Almost two years in, there’s no doubt the #MeToo movement has brought about change. Women have felt empowered to tell their stories, and companies have shepherded improvements to their harassment policies. Men in a variety of fields — more than 200 by one count — have faced some form of punishment for behavior that ranged from the despicable to the abominable.
For months their tumble from grace headlined the news cycle. Now the latest to face allegations of sexual misconduct is self-help guru Tony Robbins. Last week, four women — a former personal assistant and three followers — accused him of groping them, making unwanted advances or exposing himself. He’s denied the charges.
But like all crusades, #MeToo has had its unintended consequences — reactions that are proving counterproductive and detrimental. According to a just-released study by LeanIn.org, 60 percent of male managers say they’re uncomfortable interacting with women at work. That’s almost double the percentage who, in 2018, said they were hesitant to mentor, socialize and meet one-on-one with women. Senior male managers were also nine times more likely to hesitate about traveling with a woman and six times more likely to reconsider having a work dinner.
Anyone who has toiled outside the home knows that mentoring is important and personal meetings essential to build a career and climb the corporate ladder. When opportunities for this kind of interaction are unavailable, employees suffer. This is particularly true for women, who historically have not had an inside track to promotions.
As LeanIn.org founder and Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg pointed out in a CBS interview, it’s not enough to stop the harassment. “You need to not ignore us either.”
The survey results shouldn’t be a total surprise, though. Late last year, Bloomberg News published an article about how male finance executives said they were refusing to dine alone with women, leaving the door open during one-on-one meetings and even staying on different floors in hotels during business trips. A piece in the New York Times quoted men at the World Economic Forum who said they were so scared of being accused that they no longer planned to mentor women. In a field where women executives are as rare as an Amur leopard, this kind of segregation guarantees one thing: Fewer women will advance.
These reactions aren’t unique. Worries over the #MeToo fallout also come from an unlikely demographic: professional women who happen to be the mothers of sons.
“I’m telling them to not be alone with a female colleague,” confessed a friend, a mother of three sons and manager at a large nonprofit. “And if they have to, they need to make sure there’s another person in the room. I don’t want them to get into a he-said-she-said situation.”
I understand her concerns perfectly. They coincide with my own. While action against the guilty should be decisive and swift, we shouldn’t rush to judgment. Even Bill Cosby deserved his day in court, and we must be mindful that a false accusation can ruin a career, the fog of doubt lingering long after someone has been cleared. Like my friend, I’d like to think I’ve taught my four sons well and that they practice what I’ve preached. Think of how you want your sister treated, I’ve told them, again and again. Every woman is someone’s daughter. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
But part of the problem of the #MeToo movement has been that the media, as well as women, haven’t always distinguished between foolish stumbles and the sort of serial dangerous harassment of which Harvey Weinstein has been accused. There are several shades of gray between misread signals and fearing for your job. Making them equivalent lessens the power of the #MeToo platform.
This is not to say that sexual harassment should be acceptable. It never is. But women must clearly and publicly differentiate between a misinterpreted pass and outright intimidation, between juvenile double entendres and coercion. And men ... well, they must step up to do what’s right, not just by holding harassers accountable but by giving the same opportunities to all employees, regardless of sex.
Avoidance has never solved a single problem.
Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at email@example.com or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.