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The challenging combination of men’s heightened confusion and fear regarding gender issues at work, along with the glacial rate of change in gender balance at the most senior levels of leadership in companies, cry out for innovative thinking and new strategies for driving change.

The first two installments of the three part-series on Men, Gender Equality, and Fear: It’s Time for a New Approach delved into the foundational elements for facilitating gender equality along with envisioning new ways to frame – and resource – gender diversity efforts in organizations. This third and last article in the series highlights a common sense approach to harassment and explores how new questions catalyze new solutions in the quest for gender equity at work.

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The Importance of Nuance: A Common Sense Approach to Harassment

A rising tide of understanding, calling out inappropriate behavior in the workplace, has left even the well-intentioned worried. The explosion of the Me-Too movement, and men’s heightened fear in response, argues for the importance of a more thoughtful and nuanced understanding of harassment. Brain research indicates black and white thinking is closely associated with a perceived lack of safety in which an individual is operating in a threat state. While for our prehistoric ancestors, reactionary thinking and response was a survival skill, the complex challenges that characterize the modern workplace require a very different approach. Big, multi-layered issues necessitate the ability to see shades of gray.

No alt text provided for this imageThe discussion of workplace harassment desperately needs more gray, coupled with defining clear boundaries that are non-negotiable. We have conflated innocent errors (always referring to leaders as he) with thoughtless, obnoxious behaviors (sexist jokes) with behaviors that cross a boundary (sexualizing women co-workers) and, more often than not, represent a clear abuse of power (a more senior-level person linking work opportunities with a desired sexual relationship).

This oversimplification is hurting – not helping – the development of a common sense approach to managing harassment in the workplace. There are a whole range of harassment behaviors along a continuum. Frequency, intent, willingness to hear and respond to feedback, and the relative levels of the individuals involved are all critical factors in crafting a proportionally appropriate response to harassing behaviors.

I’ve often heard men say something like,” I’m not even allowed to tell a woman she looks pretty or that I like her outfit anymore.” I would argue that telling a woman she looks attractive is not the problem. The problems arise when: 1) the compliment is sexually charged and inappropriate for the workplace, 2) there are excessive compliments targeted at one individual, or 3) all the compliments are about women’s looks and not about their professional contributions. Context matters.

Men worry that they will somehow be caught off guard and charged with harassment, potentially upending their careers and all they’ve worked so hard to achieve. This worry is misguided. Egregious cases tend to be clear cut and avoiding them straight-forward.

Most of the high-profile news stories spotlighting harassment reflect an abuse of power, fueled by egotism, a lack of regard, the absence of self-reflection and in some cases, outright cruelty.

Repeatedly asking someone out who has clearly indicated a lack of interest? Pretty clear. Making a sexual overture toward a woman who is clearly subordinate (more junior in rank or substantially younger)? Should be pretty clear but apparently isn’t. Offering professional opportunities in exchange for sexual favors or threatening professional harm in the absence of sexual favors? Egregiously clear. Physically forcing or restraining someone in any way? Couldn’t be clearer. Intentionally seeking to frighten, demean or marginalize someone with words and actions? Is it necessary to ask?

The reality is that the overwhelming majority of men who seek to do the right thing, and feel confused by what constitutes harassment, have nothing to worry about. Here are a few simple ways men can clear up any possible confusion if they’re concerned:

1)   Stop any behaviors that are worrisome or potentially problematic

2)   Investigate and ask the woman or women involved if the behavior is a problem

3)   Ask yourself the question, how would I feel about a man treating my — daughter, niece, wife, sister, female friend, fill in the blank – this way? If the response is, I’d want to punch him in the face or worse, then the answer is clear.

While organizations are seeking to make long-needed adjustments to how women are treated in the workplace, growing pains are inevitable. Change is hard.

The Need to Ask New Questions

The ability for organizations to realize gender parity requires them to start asking new questions. Many of the obstacles to greater progress result from inertia and a lack of innovative thinking. Too often diversity work can feel marginalized, relegated to an HR project rather than regarded as a powerful lever to strengthen financial returns, drive innovation, and reduce risk, all benefits documented by research.

If we took even a fraction of the resources invested to develop a new medical drug, market a new software product or even entertain clients at a major law firm or investment bank, we would get far closer to realizing gender parity in the next 10 years, rather than the next 100.

Asking new questions opens up pathways in the brain. The table below highlights common issues and challenges that women confront at work and poses questions that can help to spur innovative thinking and solutions.

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Conclusion

Women’s potential has been – and continues to be – squandered in the workplace, with little progress in sightGlobally, the underutilization of women’s talents in the workforce translates to a 12 trillion – with a T – dollar loss.

At the same time, having men on the sidelines, marginally involved (if at all) in diversity work represents a tremendous lost opportunity. The prevalent approach to gender diversity work is missing a major piece of the puzzle – proactively involving men – as allies and partners.

By employing a new approach to framing gender in the workplace, organizations can engage men in ways that not only substantially benefit women and companies but also enrich men’s lives. That’s a win-win-win