Could fear of #metoo backlash silence women's voices?

#MeToo movement may lead to men preferring to work with other men to limit discomfort, risk

Nipping at the heels of the #Metoo movement of women recounting sexual harassment and assault is the threat of a backlash against women, a response that could silence the voices speaking out but could be avoided, advocates and experts say.

The threat of a counterblast was highlighted by Ms Sheryl Sandberg, a Facebook executive and writer on women's issues, who said recently she heard "rumblings of a backlash" amid the airing of women's claims across the globe.

Untold numbers of women, many using the social media hashtag #Metoo, have spoken up about being verbally abused, groped, molested and raped in an outpouring that kicked off in October with accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

So many women have come forward with stories of sexual misconduct, naming teachers, bosses and some of the most prominent men in politics, media and entertainment, that Time named the "Silence Breakers" as the most influential "person" of the year.

But Ms Sandberg, author of "Lean In," a book about women in the workplace, warned that the number of men afraid to be alone with a female colleague must be "sky high right now" and the movement could have the unintended consequence of holding women back.

"We need to be concerned about it," said Ms Fatima Goss Graves, head of the National Women's Law Center, which promotes equal rights for women. "The last thing you would want is a solution that involves removing women from leadership opportunities," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"In fact, that's an important part of the solution, having more diverse leadership."

Preventing a backlash needs solid workplace policies that protect both accused and accuser so "there's trust both ways that the right thing is going to be done," said Ms Catalina Avalos, an attorney and expert in labour and employment law.

"The consequences that the men are facing today don't necessarily mean that you can preclude women and not have a one-on-one lunch, not have a one-on-one meeting," she said.

"We can't allow this fear of accusations to be an excuse for the backlash and an excuse for excluding women."

But she cautioned that a backlash could take place subconsciously if men in power gravitate toward working with other men rather than women to limit their discomfort or risk.

It's too early to tell now, if ever, that a #Metoo backlash could be real in terms of opportunities or advancement for women, but just the threat wields power, some say.

"I think the backlash fear is founded because of the people that are looking for excuses," said Ms Erin Gloria Ryan, senior editor at The Daily Beast. "I think there's a deeply ingrained philosophy in certain corners that believe that women lie about things to manipulate and hurt men."

Ms Goss Graves of the National Women's Law Center said that although she worries talk of a backlash is in part an effort to silence women, it will fail. "I don't think you'll be able to shut this down," she said. "It's an awakening around harassment."

The writer is from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.