Reactions to #MeToo Could Lead to New Workplace Problems

January 10, 2019|

I’m not exactly Nostradamus, but about a year ago, as the #MeToo movement began gathering steam, I made a prediction to several colleagues about the sexual harassment issue that seems as though it might be coming true.

In years to come, 2018 might be remembered as the year of sexual misconduct. Going back to the fall of 2017, when Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to rape, the number of high-profile men publicly accused of sexual misconduct rose dramatically. Most prominent were those in Hollywood, Congress, churches and in business. Women across the country rallied behind the #MeToo movement to tell their stories of sexual harassment or worse.

That culminated a year later in the politically charged accusations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. As the cries against Kavanaugh rose to a fever pitch, the #MeToo movement morphed into #BelieveAllWomen.

Eventually the charges against Kavanaugh were discredited because of lack of any evidence and the realization that at least one of the women was deliberately lying. But even though Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court, some people feel that the allegations may have permanently damaged his reputation and may taint his career.

The repercussions of all this national drama, from Weinstein to Kavanaugh, have been felt much deeper in society. But has anything changed?

The answer is yes, but the changes might not all be for the better.

In late 2018, the Society for Human Resource Managers (SHRM) released a survey of more than a thousand businesses and found that a third of executives said they had changed their behaviors to avoid sexual harassment. Ninety-four percent of the businesses surveyed had a sexual harassment policy in place, and 72 percent of employees said they were happy with their employers’ policies on sexual harassment — although a third believed their workplace still fosters a culture of harassment.

All of that sounds positive, and it is, but this is also now where my prediction of a year ago appears to be coming true. At the time, I told several colleagues that the #MeToo movement could easily lead to men distancing themselves from women in the workplace, and that that could lead to a new form of sexual discrimination.

Recently, Bloomberg released a story that an increasing number of male executives and managers have started to follow the “Mike Pence Rule.”

Vice President Mike Pence famously said that he does not dine alone with a female other than his wife in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety. Although Pence was ridiculed by many people for that stance, the Bloomberg story noted that it is becoming a popular rule among Wall Street executives. Some of them refuse to meet one-on-one with a woman behind closed doors; keep their distance when in a small space, like an elevator; won’t dine alone with a female colleague and especially not with someone they have authority over; travel separately to events; and temper their talk when around a female colleague.

Some of that, no doubt, is backlash from the Kavanaugh debacle, when due process seemed to have been thrown out the window. Many declared that simply alleging sexual misconduct, regardless of whether there was proof, was enough to deem a man guilty of it.

Also at play in the interaction between male and female colleagues are studies that found that men and women have different perceptions of what constitutes sexual harassment.

In training to become a life coach, I took a class in how men and women react differently to the same situation. Men are more geared toward action and physical attitude, so they pay less attention to what a person’s actual words are. Therefore, they tend to be more blunt when they speak.

Women, though, are generally geared more toward verbal skills. They find meaning in words and often convey subtle messages behind the words they choose. What they actually say might be quite different from what they really mean.

So, when a male boss or colleague tells a joke, or assesses a situation, the men in the room know that the joke is just a joke or the assessment is just an assessment, while the women might find a hidden meaning behind the joke or assume the assessment is somehow subjective and carries a veiled, often sinister, meaning.

That’s a generalization, of course, and some men and some women react differently. And that doesn’t excuse genuine sexual harassment in suggestive words or unwanted sexual advances, but it’s easy to see why men are sometimes left puzzled by accusations of sexual harassment when that had never been their intention.

Given the fear of being falsely accused of sexual harassment or having something they said taken as sexual harassment has made many men, especially those in power, skittish in their relationships with women. That leads to following the Mike Pence Rule. But not only are they watching their personal behavior, they are also instituting changes at a corporate level — canceling after-work get-togethers, limiting or eliminating alcohol at corporate parties, and instituting speech and conduct policies.

While those things certainly will address the problem of sexual harassment, they could create another set of problems for female employees. The changes could keep them out of the loop of important discussions and meetings, keep them from taking key business trips and create an uncomfortable distancing of colleagues.

Perhaps most worrisome is that this shift in behavior could keep male executives from mentoring women for potential career advancement. In many companies, especially large corporations, mentoring is a key to advancing to the C-suite. There is already a disparity between men and women at that level. If men decline to mentor a woman for fear of an accusation of impropriety, women might miss out on advancement because there aren’t enough female executives to act as mentors.

Some leaders are now calling for a return to common sense and decency to keep the fear of being accused of sexual harassment from swinging into policies that discriminate against women. In all likelihood, it will take a combination of efforts to bring the situation into balance.

Communication will be the key in avoiding potential conflicts, especially in understanding the different way men and women perceive words. Being different doesn’t mean they can’t work together; in fact, acknowledging and keeping in mind the differences can actually strengthen their collaboration.

Corporations will have to institute policies that take complaints seriously without creating a guilty-until-proven-innocent situation that could unfairly blemish someone’s career.

It will take men calling out other men for sexually inappropriate behavior and women championing due process that doesn’t automatically make a man guilty merely because of an accusation.

I believe that if men and women together work to put fair guidelines and strategies in place, they can create a better, more productive workplace for everyone. Perhaps then, in the near future, the #MeToo hashtag can be replaced by a hashtag of symbolizing working together — something like #WeTwo.

Leave a Reply