A manager lamented, “I can’t even compliment a woman on how she looks anymore.” This was shortly after the #metoo movement lit up in October 2017. He was genuinely confused about how to work with the women in his office.

For men who valued female colleagues for their intellect regardless of their looks, the #metoo movement made the workplace confusing. I’ve learned it made them hesitant or nervous about how they’re perceived, putting a damper on healthy workplace cultures and working relationships. A poll by SurveyMonkey and LeanIn.org found that almost half of male managers were uncomfortable participating in basic workplace activities with women, including working alone together.(1)

The problem

The problem is people want equality and fairness and think this is best achieved by treating everyone essentially the same.(2) Treating everyone the same is our cultural default, because two-thirds of people worldwide are unknowingly stuck in a developmental stage called Minimization. People in this stage of cultural intelligence tend to overestimate their understanding of others and assume other people’s experience is just like our own. They minimize or de-emphasize individual differences and cannot see the surrounding cultural system that keeps people feeling sidelined or silenced.

However, people’s experiences are far from essentially the same. It may help men to know that research shows that 1 in 5 women, vs. 1 in 71 men, are raped at some point in their lives.(3) Activist and sexual assault survivor Tarana Burke originally started the “metoo” movement in 2006 to help survivors of sexual violence find pathways to healing. She strove to galvanize a broad base of survivors to disrupt the systems that allow for sexual violence against both women and men. The movement escalated when the “metoo” hashtag went viral on social media as the first allegations against Harvey Weinstein appeared in the New York Times. Within the first 24-48 hours, Facebook had 12 million engagements with #metoo, igniting a national conversation about sexual violence.(4) Surfacing such problems can make people uncomfortable and painfully aware. However, being uncomfortable is a jumping-off point for problem solving.

To begin, we need to stop minimizing differences and disrupt the system that allows for sexual violence. This isn’t just good for people, it’s good for business.

Why advance women at work?

Reykjavik Energy, the parent company of Iceland’s largest power provider, which was forced to fire one-third of its workforce in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, used its subsequent restructuring as an opportunity to become a fully gender-equal employer. Within five years, by “putting the gender glasses on before taking every single decision,” the company boosted the proportion of women in management positions from 29% to 49%. Over the same period, its adjusted gender pay gap shrank from 8.4% to 2.1% and now stands at 0.2% in favor of women. The company’s chief executive, Bjarni Bjarnason, says the net outcome has been “more open discussions, higher productivity, greater job satisfaction, improved decision-making, higher morale and an all-round far better atmosphere.”(5)

In an interview for Forbes, contributor Michelle King asked Mike Gamson, senior vice-president of LinkedIn Global Solutions, “Why are most men not aware of their critical role in advancing women at work?”(6)

Gamson replied, “There’s a natural human tendency to hire or surround ourselves with people that look and think just like us. That’s a problem for many reasons, one being that when everyone at the top looks, thinks, acts or speaks like you, it’s harder to get that natural exposure to new ways of doing things or emerging opportunities.”(6)

Be part of the solution

“Don’t avoid women, mentor them,” writes Rachel Thomas, president of LeanIn.org, and Stacy Brown-Philpot, CEO of TaskRabbit, in a Wall Street Journal article.(7) While women represent over half the available talent pool, organizations struggle to retain and grow talented women. There are a number of ways men can make a difference, here. Men can…

  • Be a mentor. Studies show that people with mentors are likelier to get promotions. Mentors show women the ropes and help them navigate office politics. They introduce them to decision-makers who help women get high-profile assignments. So much of what gets you noticed at work is who you know and who sings your praises.(7)
  • Meet for breakfast, if you’re uncomfortable going to dinner with female colleagues. The so-called Pence rule—the idea that a man can’t eat alone with a woman who isn’t his wife—is a double standard. It results in one kind of access for men, another for women.(8)
  • Ask rather than dictate. Ask women what they need to move up. Maybe she wants advice on how to pitch to a prospective client. Maybe she’s navigating political landmines in her office and just wants guidance from someone who has done so in the past. Maybe she’s thinking about quitting because she’s being asked to attend too many events at night and has young kids at home she needs to spend time with. Conversations such as these are important, typically requiring at most an hour per person per month.(9)
  • Be informed about both big-picture data and the statistics of the company. For example, find out the average pay gap and address it when bonuses are being discussed. By doing basic research on workplace sexism, you could implement new policies to limit your company’s tendency for bias.(8)
  • Remember your own experiences with bias. Even though you may not understand her particular pain, you can recall times when you’ve been sidelined. By engaging in conversations with personal storytelling, you create an emotional connection to the issue, which allows you to understand the perspectives of female team members.(8)
  • Take time to identify how bias might show up in your work day. Gamson says, “The tables are often tipped unconsciously in the favor of white men. Making explicit investments in high-potential, underrepresented talent can help to correct that imbalance. Take the time to identify programs or initiatives you can join to support the growth of employees – and if none exist, consider starting one.”(6) Noticing and naming an issue and opportunity out loud is the first step to creating an environment where everyone feels valued, seen, heard and engaged.

How to compliment

In the scenario of how to compliment a woman at work, compliment her work not her appearance. Even if offered with the best of intentions, comments on physical attributes can be perceived as aggressive or a demeaning disregard for good work.

When you do give a compliment of any kind and are unsure whether it was appropriate or productive, you can check by asking, “What was the impact of what I just said?” Or “How did that land with you?” Then actively listen to her response, affirming her experience, even if it’s different from what you expected.

If she seems to dismiss or wave off your effort to check your impact, know that she may be inadvertently minimizing her own feelings to save her job. When a person has been historically marginalized under the system of minimization, women, people of color and those who are differently abled may hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation, misrepresentation, social isolation or job loss – even when asked to speak up. So, it takes time to build genuine relationships, trust and mutual respect.

Achieving diversity, equity and a sense of belonging in the workplace isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s critical to a company’s long-term success. Fostering employee safety and belonging using cultural intelligence is the means to greater job satisfaction, productivity, innovation and profit in any business.  -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD


  1. https://leanin.org/sexual-harassment-backlash-survey-results#!
  2. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  3. National Sexual Violence Resource Center: https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics
  4. MeToo: https://metoomvmt.org/
  5. Henley, J (20 Feb. 2018) “’Equality won’t happen by itself’: how Iceland got tough on gender pay gap.” The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/20/iceland-equal-pay-law-gender-gap-women-jobs-equality
  6. King, M (28 Sept. 2017) “Three ways men can champion gender equality at work.” Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/michelleking/2017/09/28/three-ways-men-can-champion-gender-equality-at-work/#79a9d4353eb6
  7. Thomas, R. & Brown-Philpot, S (4 Feb. 2018) “Don’t avoid women, mentor them: worried by #MeToo? Here’s how to become part of the solution.” Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/dont-avoid-women-mentor-them-1517776842#_=_
  8. Campbell-Dollaghan, K (23 Oct. 2018) “9 women executives on how MeToo has changed the way they mentor.” Fast Company: https://www.fastcompany.com/90252403/9-women-executives-on-how-metoo-has-changed-the-way-they-mentor
  9. Donnelly, G, (5 Oct. 2018) “Here’s how men can be leaders in improving corporate diversity.” Fortune: http://fortune.com/2018/10/05/diversity-inclusion-men/
  10. Photo credit: Clark Tibbson Unsplash