Business

Shirley Leung

In the company of men, #MeToo is a tough topic

“Men have got to be part of the solution going forward, for the simple reason that men tend to be the majority of the people in power,” said Mohamad Ali,cq the CEO of Boston tech company Carbonite. “It’s not going to change without men participating in making it better.”
KEITH BEDFORD/GLOBE STAFF
“Men have got to be part of the solution going forward, for the simple reason that men tend to be the majority of the people in power,” said Mohamad Ali, CEO of Boston tech company Carbonite. “It’s not going to change without men participating in making it better.”

Where are the men?
Most are lying low as leaders from entertainment, media, and politics are taken down by allegations — and some confessions — of sexual harassment or worse. But some male executives, like Andrew Dreyfus of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, are doing some soul-searching.

“Experiencing the explosion of reports of abuse over the last two months has caused me to examine my own thinking and my own practices more carefully,” said Dreyfus, chief executive of the state’s largest private health insurer. “We’re a model company in every respect, but it doesn’t mean we have gone far enough.”

This is an incredible reflection from a CEO of a company where women make up half of the senior leadership — including the chief financial officer, chief operating officer, and general counsel — and serve as chair and vice chair of the board.

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“On a personal level, I believe we have tolerated for too long the objectification of women. Men have to step forward affirmatively and challenge other men who cross the line and even approach the line,” he said. “We can’t be silent. We’ve learned from other big movements silence is the enemy. It was silence that led to the Holocaust; it was silence that led to civil rights abuses.”

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Missing from the seemingly daily allegations of sexual harassment against prominent men have been, well, the voices of other men. For harassment to end, men can’t be just seen as the problem — they must also be part of the solution, advocating alongside women to fix the male-dominated culture.

So I reached out to some of our male leaders.

But men, being men, have struggled to talk about a topic as sensitive as #MeToo. The chances of putting your foot in your mouth are high. To wit, Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Andris Nelsons, who was on WGBH radio this week and answered “no” when asked if sexual harassment is — or has ever been — an issue in the classical music world. A Twitter firestorm ensued, forcing a lengthy clarification from the maestro.

One male CEO, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, perhaps helped explain why some male leaders may have been hesitant to chat: “I cannot remember a time where I crossed the line, but that said, I couldn’t swear to you I didn’t,” this CEO told me. “Every time you hear another story, you go through a massive self-reflection and your own history and all these situations you remember and can’t remember.”

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For that reason, this executive didn’t want his name or his company mentioned — and he’s usually not press-shy. But he assures me he’s not sitting on the sidelines. He is asking women about their #MeToo stories so he understands firsthand how they feel. He wants to cut out “guy talk” in the workplace because he now understands how that can make women uncomfortable.

He might not remember everything he did in the past, but he certainly knows what he shouldn’t do in the future. He is even thinking twice about hugging in professional settings, and he isn’t the only one in the business community who may revert back to handshakes only. (Yes, please do.)

“Hopefully this has enough impact of awareness and sensitivity that all men change their behavior,” the CEO said.

Jim Rooney, head of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, offered another reason why we don’t hear from many men publicly on the topic of #MeToo.

“I don’t think anyone wants to be put in a position of defending the gender,” said Rooney.

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Indeed, these days it can feel like all men are being vilified.

“You can’t help not feel that,” he acknowledged. Rooney went on to explain that’s it’s human nature to cast a wide net, but the right reaction is outrage over the flood of sexual harassment allegations.

“Recognize that in every kind of grouping in society there are jerks,” he said. “I can’t get in my head how a man can judge it to be OK to do some of these things.”

Rooney also wanted to get on the phone to send this message to business leaders: Don’t think just updating your sexual harassment policy will be enough to address the problem.

“My experience with sexual harassment training and even diversity training is that they are as much geared toward protecting the enterprise and less about changing the culture,” Rooney said.

He said that change must come from leaders who begin to deeply examine their workplace environments. Sure, companies need more female leaders, but don’t wait for a woman to be president to fix the culture. Companies can immediately create a safe environment in which all women — no matter what title they may have — feel comfortable speaking up about harassment.

There has been a lot of talk about whether #MeToo is a movement or just a fleeting moment. Both Rooney and Blue Cross’s Dreyfus believe there will be real change.

But not everyone is so sure. Tufts Health Plan CEO Tom Croswell tells me “attitudes die hard.”

When he started his career in the early ’70s, the first company he worked at held an annual beauty contest featuring female employees.

“That is inconceivable today,” said Croswell. Still, “it is really kind of disturbing, discouraging, and shocking to hear the news that has come out recently. I was hoping we were far beyond that.”

Women make up nearly half of the leadership team at Tufts, a private insurer, and about 70 percent of the employees are women. So yes, it takes sexual harassment seriously, paying a lot of attention to how it disseminates the policy, conducts surveys, and provides training.

“It’s one thing to have the right attitude, but you need to back it up with the right kind of structure,” said Croswell.

Mohamad Ali, CEO of Boston tech company Carbonite, thinks we have hit a tipping point on sexual harassment.

“People who thought that this wasn’t real are now past that. Now everybody recognizes this as real,” he said. “The question is what do we do about it going forward?”

For Ali, that means men have to step up.

“Men have got to be part of the solution going forward, for the simple reason that men tend to be the majority of the people in power,” he said. “It’s not going to change without men participating in making it better.”

Corey Thomas, CEO of Boston cybersecurity firm Rapid7, calls #MeToo “a reset” of what defines acceptable behavior. “That is extraordinarily critical and necessary,” he said.

Within his own company, he’s always trying to create a hard-charging and high-performing culture to spur creative tension but without taking the route some other firms have.

“I would argue the frat-boy culture that some tech companies have is completely unnecessary,” he said.

Given we know that sexual harassment is so widespread, Thomas wants to reexamine what makes for a healthy environment. For example, he wonders now that if an employee asks another colleague out, does that create a hostile environment?

“It’s important to set the norms of what is OK and what is not, so you don’t have fear on either side,” he said.

As to whether #MeToo will forever change the way women get treated, Thomas doesn’t know, but he is sure about this: “If it doesn’t change something, I would view that as an incredibly unacceptable outcome.”

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.