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PERSPECTIVE

#MeToo is necessary. It’s also freaking men out

To keep the positive change coming, companies need to build trust between men and women at work.

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Since #MeToo took hold, a new type of leadership conference that teaches men how to be better allies to women in the workplace has begun gaining popularity. The general sentiment at the one I attended as a journalist last fall was contrition. After all, women have always trailed men in salary and promotions, despite decades of leadership conferences designed to teach women to take a seat at the table.

Yet, when these men — most of the attendees were men — started talking about how to become better allies, it began to sound a bit more like mansplaining. In one of the role-playing scenarios, a male manager praises a female colleague before telling her she’s not ready for a promotion because she needs to be “more assertive” and hasn’t “shown leadership.” I’m not sure what lesson that was supposed to impart about being a male ally. As a woman who’s had an actual discussion like this with a male manager, I couldn’t help but wonder if these conferences are missing the mark. Do our raw emotions prevent us from taking corrective steps to fix workplace problems between men and women?

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While women have been wary of men for decades, now men don’t trust women, either. And neither gender trusts their employer to protect them from sexual harassment nor from being falsely accused. Senior-level men are now 12 times more likely to hesitate to have one-on-one meetings with their female colleagues and nine times more likely to hesitate to travel with them for work, according to a 2019 LeanIn.Org survey.

The cost of this dynamic is higher for women than for men. It’s made it increasingly difficult for women to find male sponsors who will tap them for challenging assignments or advocate for their promotions. Studies by Catalyst and Harvard Business Review show women with male sponsors — seasoned colleagues who are willing to use their political capital to help advance careers — are more likely to be promoted and earn more money. A recent study by PayScale found that women who have a sponsor are paid 10 percent more than women without one.

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Real change will only come when workplaces can demonstrate that there is a fair process in place and that men and women alike can trust their employers to do the right thing. “It’s less necessary to trust each other, if we trust the institution to treat us all fairly,” says Rosalind M. Chow, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

So how can companies rebuild trust? CEOs and boards of directors must clearly define what will and won’t be tolerated. Rather than passing that job along to human resources, boards need to be actively involved in defining what sexual harassment is and how it will be handled, says Kellie McElhaney, founding director of the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “Senior leaders need to establish and model trust,” says McElhaney, who coauthored a Harvard Business Review case study last spring on overcoming root causes of gender inequities in the workplace.

Companies also must empower their employees to intervene when they see inappropriate or questionable behavior, says Asha Santos, an employment defense attorney at the Boston office of Littler Mendelson. For instance, if employees see a senior executive hitting on a junior colleague during happy hour, they should feel comfortable intervening by either removing her from the situation or joining the group to create a buffer, says Santos, who has developed a 90-minute training called “Empowering the Bystander” that teaches ways to disrupt inappropriate behavior.

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It’s also important to know where and how to report concerns. “Employees need to feel comfortable coming forward,” Santos says, “and they need to believe their complaints will be taken seriously.”

That holds true even — maybe especially — when the company’s star player is accused of bad behavior. Since April 2017, when sexual misconduct allegations against Fox News host Bill O’Reilly catapulted the issue into the spotlight, more than 260 celebrities, politicians, and CEOs have been accused of sexual harassment, assault, or other misconduct allegations, according to Vox. As the list has grown, so have the fears of male employees that they could lose their jobs and reputations.

Companies must protect employees from false accusations of sexual harassment by communicating a clear process for investigating allegations and announcing the results. Removing the fear of being falsely accused will benefit women as much as men. “Much of what needs to be done to help women get ahead requires help from men, but men won’t provide that help unless they trust they won’t be penalized for trying to help,” Chow says.

Now it’s up to each company to rebuild trust among its workforce and change the false narrative that has emerged in the wake of #MeToo. And maybe it’s time to introduce leadership conferences where men and women learn how to engage with each other — with both genders in the same room.

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Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance journalist who writes about workplace culture, technology, and entrepreneurship. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.