Maybe it was inevitable that the #MeToo movement would come back to bite women.
On one hand, women seem more powerful than ever. It’s not just mighty titans like Harvey Weinstein or Les Moonves who’ve fallen because of allegations of sexual harassment, but hardworking stiffs of the legal profession like former Mayer Brown partner James Tanenbaum and that mystery partner from Baker McKenzie’s London office (whose identity most of us know), among others.
The fallout is that some male lawyers are so fearful of being tainted with sexual harassment charges that they’re running for the hills, dodging close working relationships with women. They might not be as blatant as Mike Pence about avoiding female company (he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife, nor does he go to events that serve alcohol without her), but they’re drawing a line, nonetheless.
“It’s a genuine fear,” says a young female partner at an Am Law 100 firm in New York. “I’ve talked to men—well-meaning ones—who say they’re scared of being taken the wrong way by women, who don’t know how they should interact with female associates and colleagues. I’m afraid this will mean men will exclude us even more from relationship-building opportunities. If there’s a case that entails travel, they might think it’s safer to pick a male colleague than me.”
Women have reason to worry that they might be excluded. According to a survey by Working Mother and ABA Journal released this year, most men (56 percent) are nervous about one-on-one interactions with women at work and the charges of impropriety that might result. One male leader told the authors of the survey, “One allegation can be a career killer,” adding, “I will not be alone in the office with any female—whether she is a colleague or a support-staff member. This is to protect myself.”
That kind of attitude certainly won’t help women gain high-profile assignments or critical sponsorship when men are still the ones in control. It’s also an abdication of a leader’s responsibility, says diversity consultant Jennifer Brown.
“If people in power are too afraid because of the headlines and the scrutiny, that’s a problem,” she says. “It’s their job to integrate those who are not well-represented.”
Brown suggests that the male manager ask women what would be a comfortable format for one-on-one work, instead of requiring them to set the boundaries.
“The onus shouldn’t be on those who are in a marginalized position,” Brown says.
It’s clear that male/female relationships at work are in an awkward phase.
“I am seeing a hypersensitivity among young women attorneys to behavior which, while not necessarily great, does not rise to the level of sexual harassment,” says career coach Ellen Ostrow.
She cites two examples: A male partner who touches the arm of a female associate for doing a great job, and a male senior counsel who compliments the blouse of a female lawyer. In both cases, the women complained.
“There’s a blurring of what constitutes gender bias and what is harassment,” Ostrow says.
Many women don’t buy the idea that men are in a bind.
“Some men are using it as an excuse not to sponsor or meet with women alone,” says Joan Williams, professor at University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
“It’s a bunch of crap that men don’t know what to do now,” says a senior female counsel at a large bank. “They’re trying to be cute, like, ‘Oh, women are so touchy, they’ll get offended about anything.’”
Call it the #MeToo backlash or the Pence effect. Any way you look at it, it’s another reason women are still stuck.
Contact Vivia Chen at firstname.lastname@example.org.