#metoo  #media  #debate  
Issue 6
December 9, 2018
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The Twitter handle that became an epithet for something far more powerful turned into a double-edged sword with unintended consequences. - TQC

In the days after Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial confirmation to the Supreme Court, former First Lady Michelle Obama noted in an interview “she was surprised at how much has changed but how much has not.” She was referring to the landscape in the year since The New York Times damning expose on Harvey Weinstein which segued into the #MeToo movement.

Weinstein’s sexual abuse of women in entertainment unified women across all strata and industries in the US; fear was taken out of the equation and replaced with strength in numbers. Yet, the Kavanaugh accusations had the opposite polarizing impact as the maelstrom surrounding his nomination prompted President Trump to conclude that “it’s a very scary time for young men in America." The First Lady, meantime, declared that “women need to show the evidence” when making such bold allegations against a man.

The Twitter handle that became an epithet for something far more powerful turned into a double-edged sword with unintended consequences.

This was not anticipated. The purported advancement and increased inclusion of women in all industries was thought to be sufficient enough to counter a backlash against #MeToo. At The Quintessential Centrist, we have alluded to this in the past. Not only has the women’s rights movement made tremendous strides in the past five decades, but also the data and statistics indicate that in the US, women are, at the very least, outpacing men in education. They are closing the gap in career trajectory and income. As a corollary, until recently, there were scores of sociological articles expressing concern that boys and young men were at greater risk of being financially, socially and professionally marginalized. Girls and women had made enormous strides in upward mobility in every aspect. Hence, the alarm that one of the unintended consequences of #MeToo is potentially leading to a renewed divide in the workplace and elsewhere. Does bitter political divisiveness since President Trump was elected to office threaten to unravel us?

Undoubtedly, #MeToo has resulted in positive changes including recalibration of training and support across the workplace. Scaremongering is the issue at heart but this fear also comes from how best to adjust to this “new normal.” While women may feel more empowered, men may experience more confusion. Add to this equation, ongoing debates as to what defines sexual harassment. While physical aggression is clearly an example of harassment if not more, does a pat on the shoulder also qualify as harassment?

This redefinition of harassment has exacerbated fear among men in the workplace. There have been many well publicized articles about men who have blatantly stated that they would rather not work in close quarters with women, socialize with them professionally, or even mentor them. A recent survey by LeanIn.org in conjunction with SurveyMonkey was telling: almost half of male managers are loath to engage in work related activities with women, another 30% revealed they are uncomfortable working alone with women, and the number of male managers reluctant to mentor women increased from 5% to 16%. This author has heard from friends (male and female) about their concerns of either women losing professional opportunities and men fearing for the safety of their income, position and family.

Part of the problem is the perception among many men that women now have carte blanche to level accusations of sexual harassment. Most men are hesitant to openly discuss this least they sound insensitive. While most such charges of harassment have at least some merit, more than a few others do not but are given the same amount of consideration. Even when there is no proof of impropriety, the damage to a man's personal and professional reputation can be irrevocable.

We are confronted with a trying paradigm. For smaller companies and entities, it is slightly easier to stay below the radar when comporting with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) rules. For large corporations, this is proving a human resources headache. On a darker note, the path of least resistance to the exclusion of women in a male dominated environment could be a blessing in disguise, as it reduces the scope for liability. In some industries the running joke is that Human Resources’ only purpose is to protect the Mother ship from liability. There is more than a kernel of truth to this assessment. Some could also argue that men have more of a right to protect their career and families than run the risk of working with women. And arguably, should we choose to be more sinister, in male dominated environments, this is now an acceptable excuse for exclusion from the “Old Boys Club.”

On December 3, 2018, Bloomberg News ran an article titled: “Wall Street Rule for the #MeToo Era: Avoid Women at All Costs.” This headline succinctly captures some of the aforementioned points. To reiterate, however, this mindset is not limited just to finance. (Wall Street is typically the easiest target when it comes to these issues, which is ironic because it has done more than most industries to protect and empower women over the years). It is prevalent in most male dominated industries and not just in the US — there have been reported instances of this mindset in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom. But the previously cited Bloomberg article raised a good point, which is that by avoiding women in the workplace men run the risk of allegations of gender based discrimination. So as it emerges, the anti-feminist backlash still is not without consequences as it boils down to preventing sexual harassment vs. the fallout from gender bias targeted at women. Neither is really the lesser of two evils when it comes to litigation and liability.

Powerful women in the business world such as Sheryl Sandberg have come up with the most anemic of suggestions, namely that entities proactively hire women and reinforce training in the workplace. This is far from a novel idea but maybe it is time to get back to basics. The talent pool across sectors is comprised of both very accomplished women and men who have much to offer. If this potential is relegated to the back burner, everyone loses. A potentially crippling détente has far reaching consequences, and not one that is solely limited to organizational behavior but also the wider reaches of the economy. It has been proven time and again that human beings need to feel productive. The domino effect in a worse case scenario would lead to inertia and in an even worse case to dystopic revolution.

That this conversation has become about which gender could potentially face further victimization shows we have really lost the plot. To Ms. Sandberg’s point, maybe it does make sense to regroup and build on those proven practices that have previously helped bridge the gender divide. Vitriol serves no one well and maybe, just maybe #MeToo will serve as the barrier-breaking entry point for a meaningful civic and civil discussion. Only time will tell.