Could fear of sexual harassment be contributing to the gender wage gap?

“Sex and the Office: Women, Men, and the Sex Partition That’s Dividing the Workplace,” a book written by Dr. Kim Elsesser, research scholar at the Center for Study of Women at UCLA, asserts that male workers aren’t mentoring, collaborating and socializing with their female colleagues out of fear of sexual harassment claims. As a result, women aren’t being considered for advancement opportunities.

She explains in her book:

“The truth is, many senior male executives are reluctant to have a one-on-one meeting with a junior woman at work. They’re afraid that an offhand remark will be misinterpreted as sexual harassment or that their friendliness will be mistaken for romantic interest. As a result, many male executives stick with other men, especially when it comes to dinners, drinks, late-night meetings, or business trips. When it’s time for promotions or pay raises, these same executives are more likely to show preference to the employees with whom they feel most comfortable—other men.”

When I first heard about Dr. Elsesser’s theory, I had an ‘aha’ moment. Was the lack of networking, attributed to male workers’ fears of sexual harassment claims, contributing to the unsettling gender wage gap in the United States?

According to the Women in the Workplace 2015 study, conducted by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org, men predominantly have male networks and are more likely to hold senior leadership positions while women may end up with less access to senior-level sponsorship. The study found that only 10 percent of senior-level women report that four or more executives have helped them advance compared to 17 percent of senior-level men.

And let’s not forget, female full-time workers make only 76 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of approximately 20 percent.

Throughout my professional career, I have had at least a dozen males directly express their concerns to me.

What I have heard most is that male workers worry about unintentionally saying or doing the wrong thing, being misinterpreted or being falsely accused. In fact, just two years ago, a male senior executive told me he is always fearful of giving female workers the “wrong impression”—so much so that he instinctively takes one step back when a female takes one step toward him. He also goes out of his way to not be alone with a female colleague.

He’s not alone in this feeling.

Dr. Elsesser made mention of a study that found two-thirds of senior executives are reluctant to meet one-on-one with junior women. She also spoke about a National Journal study finding female congressional aides were not allowed to meet one-on-one with their male congressmen bosses and were not permitted to accompany the congressmen to events because the congressmen were fearful that such acts would be misinterpreted.

Sad but true, I believe Dr. Elsesser is on to something, and I think there is a connection between the fear of sexual harassment claims and the lack of co-sex networking in the workplace. Male employees are limiting their interactions with female colleagues as a protection mechanism, leading to them having stronger relationships with their male counterparts. As a result of the growing list of sexual harassment scandals being reported in politics and entertainment, I fear “the good guys” will retreat even more.

I understand and empathize with the concerns of male workers and think a lot of this fear could be mitigated by more robust sexual harassment training, covering both what is and isn’t acceptable. For these trainings to be successful, they can’t be one-way and they shouldn’t be online. Rather, sexual harassment training should be face-to-face and foster inquisitiveness and open dialogue to promote understanding and comfort around the subject – on both sides. Once males have a better understanding of what is and isn’t appropriate, I’m confident they will feel more comfortable working and connecting with female colleagues, which in turn, would open up career advancement opportunities for women for higher-paying roles.”

Danielle Clark is a higher education leader, educator, career coach and HR consultant. She has a strong and diverse professional background working with higher education institutes and family-owned and Fortune 500 companies. Her goal is to educate and inspire professionals to change their way of thinking. Danielle is also an active community volunteer, wife, mother and passionate lifelong learner.

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