As a wave of sexual misconduct allegations against prominent men crested in recent months, relationships between men and women in workplaces across the country have shifted — sometimes toward more honest discussions of what's not okay at work, but also toward silence and exclusion, a quiet backlash against the righteous pride of the #MeToo movement.
In Chicago, police technician Kathern Caldwell sees blank stares on men when the topic of sexual misconduct comes up and worries that "men on the job are thinking, what's wrong with us women?"
In Sacramento, a union leader struggles over how to handle the man who calls her several times a day "to ask questions that aren't really even questions, you know what I mean?"
"I know what to do if somebody touches me and says something awful to me, but the subtle things are almost worse because you can't control it," said Joyce Thomas-Villaronga, president of the local United Auto Workers chapter. She reported her fears to a supervisor and stopped answering the man's calls. He, in turn, complained about her being unresponsive. "People are finding their way in a new system," she said.
In Silicon Valley, the chief executive of a midsize company asked his human resources manager what he should do about the undercurrent of tension around issues of sexual misconduct. Stop having dinners with female employees, he was advised. In fact, stop having dinners with any employees. Lunches are okay, dinners no way, HR told him.
Another investor said his colleagues have canceled their one-on-one meetings with female entrepreneurs. And some men have taken to comparing their own new approach to that of Vice President Pence, who has said that he does not dine alone with any woman but his wife.
"My research over the past couple of years showed that men were hesitant to have one-on-one meetings, go out to lunch or go on business trips alone with a woman," said Kim Elsesser, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of "Sex and the Office." "Now it's gotten worse. We need to educate everyone in the workplace not only about what not to do, but that going out to lunch is important — if you segregate by gender, that's discrimination."
But the #MeToo movement will fail if it focuses on "legalistic solutions rather than practical ones," said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president of the Society for Human Resource Management, which has 285,000 members in the HR field.
In recent weeks, Taylor said, chief executives of "several major companies have told us they are now limiting travel between the genders," telling men, for example, that they may no longer take female colleagues on business trips or share rental cars with women. "That's legalistic and not realistic," Taylor said. "I told one CEO, 'How does that prevent male-on-male relationships?' It's really impractical. We need to change the culture, not create rules that people will ignore."
Although most of the national discussion about sexual misconduct has focused on a few highly public industries — mainly Hollywood, media and politics — those high-profile cases have sparked conversations and change in factories, offices and wherever people spend their workdays.
As their fire engine heads back to Station 501 after an intense call, Lt. Eric Pena and his fellow firefighters in Manchaca, Tex., just outside of Austin, debrief on what they've just seen — and trade coarse banter to ease the stress.
"Oh man, you looked scared; you looked like a little bitch," one of the guys will say. A rookie will get teased as "just a virgin." It's "all fun and games," a way to cope with the job's daily traumas, Pena said.
But with the news about sexual harassment lately, Pena has been thinking twice about who else is present when the jokes fly. Though all the firefighters are men, Pena said female medics are sometimes around.
"We have to make our own judgment, 'Hey, is it okay to talk the way you talk to your crew when there are other people around and you're not really sure how their personality is?' " said Pena, 40. The men on his shift "understand that if there's someone new in the room . . . hey, we got to watch our mouth."
At Michael Teixido's otolaryngology practice in Wilmington, Del., the annual holiday party has long featured a joke video lampooning the doctors. Using animated templates from the JibJab comedy website, they'd paste the heads of their colleagues onto a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" scene or a Cossack dance line. This year, his colleagues voted to scrap one that was going to feature the physicians' faces on Chippendale dancer bodies. No one had complained, but the mood had changed.
"We're definitely in a period of heightened awareness," said Teixido, who welcomes the new thoughtfulness even as he laments missing a chance to let the staff laugh at the bosses. "There's a real shift occurring in the trenches of life."
Change has come for both women and men, as women feel emboldened to speak out against inappropriate behavior, and men think twice about what's acceptable at work.
In discussions across the country, Taylor, the HR executive, said he found that "every man I've spoken to is afraid. They really don't know what to do. I read a list of things millennial women don't want to see anymore, like opening doors for them or pulling out chairs. So if a group of us go out, how do I know if this woman likes the chivalry of opening a door and this other woman doesn't?"
Tracy Wilson sees the caution and confusion every day as general manager of the Red Velvet and Bakers & Baristas bakeries in the District. "A lot of males are definitely feeling more self-conscious, acting more guarded," she said. "It's a shift. The critical mass has been reached."
That pivot has made work life both easier and harder, Wilson said: When a female employee confided recently that she'd been the victim of a sexual assault, "I was grateful that she felt she could talk about it now because of everything that's been going on."
But Wilson has also seen people pull back from once-casual and harmless behaviors. In many workplaces, that comes down to awkward decisions about, of all things, hugs.
Wilson's husband, who travels a lot for work, used to hug colleagues he hadn't seen in a while, but now, she said, "there's a cautiousness you have to have. You don't want your personality to be construed the wrong way, so you pull back on that hug. The pendulum has swung the opposite way, maybe too much. We're all going to be walking on eggshells for a while."
Pena, the firefighter, has what he calls "a hugging relationship" with a female medic on his shift, and he's confident that nothing has changed in their work-sibling connection, so he's still hugging.
But when a beloved colleague walked into a recent office training session, Thomas-Villaronga, the union official, stepped toward the young man she had mentored and stopped herself from embracing him as she normally would. Instead, she stuck out her hand.
She wasn't worried about his reaction so much as the crowd of people around them. A too-friendly greeting seemed to carry more risk than it used to.
"I typically don't think about those things, but now you have to step back," she said. "What's happening is good, but it is having a chilling effect on camaraderie. I think this is going to be the new normal."
As Sandy Sayre, a nurse in Roanoke, Va., discussed the sexual misconduct allegations against Matt Lauer, who was fired in November as co-host of NBC's "Today," with a surgeon colleague, he told her he could no longer give her the friendly hugs they'd shared over a 10-year friendship.
"Don't blow things too far out of proportion," replied Sayre, 50, the senior director at the Carilion Clinic for cardiovascular surgery.
"It's very sad that we've gotten to this level where he's afraid to give me a friendly hug because of what other people have done," she said. "I feel really badly for the people who've been victims of people who have gone way over the line. But now everybody's afraid to do anything. . . . We've got to make sure that we don't as a society lose our ability to connect with one another safely."
Taylor, the HR executive, said he encourages employers to "prepare women for the real world. Life is rough. If you're selling beer and you're afraid of guy talk, how can you persuade guys in a bar to buy your beer if we've so protected you from any rough language in the corporate office?"
He said a happy medium between over-regulating work life and protecting women from abusive behavior lies not in mandatory sexual harassment training — "That doesn't solve for anything," he said — but in open discussion of practical solutions. "Non-fraternization policies are unrealistic because people are going to date," Taylor said. His organization prefers to focus on disclosure: "It's not that you can't date, you just both have to come and report it. The organization allows you to date and, in exchange, you agree to tell us if the relationship goes south."
Some companies are responding to the new focus on misconduct by tightening restrictions on contacts between men and women, especially on business travel.
"To make sure no one has an undue advantage, we've got to start with professionalism," said Jenn Scheck, vice president for human resources at Focus on the Family, the Colorado-based Christian ministry. "But it's also important to have strong structures to say that certain kinds of relationships may not be appropriate."
Focus on the Family has long prohibited its 600 men and women from sharing rental cars or staying at the same hotel if a man and a woman are the only people from the company on that trip. "Because we're a Christian organization and we hire like-minded people, they understand we operate on biblical principles," Scheck said.
But fraternization rules and mandatory training don't seem to improve the culture of workplaces, Elsesser said. "There's really no evidence that we're doing anything that's helping at all," the psychologist said.
She is seeing a backlash against #MeToo in the form of a "sex partition," an invisible divider as men back away from interacting with women, inhibiting mentor relationships and clogging paths to advancement.
Elsesser remains hopeful that the current debate can morph into a national discussion about consent: "We have to come up with a way to teach people how to know when it's okay to move in for the kiss."
New efforts to even the playing field include a move by female venture capitalists in Silicon Valley to encourage female entrepreneurs by holding separate office hours for them. A start-up incubator called YCombinator has created an informal blacklist of investors who are known harassers.
A veteran Broadway actor, Christopher Gurr, who just concluded a leading role in "The Lion King," said he has been heartened to hear his peers trying to learn from the harassment cases that have rocked the film side of their industry.
"There's a lot of joking now in large groups: 'Oh, can we still do that? Can we still do this?' " Gurr said. "But in small conversations, it's been more like, 'Have I myself been doing something that someone didn't want me to?' "
Still, he said, gray areas pervade a business where intimacy is vital to success.
"When you go into an audition, you are going in to be attractive, to be seductive, even," Gurr said. "It's really messy and confusing in our world."
Stepping from one industry to another can open workers' eyes to practices that seem to be tolerated in one place and rare in another. When Melissa Boigon moved from a Manhattan finance firm to a software start-up in New Orleans, she shifted from a business in which sexual misconduct had long been rampant to one where people seem to get along with a quiet professionalism.
Boigon, 26, said that while she felt pressure to "dress and behave a certain way in finance, now I wear whatever I want to and harassment is almost like a nonissue." She attributed the difference more to a generational divide than to any new consciousness. At her old job, older men commented on her body and she stayed silent, even though she was outraged. Her new office has a very young workforce, which she said makes it easier to speak up if someone behaves inappropriately.
"I have been the woman in the room who has taken it and not said anything, just to move my career forward," she said, "and I feel a lot of guilt about that. I won't be doing that anymore. I like to think we've reached a tipping point. Though I do wonder if it will never fully change until there are just as many women as men in power."
Elizabeth Dwoskin in San Francisco contributed to this report.