As the #MeToo movement grows and the push to call out men for sexual harassment and assault reaches critical mass, I see the same fears writ large. We like to believe that we, as individuals, are good men who would never behave in such a way. Recognizing that we all may have done something that our co-workers found unwelcome is profoundly uncomfortable.
Hoping to avoid hurting or offending others in ignorance, some men feel that the best answer is to keep their distance from women. One client recently told me, “I’m worried that I’ve been part of the problem, and I don’t know how to fix this except to just avoid it entirely.”
Even companies are worried. Across boardrooms and human resources departments, executives are wondering how to head off the next sexual assault claim.
Unfortunately, in many cases, the answer has been to embrace the worst stereotypes about men.
Many workplaces and individuals are adopting what is known as “The Mike Pence rule”: The vice president avoids being alone with any woman who isn’t his wife.
Companies have begun imposing rules that limit mixed-gender travel and male employees have canceled one-on-one meetings with female colleagues. A Washington Post story this week detailed how the Pence rule is taking hold across industries: A male lobbyist left behind a young, female co-worker on a working trip, even though she had done much of the preparation. A male surgeon no longer greets a longtime colleague with a friendly hug.
This can seem sensible from a certain point of view: Eliminate the opportunity for sexual impropriety, and you eliminate the problem. At best, however, it’s misguided.
At worst, it’s insulting. These rules are predicated on the belief that every man is driven by sex. Instituting rules that create de facto segregation by gender is a tacit admission that men are inherently unable to control themselves around women. If we follow the logic to its natural end, the inevitable conclusion is that the only line separating a co-worker and a harassment suit is convenience.
Clearly, the only option is to keep men and women separate, like lions and gazelles at the zoo. Men are just too dangerous.
These stereotypes are part of the central tenets of toxic beliefs about the inherent nature of masculinity: Men are all sex-obsessed and can’t resist the opportunity to score when it’s presented. Sex is an inevitable obstacle in any mixed-gender relationship. Not only can men not read signals, but they also don’t have the emotional intelligence to learn.
That attitude becomes destiny; it justifies the abdication of responsibility to manage ourselves. It’s how men are; you could sooner ask a cat to fetch sticks.
The pushback against #MeToo follows the same logic: Aziz Ansari isn’t a mind-reader, so how was he supposed to know his date wasn’t enjoying their sexual encounter? Al Franken and Dustin Hoffman were just making jokes when they touched and pretended to grope their female colleagues. Mario Batali is just part of the bawdy restaurant culture, and women must learn to handle it or avoid it entirely.
And while this may not be the intended message, it carries an unpleasant connotation that women are responsible for their own harassment by being alone with men who simply can’t or don’t understand the difference between friendliness and flirtation. After all, when you chum the water, you have only yourself to blame when the shark takes a bite.
When we advocate never being alone with women — whether at work or in social settings — we’re saying, “No, I don’t know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and I can’t be bothered to try.”
This isn’t the behavior of grown men; it’s the behavior of a spoiled child who doesn’t see why he needs to change.
It’s good that men have become more conscious of the way women have been treated in society in general and in the workforce, in particular. It’s understandable that everybody feels overly cautious. Changing the habits of a lifetime is difficult.
But the answer isn’t to self-segregate — it’s to change the culture. And more important, it’s for men to be willing to take responsibility and learn, not to slough it off onto biological inevitability. We aren’t boys. We’re men.
And we should act like it.
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