Nearly four decades have passed since women began entering the workforce in droves, and men and women are still grappling with how to work alongside one another. Since The New York Times published an exposé of film executive Harvey Weinstein, sexual harassment allegations have roiled the country, taking down high-powered men from newsrooms, Hollywood, Wall Street, and Washington, DC. Hundreds of women have stepped forward to share their stories of sexual misconduct in the workplace.
As a survivor of sexual assault, I celebrate the courage of women who have finally spoken truth to power. However, as a researcher and leadership consultant, I watch these developments with some anxiety and worry about the implications for women in the workplace.
For over a decade, I’ve studied the barriers for Christian women in leadership. Like their secular peers, many Christian women encounter leadership limitations as a result of failure to be included in “the old boys club.” That exclusion dramatically reduces their ability to participate in critical decision-making processes.
In the context of these common workplace dynamics, a key question emerges: Will good men in leadership, out of fear of false sexual harassment allegations, withdraw even further from women in the workplace?
In 1948, Billy Graham and a few of his associates drafted the Modesto Manifesto in response to evangelists whose ministries had been derailed by sexual immorality. They pledged to “avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion.” This commitment—although only part of the overall manifesto—became well-known as the “Billy Graham Rule,” in which men vow to not be alone with a woman other than their wives. It’s now practiced by many men, including Vice President Mike Pence.
However, because of the Billy Graham Rule, Christian women often report feeling awkward or alienated in the workplace. They also feel diminished to nothing more than a sexual object.
In my research, I heard from a high-ranking female executive who described the loneliness and impotence she felt due to exclusion from work lunches and company leadership retreats. A female seminary student told of the difficulty in getting a ride to a class with her male peers. A female pastor spoke of her exclusion from the weekly post-sermon review in the church’s cigar room. Hundreds of women testified with a similar story: Male colleagues claimed they were unable to work or meet with them because of their gender.
With these cases and others in mind, there’s a temptation to ridicule men who practice the Billy Graham Rule and dismiss them as backward or bigoted. However, most men say they follow the rule out of duty and respect. They want to honor their wives, honor the dignity of the women they work with, and honor the ministry they have been entrusted with.
For two years, I conducted research interviews with men around the country and asked about their experiences in working alongside women in academic, church, and parachurch settings. Most of the men reported feeling the tension of living with integrity in a hypersexualized world. In following the Billy Graham Rule, they didn’t intend to exclude women or sexualize them. Instead, they wanted to ensure their actions were always above board.
They also wanted to inoculate themselves against false sexual harassment allegations. “Just one hint of something improper—or one false allegation,” they would tell me, “would not only destroy my family but would destroy this whole ministry and people’s faith in it.”
In the current climate, good men like these feel stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. The stories of sexual assault need to be aired, but the danger now lies in blaming all men for the actions of the few. There are more than a few good men out there who simply want to do the right thing.
So how do we reconcile the sometimes-conflicting perspectives of men and women?
In the grand scale of human history, the presence of women in business, church ministry, and academia is relatively new. Women are working in institutions primarily built by and for men. As more and more women pursue leadership opportunities, we need to create a new paradigm for how men and women relate to one another in the workplace.
The church is in the unique position of modeling a way forward because it is grounded in the truth that men and women are equally gifted, equally created in the image of God, and equally tasked with stewarding the world.
For Christian men and women looking to take the lead, here are four foundational ways to forge healthy male-female alliances in the workplace:
1. Implement strategic organizational policies that bolster women’s development as leaders and integrate them into the workplace.
First, seek ways to hire, train, and support women. The more women we have in the workplace, the more normal it becomes. The more normal it becomes, the less anxiety there is surrounding the mixed-gender work environment. Male leaders can look for opportunities to mentor and sponsor women who show promise as effective leaders.
Second, find ways to include the female leaders in your midst. These mixed-gender relational bonds ensure that female leaders are present when important business decisions are made. Evaluate where the bulk of the decisions are made within the organization. Are they at lunch, over coffee, or at the golf course? Are women’s voices missing from those spaces, and if so, why?
2. Start (or continue) the big-picture conversation about what it means to be men and women serving together in the context of a hypersexualized culture.
Evaluate what your church or organization believes about men and women and the relationship between the two. What do you say you believe? What do your actual policies and procedures say about what you believe? Are there men and women distributed across all levels of leadership? Why or why not? Are men and women encouraged to work together in collaborative teams? Is that working? Why or why not?
As Lauren Winner writes, “Let’s take note of concrete situations [and] ask fellow workers, ‘What happens in a Christian community when these issues come up?’ Then we can start to develop the language we clearly need to articulate how manners might look in a new social setting of sexual equality, where we are surrounded and bombarded by greedy, indulgent … ideas about sex.”
3. Establish clear, wise boundaries in advance.
Clear boundaries—rather than restrictions that exclude female coworkers—provide women with safety. Instead of burdening a man with the task of telling a co-worker he can’t meet with her, organizations can set specific policies to guide godly behavior regarding travel and how to partner on projects. Setting these policies benefits both men and women. Men don’t feel awkward, and women don’t feel demeaned and sexualized.
As Gina Dalfonzo writes, the argument is not that “there shouldn't be boundaries, but that those boundaries should be drawn in a way that respects women as working professionals trying to do their jobs.”
For example, in my research into male-female collegiality, I encountered a man and woman working together in a local church who each drew up a contract with their respective spouse. (It’s worth noting that they pushed past the Billy Graham Rule by engaging in a mutually agreed upon contract, rather than a one-sided one.) The contracts specified very strict guidelines, including never riding alone in the car together, meeting together with the secretary present, and granting spouses access to emails and phones.
Not only did this provide a safe place for their working relationship to grow, it gave their congregation confidence in their relationship. “Be transparent,” they advised, “and don’t kid yourself about what could—or couldn’t—potentially happen.”
4. Ensure that you are spiritually healthy and connected to the Lord.
Stay close to God through the Word and through prayer. Practice spiritual disciplines. Our spiritual health impacts every aspect of our calling and role as leaders, but especially so when it comes to building and maintaining godly relationships, since our relationship to the Lord orients and prioritizes all our other relationships. We aren’t yet the people we want to be—men and women who can work easily together without “the sex part” getting in the way.
With that in mind, maintaining a healthy spiritual life helps us recognize who we are (sinners) and who God calls us to be—holy and pure people. It also helps us to focus on our ministry and work, rather than on each other.
As a working Christian woman, I understand where men are coming from. I respect their reasons for following the Billy Graham Rule. And yet, this rule—if used as the only guiding principle—doesn’t give us the answer to today’s hypersexualized climate. Truncating the working relationship between men and women is not the solution to the current sexual misconduct scandal.
Instead, the solution lies in creating a new paradigm that accounts for the presence of gifted women in the workplace.
So to all the good, godly men out there: Don’t give up on working women. This groaning planet is desperate for the love, kindness, provision, and salvation of Jesus. And one glance at the nightly news is enough to prove we need all hands on deck, male and female together.
Halee Gray Scott is the director of the Kaleo Project at Denver Seminary, which is focused on enabling churches to build ministries that reach millennials. The author of Dare Mighty Things, she is currently at work on her second book, which explores how men and women can forge effective partnerships in ministry.