Wednesday 18 September 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Why are men more wary of women now?'

Men who maintain their distance from women at work in the post-#MeToo era are just protecting themselves, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Actress and activist Rose McGowan became one of the most prominent figures of the #MeToo movement, and is one of several women to accuse Weinstein of rape. Photo: Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock
Actress and activist Rose McGowan became one of the most prominent figures of the #MeToo movement, and is one of several women to accuse Weinstein of rape. Photo: Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Eilis O'Hanlon

Two years on from #MeToo, more than a quarter of men are now avoiding one-on-one meetings with female colleagues.

To be honest, it's a miracle that the figure isn't higher. Why would any man take the risk of being in a position where his actions could be misinterpreted, with potentially career-ending results?

The study in question was published last week in an obscure journal called Organizational Dynamics. Among the other findings was that one fifth of men are now reluctant to hire a woman if the job involves "close interaction", such as travelling together or staying in the same hotel.

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"We were disappointed," says one of the study's co-authors, a professor at Wright State University in Ohio. "When men say, 'I'm not going to hire you, I'm not going to send you travelling, I'm going to exclude you from outings' - those are steps backward."

This disapproving interpretation of the findings was picked up by the Guardian newspaper in the UK, which responded to the reluctance of a quarter of men to hold one-on-one meetings with female colleagues with the snide put-down: "Yep, that's right, almost a third of men are terrified to be alone in a room with a woman."

The website, whimn, even reported the news under the headline: "Study finds men have reacted to #MeToo by behaving even crappier."

There's no evidence anywhere in these figures that men are "terrified" of, or are "excluding", women. There's certainly no justification for concluding, as the Guardian did, that men might be "angry that #MeToo ever happened".

There were some weird aspects to the findings, it's true, not least that one in five men is now having second thoughts about hiring attractive women at all.

Do they think people are less likely to believe they're harassing the ugly ones?

Nonetheless, the men who are making a decision to limit their one-on-one interactions with female colleagues are simply protecting themselves from the possible risk of being put in a position which could be used against them, and it would be hard to criticise them too harshly for that.

The #MeToo movement was one of the most important social developments of recent times. Nothing that has happened since should be used to belittle its significance, much less retreat from its victories. It has taken down many men whose comeuppance was long overdue. But there are always unintended consequences to every positive social or political development, and the growing wariness of men in work situations when it comes to dealing with female colleagues seems to have been a side effect of this one.

It was predicted at the time, though to warn against possible negative effects was inevitably seen, in the always fervid tribal atmosphere of sexual politics, as failing to show sufficient solidarity for women who faced harassment and discrimination. Every issue is now reduced to the same depressing black/white dichotomy. Heaven forbid there might be good and bad arguments on both sides.

The picture, when it comes to relations between men and women in the workplace, is equally more nuanced than the headlines might suggest.

One thing that's often said by those who thought #MeToo was all a fuss over nothing, and who are gloating about this new study as if it serves women right for being so over-sensitive, was that men no longer know what constitutes sexual harassment, and have been put in a position where the most innocent gestures and comments are painted as creepy or inappropriate.

That was always ridiculous, and what's interesting about this new study is that it confirms that to be the case.

It found most men to have a perfectly healthy understanding of what did and did not constitute sexual harassment. If anything, it was the women in the study who were "more lenient" than the men when it came to defining certain behaviours as inappropriate, probably having grown thicker skins due to the sheer number of negative experiences they've endured, from having their personal space invaded to being subjected to endless personal comments from men who think that their looks or bodies are up for general discussion.

It wasn't that the other, perfectly decent men were claiming not to know what they could or could not do any more when women were around. They understood the boundaries perfectly. They were just not prepared to risk any misunderstanding, which is why 22pc said they thought that men would be less likely in future to invite female colleagues for a drink after work. Can anyone really blame them for that?

The reaction to this study suggests that plenty of people are indeed happy to blame them for it, but it's hardly a new phenomenon. US surveys say that just 11pc of couples now meet at work or through workmates, down from 19pc in 1995. The number who meet online has gone up during the same period from two to 39pc - a depressing snapshot of the replacement of traditional social and community interactions by virtual reality. By 2030, it's predicted to have gone up to over 50pc. That's another unintended consequence of so-called progress. No one meant it to happen. It just did. What's happening in the workplace could be said to be comparable to the way that men fled en masse in recent years from education, particularly at primary school level. Figures released in 2016 revealed that 87pc of teachers at primary level in Ireland were female, which was one of the biggest gender imbalances in Europe. Only Italy and Austria had a higher proportion of female teachers. Men made up four in 10 teachers in national schools right up until the 1970s.

Teachers' unions have, of course, found a way of blaming all this on rates of pay, saying that teaching is no longer such a high status occupation, and that this is what puts men off. The argument doesn't really stack up, though. Medicine is increasingly dominated by women too, and Irish doctors are hardly underpaid.

Teachers' representatives in countries such as Australia have been much more willing to admit that the risk of being regarded as a bit suspect if they choose to work with young children is putting off lots of men from entering teaching. Many male teachers now refuse to be alone with female pupils. "I will literally leave the room," one says. "Even though society is supposed to trust me to teach that child, I don't feel like I can trust society to trust me."

Men bring something different to the classroom, and children are being denied the chance to have positive male as well as female role models.

It takes time for social changes to filter through, and it could be that time will offer solutions to some of the less welcome consequences of #MeToo. Alternatively, it could be that the increasing toxicity of identity politics will only get worse, forcing everyone to retreat to progressively smaller safe spaces where they only interact with those they trust to have their backs.

Either way, it will always be better to try to understand why other people don't feel comfortable in certain situations rather than throwing childish insults at them.

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