The downside of the #MeToo movement starting to dawn on women

The rules of interaction between women and men in the workplace have been changed with a suddenness that inevitably produces unforeseen negative consequences, no matter how positive and necessary the switch might be.  The Associated Press this morning runs a feature article whose title asks a question that answers itself: "Will misconduct scandals make men wary of women at work?"

Duh!  The careers of men are being destroyed on the basis of accusations alone, so of course we worry.  While there is no ambiguity over Weinstein-like criminal behavior, there is a spectrum of behavior that women can find objectionable, and at the other of the scale from Weinstein, there is a lot of potential for career-ending misunderstanding.  For all we know, a greeting like "Good morning!  That's a lovely outfit" could be the basis of a complaint to H.R.  The AP's Jennifer Peltz appreciates this in her article:

Some women, and men, worry the same climate that's emboldening women to speak up about sexual misconduct could backfire by making some men wary of female colleagues.

Forget private meetings and get-to-know-you dinners. Beware of banter. Think twice before a high-ranking man mentors a young female staffer. ...

Ana Quincoces, a Miami-based attorney and entrepreneur who owns her own food line, says her business and its success involves working mostly with men, and sales and other activities are often concluded over lunch or drinks. Those opportunities, she says, are dwindling, because many of the men she knows through her business "are terrified."

"There's a feeling of this wall that wasn't there that is suddenly up because they don't know what's appropriate anymore - it's disconcerting," Quincoces said. "I feel that they're more careful, more formal in their relationships with co-workers. And I can't say I blame them, because what's happened is pervasive. Every day there's a new accusation."

She said many of the men she knows are now avoiding one-on-one social occasions that were normal in the past.

Bingo!  The risk factor in anything beyond formal and a slightly distant interactions between men and women on the job has skyrocketed.  Anger is in the air, and who can say it is unjustified?  Lots of women have had to endure humiliation and worse, with the result that pent up emotion can animate complaints about behavior that would have passed muster only weeks ago.

With the stakes so high, given the presumption of female veracity and male culpability anytime an objection is raised, men are, frankly, terrified.  Get used to it, ladies.  That is the other side of the coin of the new normal.

The old norms that men (often cluelessly) incorporated into their behavior now have been discarded, but we have no clear understanding of what should replace them.  By their very nature as unwritten rules, norms have to emerge from shared sentiments among members of the groups that enforce them.

This is far from a hopeless situation.  We need new models of what is and isn't acceptable in all sorts of work (and after-work) situations.  This is fertile territory for drama and especially comedy, and I expect that talented writers and actors will create memorable lessons for us.

For this to start to gel into shared understandings, the level of anger has to subside, and people have to lighten up enough to laugh.  We aren't there yet, but at least we are starting the discussion.  There are almost no good models of productive workplace interaction between males and females embedded in our collective history.  So powerful is the force of sexual attraction (after all, the survival of the species depends on its power) that tradition mostly instructs us to separate the two sexes.  However, the integration of the two sexes is now a requirement of work, so we have to work out models of interaction that can deal with tensions of potentially the highest magnitude.

It's not going to be easy, quick, or painless.  The best lubricant for the friction is frequent affirmation of the intent to create a workplace that is comfortable for all and a willingness to forgive the inevitable missteps that accompany changes in the informal rulebook.

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