By Thomas J. Lee
For twenty-odd years now I have been mentoring graduate students at The University of Chicago. Probably a little more than half my mentees have been women. They have been consistently impressive: brainy, sophisticated, curious, ambitious, focused. In retrospect, a number of them have been quite attractive, too.
I never gave it much thought until I heard that Vice President Mike Pence refuses to meet one-on-one with any women—any, at all. Not for coffee, not for lunch, not for dinner. Not even one-on-one in his office. That stunned me. His reasoning, apparently, is that he wants to avoid the temptation of adultery.
Adultery? Even in the abstract, a temptation so real and so near he declines even to meet with a woman?
I’m shaking my head. If the temptation is that real and that near, a few things must be going on—none of them good. He must be so distrustful of himself that he thinks he would lose his self-control—itself a profound weakness—and be so self-delusional that he thinks women half his age would be attracted to him, and be so disparaging of women that he believes they will lose their own self-control in his lordly presence.
This is what passes for a leader in our society?
All that was bad enough, but recently I came across a survey showing—or suggesting, anyway—that the world has a lot more Mike Pences than I ever realized.
According to LeanIn.org, a women’s advocacy organization founded by bestselling Lean In author and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, sixty percent of male managers are reluctant to meet singly with women. They told pollsters they are uncomfortable mentoring women or socializing with women in a one-on-one setting. Sixty percent!
Really? There are so many things wrong with this scenario, it’s hard to know where to begin. Apparently the problem is quite a bit deeper than just refusing to meet with young women. The real problem is imagining and fearing a bugbear and using it as a convenient excuse to avoid doing what should be done.
Now I am well aware of the controversy over the extra-judicial nature of some of the #MeToo complaints. Like many of you, I have serious qualms about that aspect. But magnifying it to the point that it becomes the issue is also wrongheaded and shortsighted. For most of us men, an allegation of impropriety is far, far less likely and ultimately less limiting than entrenched, rampant employment discrimination against women. In any case, the bugbear shouldn’t get in the way of mentoring high-potential young women. Let’s count the reasons.
First, all of us have a moral and social responsibility to treat everyone with dignity and respect. That is doubly or triply true for leaders. Anyone for whom it is too difficult doesn’t deserve to hold a position of leadership in the first place. Seeing women first and only as sexual objects is tantamount to treating them with a plain absence of dignity and respect.
Second, by refusing to meet singly with women, these men are perpetuating the gender bias in favor of men. That is both stupid and hurtful. It is stupid because it denies an organization or a cause the benefit of so many good minds, and it is hurtful because it consigns women to permanent second-class status.
Third, successful leaders are ipso facto role models for young people—period. As role models, they have a quasi-fiduciary obligation to share their experiences and expertise. Refusing to do so is a dereliction of duty. Worse, it is implicitly teaching that dereliction is acceptable and proper.
Finally, they must believe that all those women are in a state of rapturous desire for an old man. What gives them such a looney idea? To be brutally honest, they’re likely to be uninteresting, unattractive, and unexciting to young women. They should just consider the possibility that, to the extent young women are preoccupied with matters of sexuality at all, they are focusing on potential partners their own age. That certainly seems to be nature’s way.
You can dismiss my little jeremiad as the ranting of a naïve simpleton. I will confess to the naïvetè, but I have been mentoring young people long enough to know a few things.
Frankly, the best thing these feckless, fearful men can do is to have those lunches and just listen to women talk. They’ll hear some stories that will put them back on an even keel. And if a man is too weak or too timid to do that, he should just get out of the way. Let some of these promising young women show them what real leadership is all about.
One last point, which I hope Ms. Sandberg will take back to Facebook and the rest of Silicon Valley: Your culture is one of the very worst. With a few notable exceptions, and apart from yourself, women are few and far between in the management of high-tech companies. All the problems associated with macho cultures, which millennials rightly protest, are there in spades along I-280. You need not point fingers at other companies. Just curl that little index finger around, and follow it home.