To some men, the presence of a woman at work seems like an unexploded grenade, ticking away, just waiting to blow up their careers.

The Deputy US President, Mike Pence, famously refuses to eat alone with a woman who is not his wife for fear he may be “compromised”. His inspiration in this, the recently “departed” evangelist Billy Graham, even reportedly refused to be alone in a lift with one.

Since the tidal wave of #MeToo sexual harassment claims surged around the world’s workplaces over the past few months, there has been a backlash of complaints on mainstream and social media that men are now afraid that an act – that once seemed innocuous to them – would now return to destroy them.

Outside a function to raise support for Movember – a men’s health foundation – former INXS guitarist Kirk Pengilly vocalised the angst with this reply to a question about the sexual harassment allegations that fell movie producer Harvey Weinstein and gardening TV star Don Burke:

“I really loved the ’60s and ’70s when life was so simple and you could slap a woman on the butt and it was taken as a compliment, not as sexual harassment.”

Diversity initiatives have also attracted their share of pushback. Google recently fired an engineer who wrote a 10 page memo against the company’s affirmative action programs. The engineer has now filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination against white people, men and political conservatives.

The engineer claimed women are underrepresented in the tech industry “largely because of their innate biological differences from men – their ‘stronger interest in people rather than things’, their propensity for ‘neuroticism’, their higher levels of anxiety”.

How nervous are they?

Does this backlash indicate that men are becoming afraid of women, as some media reports claim? That women now have too much power and an inclination to take men’s jobs? Just how nervous are they?

One of Australia’s foremost experts on men and masculinity, Dr Michael Flood, says speculation about men’s growing trepidation around women has been overstated.

“For many men, the primary reaction has been one of disinterest. They don’t see the these as issues of direct concern to them”, says Flood, a sociologist and associate professor at the Queensland University of Technology School of Justice.

Flood’s research shows that men are widely supportive of gender equality initiatives, however, they are also less likely than women to recognise discrimination when it occurs.

Fewer than one third of women in Australia think men and women are treated equally at work, compared with 50 percent of men who said the same, according to the Australian Women’s Working Futures 2017 report from the University of Sydney.

Belief of false accusations

Despite the overwhelming support for the idea of equality, some men find the new workplace gender politics threatening.

“I think [#MeToo] is going to push some men’s buttons. I think there is a widespread perception, a false perception, that women make up allegations of sexual harassment and that draws on a very old stereotype of the lying, vindictive woman – a very long standing sexist stereotype”, Flood says.

“And so that belief that false accusations of domestic violence and sexual assault are common, then plays itself out in fears about men being falsely accused of sexual harassment.”

False reporting of rape and sexual assault are between two percent and six percent in the UK, Europe, and the US.

US sociologist and masculinity researcher Dr Michael Kimmel, says Mike Pence’s solution makes him the “American equivalent of the Taliban”.

The logic is that women are so tempting and that men are so incapable of control, they cannot be trusted to interact in the workplace, says Kimmel, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the Stony Brook University in New York and author of Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era.

“This is a way of punishing women for men’s predatory behaviour. It is just evangelical Talibanism.”

Punishing women for men’s behaviour

Kimmel says he has heard men in companies claim that the situation is so perilous they will not hire a woman, go to a meeting with a woman, have a meal or a drink with a woman in case they are accused of sexual harassment.

“My analogy to this is the crazy straight guys who are afraid that every gay guy is going to hit on them. It is not going to happen. You are just not that interesting”, he says.

Kimmel says he also hears from men that they do not know what to do, are worried about saying the wrong thing or feel like they are “walking on eggshells” in their interactions with women.

“I regard this as relatively good news because what most men are saying is, ‘I don’t want to be a jerk. I don’t know what the right thing to do is anymore, but I don’t want to do the wrong one’.”

“That is a good start.”

Flood agrees, saying he welcomes the fact that many men are asking themselves some difficult questions about how they treat women.

“I think that is probably, in some, leading to more respectful, more equitable and more enjoyable relations among women and men in workplaces.”

Kimmel takes some comfort from research that shows younger men are savvier about what is acceptable behaviour around women in the workplace.

“The rules have changed. The old Don Draper [1950s Mad Men] rules no longer apply and many of us, who are aged 60 and above, were raised on those Don Draper rules and so we kind of don’t know what to do now.

“Age is a missing variable in the conversation and it needs to be discussed.”

However, this is not to say that older men cannot adapt. “I think we don’t give men enough credit sometimes. Most of us have adapted [to the new rules] just fine. Why? Because we actually like it. It is better.”

Flood cautions that it is important not to dismiss the trepidation of those who do feel threatened.

“We need to listen to men’s fear and work with it, but that doesn’t mean we give it a space or legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve”, he says.

If those fears are not dealt with, those men tend to “dig themselves in to resistance and defensiveness”.

Kimmel says we are now in a transitional period where neither men or women are comfortable in the workplace.

“The reason I am so sanguine about this is because I know young people. Young people are coming into the workplace and they already know the rules have changed.

“The Millennials are far more equal when they come in, they are far more capable of working in teams, they have far more cross-sex friendships. Yes, it is going to be discomforting – we all understand that ­– but I also think it is going to be fine.”

This article was originally written for The Ethics Alliance. Find out more about this corporate membership program. Already a member? Log in to the membership portal for more content and tools here.