#MeToo Backlash Contradicts Research on Gender Bias

6 Min Read By: Lauren Stiller Rikleen

This article is adapted from The Shield of Silence by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, published in May 2019.


The backlash to #MeToo has significant potential to further diminish opportunities for women at work, as some men claim to be fearful of engaging in mentoring and other relationships important to career advancement. In but one example, a survey reported that “65% of men say it’s now ‘less safe’ to mentor and coach members of the opposite sex.” Some survey respondents expressed concern that the work environment has become too sterile and that women are not being held accountable for their work because managers fear being accused of gender bias.

Days after the Harvey Weinstein story broke, a New York Times article identified a “heightened caution” experienced by men who fear their own careers could be ended as a result of “one accusation or misunderstood comment.” The article also noted the potential negative career impacts on women who lose valuable mentors and sponsors when men take steps to protect themselves from hypothetical accusations: “But their actions affect women’s careers, too—potentially depriving them of the kind of relationships that lead to promotions or investments.” Further to those career impacts, the article identified one survey in which 64 percent of senior men and 50 percent of junior women indicated that they avoided interactions that could give rise to the risk of rumors.

This analysis by the New York Times of industry sectors where men reported their fears and avoided interaction with professional women provided a sweeping—and worrisome—indication that women are at risk of losing career-critical relationships. In identifying where the potential impact on women was greater, the article reported a wide range of workplace settings: “People were warier in jobs that emphasized appearance, as with certain restaurants or TV networks; in male-dominated industries like finance; and in jobs that involve stark power imbalances, like doctors or investors.”

Business sectors are expressing fears that, ironically, will result in further disadvantaging women in the workplace. An article about the potential backlash in the legal profession noted: “The fallout is that some male lawyers are so fearful of being tainted with sexual harassment charges that they’re running for the hills, dodging close working relationships with women.” Similarly, in an article about backlash in the financial services field, the author wrote: “I’ve heard men say that they’re less likely to hire or associate with women as a result of the intensity of MeToo. . . . I have heard directly from male executives at two prominent Wall Street firms that they are moving their female direct reports to female bosses.”

The sad fact is that these fears are countered by significant research demonstrating the infrequency with which actual victims report sexual harassment. The notion that the #MeToo movement has put men at greater risk is contrary to the actual consequences women have faced from reporting, the continued power dynamics in the workplace that disfavor women, the greater likelihood that silence governs behaviors, and even the complicity of the courts in protecting the accused.

As discussed previously, research demonstrates that the court system has failed to adequately protect workers, erecting procedural, evidentiary, and other barriers for employees bringing discrimination, harassment, and retaliation claims. As documented in the book Unequal: How America’s Courts Undermine Discrimination Law, there are a variety of reasons that the law has evolved to favor employer over employee rights.

One such reason is the argument, adopted in a Supreme Court decision, that narrow rulings are warranted to protect employers from false claims. Yet research has shown this argument is not grounded in actual facts. For example, in 2013, there were 39 percent fewer cases involving civil rights employment claims than were brought ten years earlier in 2003. As the authors documented:

The number of federal civil rights claims is also not significant when compared to the total number of people in the workforce. In the twelve-month period ending in March 2013, only 12,665 cases were filed in comparison to 143,929,000 people employed in the civilian workforce. In other words, only a tiny fraction of the workforce files a discrimination suit in any given year. . . .

Available social science evidence does not support any significant faker problem. Instead, it actually shows that employees are reluctant to believe that their employers discriminated against them. In circumstances when they believe discrimination has occurred, they are reluctant to complain to their employer, the EEOC, or a state agency. People can be reticent to make discrimination claims because they may fear retaliation.

In Heather Mac Donald’s 2018 Hillsdale College speech. Mac Donald feeds the narrative that the #MeToo movement is bad for the workplace—indeed, bad for the economy—yet she seems unencumbered by the extensive research that undermines her arguments. She expresses concern that the #MeToo movement will lead to greater calls for diversity and gender equity, which will negatively impact decisions made on merit. For example, she referred to a public radio show’s series on gender and racial inequities in classical music as “irresponsible,” noting that, throughout history, “the greatest composers have been male. . . . We should simply be grateful—profoundly grateful—for the music these men created.”

But what about the music we have never been able to hear because female composers lacked the opportunities and networks to help their music reach the public? To Mac Donald, it is simply because the male composers had greater merit. Then how does she explain the transformation in the gender composition of most major orchestras in the decades since auditions have been conducted behind a screen, the candidate’s gender unknown to those responsible for hiring?

Mac Donald also pushed back on concerns about the lack of women in STEM fields:

Despite the billions of dollars that governments, companies, and foundations have poured into increasing the number of females in STEM, the gender proportions of the hard sciences have not changed much over the years. This is not surprising, given mounting evidence of the differences in interests and aptitudes between the sexes. . . . Females on average tend to choose fields that are perceived to make the world a better place, according to the common understanding of that phrase.

Her data point for this sweeping assertion? Mac Donald referenced a preschool teacher who was profiled in an article and who, notwithstanding a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, chose not to go to medical school so she could work with poor and minority children. Mac Donald concluded her speech by acknowledging the abuses of power revealed by #MeToo, even as she again attacked any underlying effort for greater equality:

The #MeToo movement has uncovered real abuses of power. But the solution to those abuses is not to replace valid measures of achievement with irrelevancies like gender and race.

Mac Donald’s speech sets forth a comprehensive attack on #MeToo as a rationale for resisting gender equality, a pairing that seems to be a particularly pernicious form of backlash. The dismissal of gender and race as irrelevant to the way in which achievement has been measured ignores decades of research demonstrating otherwise. Those who sow the seeds of a #MeToo backlash only serve to exacerbate the silence.

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