Men now avoid women in the workplace, research shows

From Sunday Morning, 8:40 am on 8 September 2019

The #MeToo movement and the reduction in harassment it has achieved has brought with it a ‘backlash’ with negative side effects for women’s careers, research has found.


#MeToo Photo: Creative Commons

The movement saw sexual harassment and abuse called out and made public at the highest levels of politics, the entertainment industry and more. Leanne Atwater is a management professor at the University of Houston and co-wrote the book Leadership, Feedback and the Open Communication Gap

She is also one of the lead authors of a study, which has found a quarter of the men surveyed were avoiding one-on-one meetings with women in the workplace and several other effects. 

She tells RNZ Sunday Morning’s Jim Mora she suspected there would be difficulties from the start of MeToo. 

"I was concerned about it, because a number of powerful men following Harvey Weinstein were fired from very powerful positions. And typically, powerful men don't sit back and say, 'oh, I'm so sorry. I never should have done that. Please forgive me, it won't happen again'. There's a tendency to say, ‘okay, well, I'll show you’. 

"It appears as though in terms of the harassment there's been a positive effect, but in terms of women's careers it's been negative."

Professor Leanne Atwater from the University of Houston.

Professor Leanne Atwater from the University of Houston. Photo: Supplied

She says the backlash mainly consists of the exclusion of women. 

"Backlash is being experienced, it appears, across the globe. Just like MeToo caught on, the backlash to MeToo is catching on, and let's face it men are in power in most places and they will use that power to protect themselves. 

"And if protecting themselves means not surrounding themselves with women, then that's what they will do. 

"It has very negative ramifications for women if they can't travel with a man, if they can't be in a room alone with a man. What about mentoring? How are men going to mentor women if there has to be a third party there at all times?"

The study, published in the Journal of Organizational Dynamics, found men were significantly more reluctant to interact with female colleagues, with 27 percent avoiding one-on-one meetings, 21 percent saying they would be more reluctant to hire women for a job that would require them to interact closely, and 19 percent saying they would be reluctant to hire an attractive woman. 

"Our most recent data collection, we asked them what was actually going on in the workplace … sadly, a good portion of men have said, I am more likely to exclude women from social interactions, I am more reluctant to hire, and I am more reluctant to hire women for jobs that require close interpersonal interaction.”

She says it’s not just men, either. 

"Roughly 10 percent or more of the women are making the same statement, so everybody's gone into this, like, protection mode which may be good for harassment but it's clearly not good for career advancement."

'Men today know what inappropriate behaviour is'

Some of the statistics from Dr Atwater’s studies showed some interesting results:

  • About 60 percent of women said they had been sexually harassed
  • About 5 percent of men admitted to having sexually harassed someone
  • Repeatedly asking someone out was considered severely inappropriate by men as well as women
  • Commenting on someone’s looks was not considered severe by men or women

She said it showed either that about 5 percent of men were doing a whole lot of harassing, or there was a lot of denial from men about their inappropriate behaviour. 

It was also telling that men and women agreed as to the severity. Dr Atwater’s studies show 43 percent of men said they were more afraid of unfair allegations, that innocent behaviour would be seen as harassment, but the agreement over severity shows that is not likely. 

"There were no significant differences [in perceived severity] - there were only a few and in those cases the women were more lenient, so they were giving them the benefit of the doubt more than the men were giving themselves the benefit of the doubt.

"This idea that men don't know that they're misbehaving or that women are just sensitive to everything, it's not borne out by our data.

No caption

While Dr Atwater is not certain that men would have known what amounts to harassment under the casual sexism of the 1950s - as portrayed in Mad Men (pictured) - times have changed and, if anything, men consider harassment more harshly than women.  Photo: Unknown

"Men today know what inappropriate behaviour is, this is not a mystery. They know that touching is inappropriate, they know that groping is inappropriate, they know that many of these behaviours are wrong, but they just are doing them anyway. We have way too many examples of powerful men who have engaged in pretty egregious behaviour."

"The vast majority of women do not perceive ‘you look great in that colour’ as harassment, right? ‘You look great in that colour, I wonder what you'd look like if you weren't wearing it’ - that's probably harassment."

It’s a difficult problem to solve, however. The studies showed training for how to counter sexual harassment in the workplace was not effective. 

"The folks that had received the sexual harassment [training] were misbehaving more than those who had not. Now ... maybe they were behaving badly and that's why they had the training - nonetheless, it certainly wasn't making things better from what we can tell."

It’s possible the reason men fear unfair accusations is because they have not themselves perceived such harassment in the workplace, but Dr Atwater says that’s because the worst offences are in private. 

"The severe stuff is done one to one, with nobody looking and no TV cameras, and no tape recorders. 

"If I go into some man's office and he asks me if I would like to take my clothes off there's no witnesses to that, and typically the women are afraid of being, you know, afraid of repercussions. They don't run out and say ‘oh my God, you know George over there, he just asked me if I wanted to take my clothes off’. They just disappear out of the office and hope it doesn't happen again. 

"It's not surprising most men haven't observed it."

Benevolent sexism

Dr Atwater also raises the problem of benevolent sexism, which she says women as well as men are guilty of.

"Benevolent sexism is penalising women in the guise of protecting them, so ‘I'm not going to give you that really tough assignment, because I know you've got a two-year-old at home and you need to spend more time at home, so I'm going to give it to this gentleman’. Well, that woman's getting penalised. 

"Does that mean I don't want you to open a door for me? Not necessarily. But if there are two of us going up for promotion, and you're going to protect me from the extra hours that are required if I get it? No thanks."

business, motherhood, multi-tasking, family and people concept - businesswoman with baby calling on phone at office

Photo: 123rf

She says it can be well intentioned, but there’s an important difference between giving someone the choice between managing their two-year-old and making a presumption for them - and even giving women more time off because you know they refuse to take holidays is treading a slippery slope. 

"There's a lot of evidence that suggests that the career opportunities that women get are not the same as the career opportunities that men get … [or] they might get as many opportunities but they're not as challenging so they don't develop themselves as much."

Despite all this, she thinks huge strides have been made and the MeToo movement has certainly helped reduce harassment. 

"All these folks have spoken out about how they've been treated. And you know, I think eyebrows were raised across the globe. 

"I just hope that we don't start excluding women as a solution to the harassment problem … I really hope that the work we're doing will have a positive effect on the workplace in the long term."