and practices that have been illuminated by the #MeToo Movement were developed both before and during the Industrial Age—a period when the average workday required physical labor, gender roles were much more proscribed, and women were prohibited from many jobs. The rules were designed exclusively by men; therefore, workplace cultures evolved to address the needs and concerns of male colleagues and employees. I am not saying that women are not capable of holding physically demanding jobs, many do today, simply that work cultures were originally developed to fit men.
Leading economies in the global marketplace are now well entrenched in the Information Age. The professional skills that are most valued by companies consist of intellectual, technological, and creative skillsets that are acquired by education and professional experiences instead of brute force.
As gender roles have evolved, the rate of female enrollment in post-secondary educational institutions has begun to outpace that of males (72.5% vs. 65.8%, respectively). As we look toward the workplace of the future, policies, practices, and company cultures that work to either exclude or limit the contributions of female staff members are more than unfair; they are counterproductive.
2. Sins of the father and justice deferred
This radical difference in our economic reality significantly affects the conversation about gender equality.
For many women, the #MeToo Movement has provided a long overdue opportunity to finally be heard and taken seriously. In some cases, harassment and outright crimes were committed years or even decades ago. From the perspective of many women (and men), these harmful acts had the following commonalities:
Therefore, the victims have every right to call out perpetrators who wronged them and demand consequences. Holding people accountable for their actions is the only way to bring about lasting change. While it should not have taken so long to get their day in court, deferred justice is better than no justice at all.
Although many men understand and agree with the intentions of the #MeToo movement, they have admitted to feeling a bit blindsided by its expectations and impact. Even those who are sincerely supportive of equity in the workplace can feel a bit defensive at times. The general sentiments I’ve heard expressed have included the following:
3. In a push toward fundamental systemic change, some degree of momentum and backlash is inevitable.
When Tarana Burke started the hashtag MeToo, it was meant to provide support for victims of sexual harassment and abuse by creating an opportunity for them to be heard. After being adopted by women who want to shed light on sexually abusive and harassing practices in the entertainment industry, #MeToo has grown to represent a movement that aims to end inequality against women in all workplaces.
We have already seen important improvements since the #MeToo Movement began:
At the same time, credible sources have cited findings that suggest that male managers are adopting a self-defensive posture when asked to interact with female colleagues:
Having different sets of rules of engagement for men and women in the workplace is neither acceptable nor practical in the 21st-century marketplace. Realistically, quality face time with managers is an important part of anyone’s career development. No matter the intention, when access is conditioned by a person’s gender, it can’t help but impose artificial limits on a manager’s ability to mentor and develop the career of that employee.
When women are denied the chance to develop genuine connections beyond the workplace, they can’t interact in the kind of social or civic experiences that forge trust and understanding. These kinds of interactions often evolve into professional mentoring and advancement. As a result, a company may fail to fully gain from the contributions of its female employees, and that is assuming that the company doesn’t lose this undeveloped talent altogether.
4. It’s about engaging and changing, not blaming and shaming
While this news may be troubling for those who are advocating for greater workplace inclusion, it’s not surprising. Roles are evolving quickly. Many managers—even well-intentioned people who bear no ill-will toward anyone—feel as if they no longer understand what is acceptable behavior in the workplace.
When human beings are faced with changes that they don’t quite understand, they respond predictably. I’ve recently been confronted with clients who are at every one of the five stages of change:
The good news is that no matter where a manager falls in the change cycle, the primary objective of most is the current and future success of his/her organization. While it may take more time and different approaches based on the mindsets mentioned above, we can foster pragmatic and measurable benefits of more inclusive company culture. Customized strategies for implementing policies and procedures that specifically address the company’s unique concerns and opportunities are the key to sustainable success.
Where can we go from here?
As a D&I professional, I have dedicated my entire career to the belief that a diverse and inclusive culture is both possible and beneficial for all involved. As a man, I have had to come to grips with my unconscious privilege, and I have learned to hear the perspectives of women with whom I work.
With that said, I must admit to a profound and uncomfortable reaction to the Joe Biden allegations. My dad was my hero and the biggest influence on the man I am today. He had the fortitude, intelligence, and vision to become a successful entrepreneur in the 1940s, which is something that isn’t necessarily easy now and was even more difficult at that time for a black man in inner-city Cleveland.
My memories and respect for my dad go way beyond his professional accomplishments and the advantages he was able to afford my family. He was a kind, empathetic, and affectionate man. Like Joe Biden, he would think nothing of pulling someone in for a hug or a comforting pat on the back. He was known for it.
Before you can be an effective ally, you must understand what you really feel and believe. Take “The #MeToo Imperfect Ally” assessments now to find out.
As the rules of engagement in the #MeToo era continue to evolve, I can’t help but think about my dad and how he might be perceived through today’s lens. Please understand that this is not an attempt to minimize the feedback to Joe Biden’s behavior. I understand that my intentions are not a women’s reality. Women who feel that uninvited intimacies of any kind are intrusive and unwelcomed should be acknowledged and respected.
However, as the conversation evolves, I hope that we will find room for a bit of grace. We are witnessing a fundamental change to the status quo. Both missteps and outright misbehavior are inevitable. It’s important to be able to distinguish between the two and address them accordingly. I also hope that we can leave room for enough nuance to fashion new societal norms that can respect personal boundaries and dignity yet allow people to express genuine emotions.
Finding this appropriate balance among all genders is the reason I genuinely want to remain engaged in the #MeToo discussion as an Imperfect Ally. While I respect that this is a movement that was begun by women to tell and resolve their truths, it is not exclusively a woman’s issue. Changing rules, behaviors, and expectations will impact all of us. We are all imperfect allies to some degree, and we need to align our intentions and behaviors from all perspectives so that others feel respected, valued, and empowered to reach their full potential.
Please share your journey! To move forward, we must create safe spaces for honest discussion.
Have the allegations (and consequences) that have been brought against prominent men changed how you view interactions with colleagues of another gender?
Kevin A. Carter is the President of Inclusion Innovates and a Principal Strategist with The Winters Group, Inc. Kevin has been a thought leader in the D&I industry for more than 25 years. He focuses on strategy development, knowledge transfer, and coaching. Connect with Kevin by email or schedule a meeting.