Tony Robbins got some well-deserved flak on social media this past weekend when a video surfaced showing an interaction he had with a female audience member at one of his events, in which he suggested that some women have used the #MeToo movement to “gain significance.” The whole exchange, which went on for ten minutes, was tone-deaf and at times disturbing (like when he physically pushed the woman to illustrate a point).
But what really struck a nerve with me, as someone who helps organizations adopt fair and effective hiring strategies, was the anecdote Robbins shared as proof of his theory: He’d recently talked with a “a very famous man, very powerful man” who had interviewed three people for a position, two men and one woman. The woman was better qualified, but she was very attractive. “And he knew,” Robbins said, “’I can’t have her around because it’s too big a risk,’ and he hired somebody else.” Robbins went on to say that he’d talked to dozens of powerful men who had told him more or less the same thing.
In other words, Robbins was suggesting that women were harming their careers by speaking out against sexual harassment and abuse. Nice, right?
Now, to be fair, Robbins and these other men were articulating a fear that a lot of a men have: That because of #metoo and the new awareness around sexual harassment, they or others in their company are going to be unjustly accused of sexual harassment.
But for men to respond to that fear by refusing to hire qualified women? I’m sorry, guys, but it’s time to find your bravest selves and treat #MeToo for what it is: an opportunity to listen, learn, and make sure that women in your workplace are treated with respect. You can say you believe in equality and dignity for women, but unless you’re willing to transform your fear into true allyship and, yes, hire them when they’re qualified, regardless of what they look like, then you’re part of the problem. If we’re going to root out the kinds of sexual harassment and abuse of power that #MeToo has brought to light, and achieve true equality in the workplace, we need men who are willing to actually do the work.
1. We need men who will step up to other men. It goes without saying that we need men to speak up when they witness or hear about inappropriate behavior toward women. But we also need men to interrupt the kind of thinking in which women are seen as would-be victims waiting to pounce, or lawsuits waiting to happen. Tony Robbins should have looked those powerful men he mentioned straight in the eye and said, “Hang on. You don’t want to hire a highly qualified woman because you’re afraid you’re going to get sued? How about instead taking the time to make sure that neither you nor anyone else in your organization does anything to give her a reason to sue?” (And while we’re at it, some man in the audience should have stepped up to Tony Robbins, perhaps at the moment he was making his point by physically pushing the woman who was speaking with him, and told him that the way he was characterizing the #MeToo movement and the fact that he was using his 6’ 7” frame to physically intimidate a woman who dared to SPEAK UP against him, was absolutely wrong.)
2. We need men who know that excellence is what matters. People always say they are about merit and often use maintaining standards as an argument against diversifying their ranks. So to apply this double standard to women (we are only interested in excellence as long as it doesn’t come in a person we are uncomfortable with) is not only wrong, it is setting their companies up for failure down the road: If you don’t hire that highly qualified woman, one of your competitors will. And if your company shows a pattern of not hiring women, someone will catch on and the company will get sued anyway. It’s called discrimination! Meanwhile, if you help perpetuate the notion that hiring women is a bad idea, who’s going to hire your daughters? Your nieces? Your wife? Not hiring women isn’t only cowardly; it’s supremely short-sighted.
3. We need men who will walk on fire. I’m borrowing a page from the Tony Robbins playbook here: At some of his events, Robbins invites participants to overcome their fear and walk across hot coals. Well, men who are serious about equity and respect for women need to take that walk too, metaphorically speaking. They need to have the courage to have difficult, uncomfortable conversations with women about what kinds of behaviors are and aren’t OK—and be prepared to have those conversations repeatedly, since every woman has different preferences and boundaries. They have to be strong enough to keep quiet and actually listen to what women are saying. (Something that Robbins didn’t seem able to do.) They need to be brave enough to confront their sexism and the way gender bias is baked into the culture and policies of their workplace. They have to be willing to become allies to women, intentionally and proactively using their male privilege to interrupt the bias of others and promote and sponsor women. And they need to be brave enough to consider their actions and apologize when necessary. (I appreciate that Robbins realized he needed to apologize; it’s a start, at least.) Most of all, men need to have the guts to put the cause of gender equity above their own fears of what could go wrong.
If we had more men who could do all three of these things, and fewer men shutting women out to preemptively save their own skins, then we could get to a place where talented women can bring their full selves to the workplace. Keeping women out won’t get us there. Inviting them in and learning from them will. I know men have what it takes to be part of the solution.