Memo to Managers: The Solution to Workplace Sexual Harassment Is Not Gender Segregation

Three women are sitting at a table, two are out of focus and have their back to the camera.
Quarantining women is also illegal. Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Since the fall of 2017, when #MeToo surged onto the national stage and demanded that we reckon with how gender and power interact in the workplace, companies and the men that lead them have been forced—largely for the first time—to be held accountable for the way they behave. Flashpoints in the discussion around toxic masculinity—like the recent Gillette commercial fracas—preoccupy us for weeks. Parents agonize in the pages of New York Magazine, Time and the New Yorker over how to raise their boys into men who will see women as human beings. And amid all these productive, if occasionally infuriating, attempts to rectify an injustice women have long suffered in silence, some men have, under the guise of taking #MeToo’s lessons seriously, opted to forego a personal reckoning all together.

In a recent report from the New York Times, male managers attending the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland disclosed that rather than attempt substantive institutional change, their method of reducing the risk of sexual misconduct was “simply minimizing contact between female employees and senior male executives” in their companies. The piece, titled “Another Side of #MeToo: Male Managers Fearful of Mentoring Women,” quotes an anonymous American finance executive who now thinks “twice about spending one-on-one time with a young female colleague.”

He’s not alone in his discomfort with co-ed one-on-one time. According to a survey cited by NYT and conducted by Lean In on the effects of #MeToo, almost half of male managers are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as working alone or socializing together. One in six male managers are uncomfortable mentoring a female colleague. It’s gotten to the point where a consultant who advises companies on gender and diversity issues has had to explicitly tell men in management that it is illegal to deliberately avoid their female subordinates.

There are a few troubling ideas underlying this new commitment to gender segregation. The first is that these men seem to believe that women are reporting sexual harassment capriciously. You cannot profess yourself not to be a harasser while simultaneously secluding yourself away from women without suggesting that, given the opportunity, some women would lie about sexual harassment. Broadcasting a reluctance to be alone with female co-workers indicates that you either find women to be fundamentally untrustworthy or unreliable narrators of their own lives.

The other explanation is a self-serving cop-out: that men either cannot help themselves from harassing their co-workers if left alone with them or that they simply cannot distinguish between normal and predatory behavior. I’m going to give men the benefit of the doubt and assume that most of them fall into the latter, still terrible category. Head honchos seem to be working from that assumption as well. When they should be questioning why their employees lack the critical thinking skills necessary to tell the difference between sexual harassment and asking a colleague about their weekend, men like the chief brand officer of Proctor and Gamble are instead advocating in the pages of the Times for “safe spaces” where men can “air their confusion and concerns about what behavior might qualify as bad.” Because now we’re into the concept of safe spaces.

In fact, the CEO of the Female Quotient, a company that is quite literally dedicated to achieving workplace equality, takes it one step further in the Times piece and suggests turning the entire office into a safe space for men: “I tell women, before you take offense, make men aware that you are uncomfortable, as it may not be intentional.” Never mind that an inability to notice that you’re making a colleague uncomfortable requires a stunning lack of both empathy and just plain observational skills. The fact that it’s apparently now women’s responsibility to play the game of “Is this guy clueless or malevolent?” suggests that corporate America has absorbed all the wrong takeaways of #MeToo.

That men would rather cordon themselves off from the women in their workplace than do to the work of examining why they cannot distinguish between predatory behavior and mentoring is not “another side” of the #MeToo movement. It’s the same old sexism in a new suit. It’s seeing women as objects that prompt bad behavior, like cupcakes in the break room when you’re doing Whole30, or as harpies who lie about harassment for revenge. It’s yet another instance where women are being required to give something up—in this instance, mentoring opportunities that can determine their career trajectory—because men refuse to learn extremely basic social cues that are hammered into women’s heads from birth. And it is, as the Times reports MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle suggested at a Davos panel on the future of masculinity, ultimately an excuse to return to the status quo of all-male leadership boards and exclusive boys’ clubs.