About a year ago, I found myself at an eclectic dinner party. In our mix were men and women of all ages in all stages of their careers. Conversation turned to the #MeToo movement and the way it had changed the national conversation about sexual harassment and assault.
A high-powered lawyer at the table confided in us that several of his male friends and counterparts had come to him after noticing a troubling pattern. These men — who were working for different companies, across a wide array of industries — were committed to mentoring men and women. They were eager to ensure that their colleagues were being treated equally and being afforded equal opportunity, regardless of gender. And yet, after the #MeToo movement changed the political landscape, they found that they — and those around them — were less inclined to take a female associate on a business trip, or for a dinner alone to strategize about an upcoming meeting. Many at the table had been excited about the promise of #MeToo, and were aghast to hear that it was having negative consequences for women.
I can’t blame those men. I said as much at the time. This week, Katrin Bennhold reported in the New York Times that the risks now associated with mentoring women was a common theme discussed in Davos. There’s data to back up the fact that men are increasingly seeing their female colleagues as risks to be managed. Bennhold cites two surveys released last February whose key findings are troubling: ‘Almost half of male managers are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together.’ There’s more: ‘Senior men are three-and-a-half times more likely to hesitate to have a work dinner with a junior-level woman than with a junior-level man – and five times more likely to hesitate to travel for work with a junior-level woman.’ Given our political climate, in which the mere whisper of an accusation can destroy a life and a good reputation, should any of us be surprised?
There are two large problems, both of which play a role in contributing to this new workplace reality. The first is that — unwittingly or not — #MeToo has placed sexual assault and sexual harassment on the same platform. Both are wrong, and women should never be subject to either, whether in the workplace or anywhere else. But anyone who has experienced sexual assault, or even has a friend or colleague who has experienced sexual assault, can attest to the fact that there is a world of difference between harassment and assault.
The second problem is that the movement has championed this notion that society must ‘believe all women.’ The issue here is that America’s justice system treats the accused as innocent until proven guilty, yet society has come to to treat accusations as if they were fact. This gives men the impression that with a single tweet, a single sentence, a single comment, we are able to destroy their lives.
Some women I know cherish that sense of power. They argue that, since men are physically stronger, and with centuries of history in which women were oppressed and not treated as equals, it’s good to instill a little fear in the other sex. I don’t believe they have anticipated the extent to which fear is a highly motivating factor. This time, it has motivated men to mentor fewer women. How that’s a victory for my fellow females, I don’t have a clue.