At this year’s recent gathering of the global business elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos, during panels exploring subjects such as the Future of Masculinity, business executives used all the right buzzwords to signal their support of women in a post-#MeToo world. As Marc Pritchard of Procter & Gamble told the New York Times, “It’s not enough to stand by when toxic masculinity is on display . . . It’s not enough to stand by and say ‘that’s not me.’ You need to be a role model for the next generation.”
Behind the scenes, however, others expressed concern about some of the unintended consequences of #MeToo. Many admitted they were now uncomfortable mentoring female colleagues for fear that their behavior would be misconstrued as sexual harassment. As the Times noted, male leaders said “they were avoiding one-on-one time with junior female colleagues because, as one man put it, the issue is ‘just too sensitive.’”
It’s a surprisingly honest admission from business leaders, who are not usually so straightforward about their feelings. (By contrast, as some business leaders confessed to a reporter, despite the many earnest public expressions of concern about the future of work, most Davos attendees are secretly super excited about robots replacing humans.)
The story drew a predictably scornful response from many in the media, however, including from people who complained that the Davos men were using claims of hypersensitivity as justification for longstanding sexist attitudes.
One GQ writer scoffed at the idea that business leaders felt confused about the new rules for office behavior and suggested that male executives “just . . . not sexually harass anyone,” arguing, “It begs the question what kind of mentoring these executives were providing that it could be so easily confused with sexual harassment.” Others were blunter. As a digital media strategist quoted in the GQ story tweeted: “It’s important to understand that a lot of rich, prominent men rarely or never interact [with] women they’re not in financial control of: Wives, or employees, or mistresses. They literally have no frame of reference for a professional woman with independent ambitions.”
By refusing to take men’s concerns seriously, however, these critics do men and women a disservice. The concerns of men about the optics of spending one-on-one time with their female colleagues might be cover for sexism for a few, but for most in the post-#MeToo business world, hypersensitivity about the appearance of misconduct has become de facto business practice for good reason.
At a time when an uncorroborated allegation of harassment (amplified by social media) can potentially derail a career (or, say, a Supreme Court nomination), it would be foolish for men not to think twice before spending time alone with a woman in their office.
It’s disingenuous for feminist-minded critics to demand that men embrace the new post-#MeToo regime of awareness and sensitivity to women’s concerns and then turn around and attack them when they try to do just that. Remember the reaction to the so-called “Pence Rule?” After it emerged during an interview that the vice president made it a practice not to dine out alone with any woman but his wife, critics acted as if he had just announced he had joined the Taliban.
Some observers have theorized that expressions of confusion and dissatisfaction about male-female interactions in the workplace are the result of a broader problem they call “gender fatigue” (a real thing, according to corporate consultants and business school professors). The implication is that after decades of forceful “messaging” about equality for women in the workplace and the necessity of preventing sexual harassment, people are tuning out the gender noise. The rhetoric of female empowerment has become as ubiquitous and mundane a feature of the modern workplace as the buzzing of bad fluorescent lighting—and just as ineffective.
Gender fatigue plagues the political sphere as well. It can be seen in the public’s ho-hum reaction to the political posturing by Democrats in Congress this week. Taking a cue from freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who wore white (a color associated with the suffragette movement) for her swearing-in ceremony, Democratic congresswomen announced that they will wear white to President Trump’s rescheduled State of the Union address next week to show solidarity with women across the country—or at least with the women who voted for Democrats.
Similarly, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that Democrats will once again introduce the Paycheck Fairness Act, a piece of legislation they have tried and failed to pass for twenty years (perhaps because equal pay for equal work is already the law of the land thanks to the Equal Pay Act of 1963). No one expects it to pass this year either, but that won’t stop Democrats from indulging in many such self-congratulatory displays of their feminist credentials.
If these performances of gender-equity theater become a more frequent feature of the left, “gender fatigue” might end up becoming a full-fledged syndrome, even as Americans–fed up with hearing that men are all inherently sexist, or potential predators, or toxically masculine–tune out.