Heard about the #MeToo backlash? That men are now increasingly afraid to work solo with a woman in case their intent is misconstrued? This isn’t good news, but I do think there’s a solution – and it starts with S.
If you haven’t yet heard, here are the latest statistics on gender in the workplace: almost one in two male managers are uncomfortable taking part in common work activities with women, including working alone and mentoring, and almost one in three male managers are uncomfortable working alone with a woman. That’s according to a recent survey by LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey, conducted after the start of the #MeToo movement late last year.
"It’s depressing when senior men are 3.5 times more hesitant to have a working dinner with a junior woman than a junior man,” said LeanIn.Org’s president Rachel Thomas, “and five times more hesitant to travel with a junior woman than a junior man.”
Added Sheryl Sandberg, LeanIn founder, "If the reaction to what’s going on in the workplace is an excuse to isolate women, that is not the answer, and that is unacceptable."
In response to the findings, LeanIn launched #MentorHer, challenging men to mentor women in the workplace. This is a great call to arms, but I’d take it a step further: what we really need is Sponsorship.
The S-word: a counter to (un)conscious privilege
I work a lot with senior leaders, most of whom, just like the statistics say, are men. And in recent years they’ve shown increasing openness to supporting up-and-coming talent of both genders, in all forms. But with the #metoo movement, what I’m seeing and hearing anecdotally now is a new thought process of, ‘You know what? I don’t want to put myself out there. I don’t want my efforts to be misconstrued, I don’t want to risk my reputation or that of the other person involved’
That’s so sad from all perspectives – and really frustrating. And it’s why I think Sponsorship is the best logical next step. Why?
Because if a coach talks to you and a mentor talks with you, a sponsor talksaboutyou. Its very nature is public, professional in context and above board. Coaching and mentoring happen one on one, but sponsorship is about public advocacy, connecting you to audiences you might never normally access. It’s by definition public – someone putting their own brand and reputation on the line to back another, to give them access to audiences, opportunities and networks that may be outside their current reach.
It’s also in my view much-needed. Women tend to fervently believe in meritocracy: women feel that if we just do the job and do it well, we’ll get noticed. But real life isn’t always like that, especially as you move up the corporate ladder. In many cases, the wicked truth of (un)conscious privilege is a genuine blocker to women’s career progression.
I often ask senior leaders and executives to think back to the few key people who, over their career, truly championed them and recommended them to others. What did they look like, I say? Were they the same gender as you, perhaps the same ethnicity, have similar ideological views or similar education background? The answer, invariably, is ‘yes’.
We all have our own unconscious bias where we can’t help but most naturally lend support and advocacy to those who look like us, walk like us, talk like us. And so when we do put our necks on the line, we most naturally do so for people with the same school or university experience, the similar career track or background and, yes, the same gender. It’s unconscious bias at play for those that are ‘different’ to these senior leaders and unconscious privilege at play for those that are reaping the benefits of this ‘affinity’ bias.
Pairing difference for maximum impact: #SponsorHer
There is a raft of research out there saying sponsorship is the missing piece for women. And sponsorship in my view works best when senior executives are matched with up-and-coming talent that is differentto them.
What this does is support people on both sides of the fence – the ‘in’ group and ‘out’ group if you like – to ultimately create large and lasting change.
Let two people walk a mile in someone’s else’s shoes and you set off a ripple effect of change. When you have leaders who have skin in the game, who are personally invested and have got to know diverse talent, that’s when progress happens. I’ve seen it time and again: the leaders who have spent time with rising stars with different backgrounds tend to go back to their own line of business and start making changes off their own bat – recognising talent that’s different to themselves, learning and experimenting with how to best involve ‘difference’ and then reaching down and pulling up that talent. These leaders also become so much more aware of the barriers that hold people back, barriers that were previously invisible to them.
And that’s really why I see this #MeToo backlash as a critical turning point in the story of women and leadership. The vast majority of senior leaders understand the benefits of diversity but it’s the ‘how’ that they struggle with – how do I do this? And, for most, it’s the fear of getting it wrong or it being misconstrued by others that holds them back.
In the next five to 10 years, when baby boomers are transitioning out of the workplace, they have a unique window to be the transformational change that hands the baton over to the next wave of talent coming up through the ranks. Part of that is recognising that leadership comes in all forms, not just in white Anglo Saxon form, and part of it is having the confidence to take action and create change.
I say we can’t let this moment go. The LeanIn findings were so staggering that I think this has to be the moment organisations formally establish sponsorship programs and our senior leaders stand up – after all isn’t this what effective leadership is? Challenging the status quo and being courageous to do the right thing. So, go on, go and #SponsorHer. And, reach out if you want to increase your confidence and effectiveness to do so.
Learn more about Dr. Jesss Murphy and the Pathways to Your Potential (P2YP) program.