The #MeToo Backlash

In the fall of 2017, when the New York Times and other media began reporting on widespread sexual harassment and assault by powerful male entertainment figures, many people were heartened. The conventional wisdom was that bringing the issue to light and punishing those responsible would have a deterrent effect. Leanne Atwater, a management professor at the University of Houston, had a different response. “Most of the reaction to #MeToo was celebratory; it assumed women were really going to benefit,” she says. But she and her research colleagues were skeptical. “We said, ‘We aren’t sure this is going to go as positively as people think—there may be some fallout.’”

In early 2018 the group began a study to determine whether their fears were founded. They created two surveys—one for men and one for women—and distributed them to workers in a wide range of industries, collecting data from 152 men and 303 women in all.

First the researchers sought to understand whether men and women held different views about what constitutes sexual harassment. They took this tack because men accused of the behavior frequently claim they didn’t understand how their actions were being perceived, while women who report it are sometimes deemed overly sensitive. The surveys described 19 behaviors—for instance, continuing to ask a female subordinate out after she has said no, emailing sexual jokes to a female subordinate, and commenting on a female subordinate’s looks—and asked people whether they amounted to harassment. For the most part, the two genders agreed. For the three items on which they differed, men were more likely than women to label the actions harassment. “Most men know what sexual harassment is, and most women know what it is,” Atwater says. “The idea that men don’t know their behavior is bad and that women are making a mountain out of a molehill is largely untrue. If anything, women are more lenient in defining harassment.”

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