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Pushing Back Against the #MeToo Backlash

In fall 2017, a movement began that would send ripple effects throughout the country. With a simple hashtag, #MeToo, women (and men) began sharing their stories of sexual assault and harassment. As a result, many powerful people — mostly men — faced consequences for their inappropriate and sometimes criminal actions. The accused men included Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Al Franken, Garrison Keller, Josh Besh, Mark Halperin, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Glenn Thrush, Matt Lauer, Blake Farenthold, Bryan Singer, Trent Franks, Paul Haggis, Eric Greitens, Steve Wynn, and Eric T. Schneiderman. Their actions ranged from inappropriate touching to discriminatory behavior to making sexual advances at work to sexual assault.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, many assumed that the outpouring of support for victims would lead to a major cultural shift. After all, if sexual assault and harassment are openly acknowledged and discussed, shouldn’t everyone recognize the scope of these problems — and want to work to end them?

Unfortunately, many Americans took the lessons of #MeToo in the opposite direction. Instead of using it as a way to acknowledge the issues that lead to sexual assault and harassment — and how we can do better — #MeToo has been used as a reason to avoid hiring women or working closely with them. This is according to a study conducted by Leanne Atwater, a management professor at the University of Houston.

The study involved two surveys, one for women and one for men. These surveys were distributed to individuals working across a range of industries, to a total of 152 men and 303 women. The surveys were first distributed in 2018, directly on the heels of the #MeToo movement, and then again in 2019.

The initial results demonstrated that a common perception about sexual harassment is false: most men and women actually do know what sexual harassment is. The surveys described 19 behaviors, such as emailing sexual jokes to a female subordinate, and asked if they constituted sexual harassment. On all but 3 behaviors, the men and women agreed that the situation described was harassment. In fact, men were more likely to describe a behavior as harassment than women.

The initial results also showed that, as a result of #MeToo, women were more likely to speak out against harassment, and that most men expected that they would be more careful about being inappropriate at work. These surveys demonstrate that directly after the #MeToo movement, there was positive change — women were more likely to speak up about sexual harassment and men were more likely to be careful about their actions — mixed with some negative impact. A small but sizable percentage of men and women expressed that they would refuse to hire attractive women, and predicted that men would not have social interactions with women due to #MeToo.

Over time, the backlash grew. In 2019, the study’s authors administered the surveys again to the same group of people. The results show that men are even less likely than they were before #MeToo to want to hire or work with women:

  • 19% of men were reluctant to hire attractive women

  • 21% of men were reluctant to hire women for jobs involving close interpersonal interactions with men

  • 27% of men avoided one-on-one meetings with female colleagues

While the initial reaction to #MeToo looked like the start of the cultural shift needed to reduce the incidence of sexual assault and harassment, the aftermath has been more negative. Men being unwilling to hire or work with women doesn’t address the root cause of this behavior; it does penalize women who may be unable to find work or advance in their careers. This doubles the effect of the discrimination against women: not only do a high percentage of women face sexual harassment at work, but women also face bars to being hired and promoted because of the bad behavior of men.

The key here is to engage employees and management in meaningful discussions about how to reduce harassment in the workplace. Studies have demonstrated that traditional sexual harassment training is ineffective, as it often focuses on helping a company avoid liability instead of preventing harassment from occurring. This University of Houston study shows that men and women alike already know what sexual harassment is. A more comprehensive training is necessary to change the organizational culture and reduce the incidence of sexual harassment.

At Blackburn Center, we offer a sexual harassment training to businesses and organizations throughout Westmoreland County. Our training, Creating Safe and Thriving Workplaces, includes a workplace climate assessment, a company policy and practice consultation, employee training, management team training, and follow-up resources. You can learn more about it here, or contact us at to schedule a training for your company.

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