Why are so many men afraid to interact with women at work? | Arwa Mahdawi

It looks like Mike Pence is quite the trendsetter. The US vice-president famously refuses to have dinner alone with any woman who isn’t his wife – and now working men across corporate America appear to be following his lead.

A new study, due to be published in the journal Organizational Dynamics, has found that, following the #MeToo movement, men are significantly more reluctant to interact with their female colleagues. A few highlights from the research include:

27% of men avoid one-on-one meetings with female co-workers. Yep, that’s right, almost a third of men are terrified to be alone in a room with a woman.

21% of men said they would be reluctant to hire women for a job that would require close interaction (such as business travel).

19% of men would be reluctant to hire an attractive woman.

The data above was collected in early 2019 from workers across a wide range of industries. Researchers had asked the same questions (albeit to different people and with more of a focus on future expectations) in early 2018, just as #MeToo was in full swing, and depressingly, things appear to have got worse. In 2018, for example, 15% of men said they would be more reluctant to hire women for jobs that require close interpersonal interactions with women, compared to 21% in 2019.

It’s not just men who are afraid of women, by the way. Women also appear to be increasingly wary of hiring women. The 2018 survey results found that more than 10% of men and women said they expected to be less willing than before to hire attractive women. (Note: the 2019 results for women are not yet public.) Internalized misogyny really is a bitch.

There’s been a lot of talk about “grey areas” in #MeToo. All this harassment business is very difficult for men, we’re told, because nobody even knows what sexual harassment is any more! Men are afraid to even shake a woman’s hand in case she thinks it’s harassment! Easier to just avoid contact altogether! What’s really interesting about this study, however, is that it thoroughly debunks the argument that men are confused about what constitutes unacceptable behavior. The very first thing researchers did was look at 19 behaviours (emailing sexual jokes to a subordinate, for example) and get people to classify it as harassment or not. Surprise, surprise, both genders basically agreed on what harassment entails.

“Most men know what sexual harassment is, and most women know what it is,” Leanne Atwater, a professor at the University of Houston and one of the study’s authors, told the Harvard Business Review. “The idea that men don’t know their behavior is bad and that women are making a mountain out of a molehill is largely untrue. If anything, women are more lenient in defining harassment.”

So there you go: most men are perfectly aware of the difference between a friendly hug and a creepy hug. They are perfectly aware of what constitutes harassment and what doesn’t. Which makes you wonder why so many men are afraid to interact with women at work?

The answer to that question, perhaps, is that a lot of men aren’t so much afraid of being accused of anything as they are they are angry that #MeToo ever happened. They’re angry that they’ve been made to think about their behavior, made to interrogate power dynamics they always took for granted, and they are punishing women for it by refusing to interact with them.

It’s worth noting, I think, that the Harvard Business Review article previewing the study’s 2019 results is headlined The #MeToo Backlash. You see that phrase a lot and that framing subtly implies that #MeToo went too far, that a backlash is only natural. It’s yet another form of victim-blaming; another way to quietly put women back in their place.

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