When women come together to uplift and support each other, they become unstoppable. In light of the recent sexual assault and harassment allegations brought against disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein by almost 60 women — including Lupita Nyong’o, Angelina Jolie, and Gwyneth Paltrow — women from all over the world have united behind the Twitter hashtag #MeToo to share their own stories. Many talked about harassment in the workplace, where women have been subjected to inappropriate interactions with bosses and other men in authoritative positions and where, despite the presence of proof, perpetrators aren’t always held accountable.
Women sharing these stories are hoping to bring attention to an issue that has been expertly buried over the years, but some men are making it about them, which is almost too predictable.
According to The New York Times, men have been responding to the news of assault and harassment allegations in a way that seems a little paranoid. Apparently, some are scared to the point of actively avoiding the women they work with, particularly the women in subordinate positions. Which means, instead of thinking critically about the culture that allows Weinstein and others like him to exist and thrive or how to provide a safer space for the women around them, men are taking a quicker, lazier, ultimately less-helpful approach by avoiding women altogether.
Men are now questioning their interactions with women because they are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment.
During interviews conducted by The New York Times, the men described a heightened sense of caution because of recent sexual harassment cases. They worry that one accusation or misunderstood comment could end their careers. Take, for example, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Mukund Komanduri, who avoids women at work:
On Wall Street, some senior men have been switching to an open-door policy when it comes to meeting with junior coworkers of the opposite sex. In TV news, many male executives have been carefully minding their words in conversations with female talent, which (like so many things) they should have probably been doing before. And in Silicon Valley, there are reports of male investors declining one-on-one meetings with women, or rescheduling their meetings from restaurants to conference rooms.
Women have had a valid reason to feel threatened by interpersonal interactions with men; they have had to read into and question situations to determine if those situations are safe. When a woman experiences sexual assault or harassment, more often than not, she’ll spend countless hours obsessing over everything she previously said to her attacker, analyzing everything she wore, recounting all the times she smiled at him — and ultimately end up blaming herself for even being in the position to begin with.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission revealed in its most recent report that it received 28,000 sexual harassment complaints from employees working for private or government employers in 2015 — which makes up nearly one-third of the total 90,000 charges of workplace discrimination. And most refused to report it, largely out of fear of victim-blaming or retaliation, the agency added.
The problem isn’t getting any better either. A poll conducted by ABC News found that one in for women has been a victim of workplace sexual harassment. A survey by Cosmo also found that one in three women ages 18 to 34 admitted to being sexually harassed at work.
The only person to blame for sexual assault is the perpetrator of the heinous act. The burden of prevention should never be solely on a potential victim.
Now, men are getting a small taste of what it feels like to have to be analytical about potential negative consequences of an interaction — something women have had to do forever. And even still, men don’t have to worry about the same horrible possibilities. The interviews revealed that a man’s biggest fear in this instance is possibly losing his job and having his reputation tainted. Women face physical and psychological challenges, not to mention just not feeling safe in her surroundings at all.
The reason men are being more mindful might be purely self-serving, but it is still good to see them finally having to think about the way they interact with women and the possible consequences for misconduct.
Hopefully, this will dramatically decrease the number of women who have reason to feel unsafe at work at all.
But there is a downside: If men are afraid to get to know their female subordinates, then they are less likely to promote them or support them in the workplace. They could instead focus on building relationships with other men, and the last thing we need is more men in charge.
Again, women are getting the short end of the stick, and could possibly be held back by a man’s inability to control himself and simply be a decent human being.
But here’s one thing to keep in mind: In most of the cases being discussed in the news, sexual harassment occurred in the form of requesting inappropriate massages, touching or kissing without consent, exposing genitals in person or via messages, and other forms of assault. We’re not hearing stories about professional handshakes, or a man accidentally touching a woman’s hand when he reached for the salt over a work dinner. Being mindful about how you interact with other people is always a responsible and prudent thing to do as a habit, but anxiously obsessing about potentially misinterpreted actions with women you work with is more than an unnecessary overreaction — it frames women as overly delicate and litigious nightmares, which is unfair and untrue.
If you are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment or assault, then don’t harass or assault anyone. It’s that simple.
Also, consider promoting qualified women into positions of power so other women can find mentors who aren’t afraid of engaging with them and supporting them as they climb the corporate ladder.