WASHINGTON – A recent Bloomberg News headline came as no surprise: “Wall Street Rule for the #MeToo Era: Avoid Women at All Cost.”
In a word, it was inevitable. Some men are so concerned about the possible repercussions of what they might say or do that they’re steering clear of women in the workplace altogether. And as a result, according to Bloomberg, Wall Street “risks becoming more of a boy’s club, rather than less of one.”
The article focused on the various ways some senior executives in finance have been “spooked” by #MeToo and are “struggling to cope” – resorting to staying on different hotel floors from women when on business trips, not dining alone with any woman 35 or younger, leaving an office door open when meeting one-on-one with a junior female. Generally speaking, these might not be such bad rules but for the fact that, as Bloomberg pointed out, young women often need mentors to advance, and female executives are far scarcer than men on Wall Street. And as one wealth adviser said, simply hiring a woman has become “an unknown risk.”
The story called these collateral adjustments the “Pence Effect,” referring to Vice President Mike Pence’s personal rule of not dining alone with a woman who isn’t his wife. As a cultural aside, many men, especially the religiously devout, as Pence is, try to avoid potentially compromising situations involving the opposite sex. Perception more than temptation is often the driving force.
Further, to be fair, these newly devised workplace protocols are not primarily a function of paranoia but of reality. Everyone has seen or experienced how fraught workplace relationships can be – and even casual interactions can seem unnecessarily risky.
And this new reality isn’t limited to the world of finance. Many men across all industries now fear being alone with a female colleague.
This probably goes without saying, but it’s also true that fewer women of the baby boomer generation were likely to think of themselves as victims in instances of workplace harassment, barring sexual assault as opposed to sophomoric buffoonery, or a misinterpretation of context or intent. Perceptions have changed significantly the past several decades, for the good, but we still have much work to do in defining what is and isn’t “abuse.”
In many ways, this is all-new terrain for us societally: How do we balance the right of every individual to be believed innocent until proven otherwise, while also giving accusers a platform to be heard? The recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh highlighted the impossible position of being forced to prove one’s innocence against accusations backed by no verifiable evidence. We should sleep uneasily in the wake of such an abuse of due process, not as a legal matter but as a time-honored principle of fairness.
We’ve yet to see the full spectrum of collateral damages to come, but we’ve got a sense of their scope. Already, some men are silencing themselves rather than engaging in a losing battle. Several have told me that, like the wealth adviser Bloomberg interviewed, they’re more hesitant to hire women or even to be alone with them. My orthopedist tells me he’s no longer comfortable hugging his patients, as he’d always done.
I’ve had a similar discussion with my dentist – apparently, my social life revolves around doctors. We were chatting about the Kavanaugh hearings, and he was visibly tense until I voiced my concerns about the erosion of due process. Relieved to sense a sympathetic point of view, he relaxed and chimed in.
Many men are so intimidated by the #MeToo movement and the possibility that they, too, could be ruined on the basis of a single woman’s misinterpretation of an innocent gesture that they’re essentially shutting down and stepping away. Suffice it to say, this side effect won’t serve women well in the long run. Indeed, it seems obvious that they’ll suffer.
There surely is a balance to be found lest the sexes further alienate and segregate. We should seek it with a sense of urgency.
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