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#MeToo complicates workplace interactions with men and women

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By Sherry Robinson

In my husband’s workplace, years ago, a woman who was clueless about appropriate professional attire showed up day after day in tube tops. Men in the office begged female co-workers to take her aside and ask her to stop wearing the clingy apparel because it was distracting. Maybe for the wearer, that was the point. Nobody worked up the courage to speak, so her daily display continued.

(Laugh if you want at Hillary’s pantsuits, but for women of a certain age, the pantsuit solved a lot of problems.)

The tube top episode shows that most men in the workplace are decent people, and men and women work together just fine as long as everybody observes common sense codes of behavior. It’s something to remember as we navigate the turbulent waters of #MeToo.

After taking down some big players in entertainment, politics and media, the MeToo movement has paused. I’m hearing two parallel debates. A few brave feminists are starting to question the treatment of men in some of these cases – not all piggish behavior is equal – and some men, especially older men, are feeling uncomfortable and unsure of themselves in workplace interactions.  

For a lot of women, myself included, it’s been high-five exhilarating to see years of abuse and bullying exposed and men held accountable who thought they were untouchable. We haven’t had any Harvey Weinsteins in New Mexico, but we’ve seen a few heads roll, plus a new system for complaints at the Legislature.

Leaders of feminist thought are starting to examine the movement itself. In a Harper’s Magazine essay last month, Katie Roiphe, a New York journalism educator, acknowledged “the sense of great, unmanageable anger” that’s understandable but “can also lead to an alarming lack of proportion.”

There’s a difference between a guy staring at a woman’s chest and an assault; one’s annoying, the other’s criminal, but women are currently angry about both. In the feminist Twitterverse, there’s no difference, which is why Roiphe argues that this chatter is bad for the movement and for women. She also takes issue with the resignation of a prominent editor over sketchy accusations.

Which brings us to male discomfort and the day-to-day social minefield of the workplace.

In a poll released last week by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Americans think it’s become more difficult for men to know how to interact with women in the workplace. That percentage rises to 66 percent among people over 65 and 64 percent among Republicans. Younger men and Democrats were in the 40 percent range – still substantial.

Even so, half of Americans see as a major problem men getting away with sexual harassment or assault, along with women not being believed. Just 34 percent thought firings of accused men before having all the facts was a major problem, and even fewer, 31 percent, are worried about false accusations by women.

Personal experience colors our views, so it’s notable that 59 percent of women (63 percent of white women and 50 percent of Hispanic and Black women) and 27 percent of men (34 percent of Hispanic men, 25 percent of white men and 22 percent of Black men) have been subjected to unwanted sexual advances or harassment at work or outside of work, and 55 percent of women say it’s happened in both settings.

Women and Democrats are more concerned than men and Republicans about sexual harassment going unpunished and victims not being believed.
We live in a heady time when undesirable old behavior is no longer tolerated. It will leave a lot of people feeling unbalanced for a time. And we’re weathering the early stage of a movement that’s still in need of a real process, not just Twitter rumors, to go with its overdue reckoning.