#BelieveWomen Backlash: Why We Should Worry The Glass Ceiling Is Being Rebuilt

A recently-released SHRM study indicates that the #MeToo movement may have sparked a backlash: Men are becoming more wary of interacting with women at work.

Unfortunately, the Kavanaugh hearings may have only exacerbated this trend and, quite possibly, driven it underground—and that’s not only bad for women in the workplace, it’s likely illegal.

Image Credit: The New Yorker

Recently, even before the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court, the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported that there may be an unintended consequence of the #MeToo movement—a backlash resulting from men overreacting to fears of being falsely accused of sexual harassment.

As a result, this may be inadvertently causing more (and harder to detect) discrimination against women in the workplace.

The Weinstein Effect (Pre-Kavanaugh)

The data, from 1,034 executives, was collected by SHRM in January–only a few months after the Harvey Weinstein allegations launched what is now known as the #MeToo movement.

“An uncertainty of what constitutes sexual harassment has made some men uncomfortable around female co-workers and wary about how to navigate changing workplace dynamics,” SHRM reported.

“Having a third of executives reporting changed behavior is significant,” said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and CEO of SHRM. “Yet, we can’t let the pendulum swing too far. Organizations must be careful not to create a culture of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ and we cannot tolerate other unintended consequences.”

One troubling trend,” Taylor said, “is executives going as far as to not invite female colleagues on trips, to evening networking events or into their inner circles to avoid any situation that could be perceived incorrectly, thus reducing the opportunity for women.”


“Almost half of male managers are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together,” according to a January a survey by Leanin.org.

“The number of male managers who are uncomfortable mentoring women has more than tripled from 5% to 16%. This means that 1 in 6 male managers may now hesitate to mentor a woman.”

Senior men are 3.5 times more likely to hesitate to have a work dinner with a junior-level woman than with a junior-level man—and 5 times more likely to hesitate to travel for work with a junior-level woman.”[Emphasis added.]

As stated above, this data was gathered months before accusations against Brett Kavanaugh were made about an alleged incident 36-years ago, when he was a high-school student.

So, what now?

If, due to the #MeToo movement, men were more hesitant to work with women before, will that hesitancy increase in the post-Kavanaugh, #BelieveWomen era?

More importantly, will the perception among a significant portion of men in power, fearing they may be wrongly accused of inappropriate behavior, cause an unintended consequence–that of a subtler form of discrimination in the workplace like described above?

If executives do “not invite female colleagues on trips, to evening networking events or into their inner circles to avoid any situation that could be perceived incorrectly,” does that not diminish opportunities for women in the workplace?

Related: An employment lawyer’s thoughts on the Kavanaugh controversy

As a father of a daughter—who I can say (with some bias) is brilliant academically as well as extremely talented artistically—it is hard to imagine a world where her talents would not be recognized objectively and regardless of her sex.

As a father (raised by a single mother), I also know men can be ‘creeps’ (or worse). [Frankly, to me (like most dads), when it comes to my daughter, all men are creeps.]

I also know that, as my children have grown older, my sons are less likely to be the victims of creeps and predators—but my daughter always will be potential prey to a predator and the statistics bear this out.

“In the U.S.,” according to the CDC, “about 1 in 3 women and nearly 1 in 6 men experienced some form of contact sexual violence during their lifetime.”

At work, “more than 1 in 4 professional women (28%) have experienced or witnessed unwanted physical contact in the workplace in just the last year; nearly 1 in 5 have personally experienced it,” according to just released FTI Consulting findings.

Are men merely paranoid or justified in their fears?

Given the fact that nearly one-third of women in the workplace are likely to be a victim, should we not also be concerned, however, that someone—seemingly out of the blue—can make an accusation, without corroborating witnesses or evidence, from an alleged incident nearly four decades ago, that could ruin an individual’s career?

Should we not also be careful “not to create a culture of ‘guilty until proven innocent,'” as SHRM’s Taylor stated?

Despite the fact that the vast majority of sexual assault allegations made are credible, there is a percentage (estimated to be between 5-10%, depending on the study) that are made, only to later be deemed “false.”

We have seen numerous stories over the years–from the Duke Lacrosse players to the University of Virginia fake rape story, as well as others–there are notable examples of false allegations that draw media attention.

According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, “complainants file a false allegation out of material gain, emotional gain, or a disturbed mental state.”

The list can be subdivided into eight different categories: material gain, alibi, revenge, sympathy, attention, a disturbed mental state, relabeling, or regret.

It should be noted that, according to a 1997 FBI study, “[e]ight percent of forcible rape complaints in 1996 were “unfounded,” while the average for all Index crimes was 2 percent.”

The issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, however, gets even more muddy.

According to EEOC data, of the 7,511 sexual harassment charges resolved in FY 2017, 4,206 (or 56%) were resolved under the category of “No Reasonable Cause.”

“No Reasonable Cause,” according to the EEOC, is defined as the “EEOC’s determination of no reasonable cause to believe that discrimination occurred based upon evidence obtained in investigation.”

Given this, it would appear that at least some of men’s concern of being falsely accused are justifiable.

Related: Professional Women Doubt Harassment Risk if They’re Not Victims

Creeps will be creeps.

We know, as a society, there are ‘bad actors’ out there. Those bad actors are also in the workplace. The #MeToo movement has helped to highlight this fact.

In 2018, so far, the EEOC filed 50% more sexual harassment lawsuits than the previous year.

Sexual harassment charges filed with EEOC also increased by more than 12% year-over-year, according to HR Dive.

However, should we not also be concerned that, in our zeal to purge out bad actors from the workplace, we do not create work environs where there is a climate of “guilty until proven innocent?”

If, due to an overzealous #BelieveWomen movement, men in the workplace become so paranoid of being falsely accused that they stop their interactions with women, that will be a step backward for both sexes—and especially harmful to women…as well as very likely illegal.

“If certain men avoid women in closed-door work settings, they presumably do so because they fear unfounded sexual harassment claims,” Elaine Herskowitz, principal with EEO Training & Consulting Services in Potomac, Md. told SHRM earlier this year.

“Clearly, such behavior is discriminatory, based on stereotyped attitudes,” Herskowitz added. “Rather than avoid women in closed-door work settings, men simply should treat female employees professionally and with respect.”

For men who fear false accusations, rightly or wrongly, that may be easier said than done for now.

Unless we, as a society, subscribe to having continual audio-visual surveillance in every work setting–during and after hours–there’s no real easy answer to deal with this issue.

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