How Companies and Women Can Confront the #MeToo Backlash

December 20, 2019

#MeToo backlash

The backlash to the #MeToo movement has occurred swiftly and may be worse than anticipated, say two experts on the subject who spoke with the Women’s Leadership Center. Out of fear that they’ll be accused of assault, some in business have taken “preventive” steps, such as not hiring women for jobs that require them to travel with men or not hiring attractive women.

“On top of that, there was no indication that men in power would stop harassing or abusing women,” says Leanne Atwater, a management professor at the University of Houston who’s conducted studies showing evidence of this backlash. “Over 200 powerful men were called out, lost jobs, had bad stuff happen to them as a result of this hashtag #MeToo. I just didn’t think that they were just going to sit idly by and say, ‘OK, we’re all going to behave now.’”

“Me Too” has actually been around since 2006, when activist Tarana Burke started the cause to end sexual violence, says Linda Ridley, CEO of Edgar J. Ridley & Associates and an AMA instructor. But it didn’t become well known until mostly white women started accusing film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual abuse, Ridley says.

Exclusion is suppression

The backlash is “part and parcel of the challenge,” Ridley says. “If you have men who are making excuses now and saying, ‘Well, we can’t promote the women because we’re not around them, because we don’t want to be around them because they’re going to challenge us’—it’s nonsense; it’s fiction. It’s just one more attempt to mythologize a real-life dynamic, which is the suppression of certain groups of people.”

Atwater and colleagues conducted a study in 2018 to see what kind of change—good or bad—people anticipated as a result of the #MeToo movement. In 2019 they did follow-up research on what was actually happening at work.

Some of the findings from Atwater’s studies:

  • The fear that managers will not deal effectively with sexual harassment is still alarmingly high and hasn’t changed dramatically in nearly 40 years
  • After initial optimism, by 2019 positive outcomes were not occurring at the rate expected, and negative repercussions were higher than anticipated
  • 43% of men are more fearful of untrue allegations in the wake of #MeToo
  • 21% of men and 12% of women report that they are more reluctant to hire women for jobs that require close interpersonal contact with men
  • 19% of men and 7% of women report reluctance to hire attractive women

“These things are illegal,” Atwater points out. “You can’t not hire women because they are attractive…. Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act] says we have to treat men and women equally in all aspects in the workplace.”

It takes a cultural shift

This issue will not be changed by individual women, one by one, Ridley says. “You’re talking about companies having a top-down commitment regarding the desire to change the culture,” she notes. There are companies that are doing that. “They are actually hitting the executives in their wallets…. It’s not something that’s impossible,” she says.

Both women have suggestions for change, on the corporate and individual levels:

Help other women, and be inclusive. Recent research in the Gender, Work & Organization journal indicates that while overall harassment complaints in the workplace are down, African American women are reporting higher rates. “We need to be much more inclusive, and whatever privilege we have we need to be making sure that we share it,” Ridley says.

Use the men you trust as allies. “When you’re in a male-dominated environment, that alone is not a prescription for a problem, unless it is a culture that supports sexual harassment and abuse of women,” Ridley says. “[Changing a culture is] almost glacial, unless you get some enlightened men and you can create allies out of them.”

Offer training that goes beyond sexual harassment prevention. Those who don’t engage in either harassment or backlash are “people with character, integrity, do-the-right-thing people,” Atwater says. “Why don’t we just train people in doing the right thing, and talk to them about benevolent sexism or unconscious bias…instead of [telling employees that] slapping someone on the butt is sexual harassment and don’t do that.”

Train managers in online harassment and have an online policy in place. Online harassment continues to grow as a problem, making it easy for people to harass others, often without identifying themselves. Yet, “the vast majority of respondents said their company had no policy about online harassment,” Atwater reports.

Ridley encourages women to be positive despite these trends. Perhaps things are changing slowly, but they are changing. “In the recent past, in the last couple of years, I have seen where men say, ‘Is this OK? Do you want me to do this?’ So they are learning, especially younger men,” she says. “It is possible to change behavior and it is happening, absolutely.”

Atwater’s study showed two positive things. First, there really isn’t that much confusion among men or women over what harassment is. Second, more people are taking this issue seriously. “Both men and women said, ‘I would be more likely to speak out than I would have before #MeToo,’” she says.

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The AMA Women’s Leadership Center advocates for diversity in the workplace and the training and corporate commitment needed to achieve that. Along with individual classroom and online seminars, we offer workshops in developing women’s initiatives that will help you build a more inclusive culture at all levels of your organization.

About The Author

Jan Arzooman is a proofreader, copyeditor, and writer in AMA’s creative services/marketing department. She has worked in editorial for more than 20 years. Arzooman also is a visual artist.

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