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As high-profile sexual-assault allegations prompt a historic reckoning, some say a climate of mistrust and unease is growing between women and men in the workplace

Matt Lauer watches a taping of the Today show in New York on Dec. 12, 2014.

It's been two months since Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein came tumbling down. The fire hose has been set to full blast ever since. Daily, power players across many industries have been named in sexual-abuse allegations. Last week's crop included NBC anchor Matt Lauer, A Prairie Home Companion creator Garrison Keillor, and Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons – men who lost their jobs and saw their legacies vaporized overnight.

As this historic reckoning unfolds, many are asking what's next: how do we better protect the vulnerable, hold perpetrators and their enablers accountable, and stem the tide of sexual predation?

At the same time, another narrative is percolating. After # MeToo, some observers see a climate of mistrust and unease growing between women and men in the workplace.

Russell Simmons presents at the NAACP Image Awards in Pasadena, Calif., on Feb. 6, 2015.

"It has been a confusing season for America's working men," announced one much derided New York Times story published last month. Here, men seemed terrified they'd be fired for behaviour that was misinterpreted by women in the office. Some of these men decided it best to avoid the opposite sex altogether: no boozy holiday parties, no off-site meetings and no mentorship of female colleagues. It seems they'd taken their cue direct from Vice-President Mike Pence, who famously refused to dine alone with women other than his wife, Karen, for fear of something.

Sexual harassment was painted here as confounding. Better to dodge half the working world and hope for the best. As a post-Weinstein takeaway among men, this one's troubling and petulant. And yet it persists.

"They're not feeling educated on what can and can't be said at this time so they're just withdrawing," said Calgary's Christine Hart, a self-described "gender intelligence expert" who spoke at the Men and Masculinity 2017 Summit, which attracted a co-ed audience of about 100 last month in Toronto.

Hart addressed a "new, shifting dynamic between men and women" in the workplace. In discussions with summit attendees, coaching clients, colleagues and friends, Hart says some men have told her they've grown wary of co-ed, after-work drinks, jokes in the staff room and "compliments," fearing they will be misconstrued. She claims some men are also shying away from mentoring female colleagues because of "the appearance of impropriety."

"That's the word that keeps coming up when I'm asking men … 'fear' that they're well-intentioned but that they might mess up," Hart said. "Everyone is a little freaked out at the moment."

Hart insists the men she coaches understand company policies on sexual harassment. Still, their concerns reveal deep confusion about what behaviour actually qualifies. It's as if the rules have shifted so radically in the # MeToo era that some men can't keep up with what's expected of them in the office.

But is sexual harassment really so mystifying? Do men who read about Weinstein raping actresses in hotel room "meetings" really tremble in fear about office water cooler talk with their female colleagues? What's one got to do with the other?

Harvey Weinstein attends the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi on Oct. 15, 2007.

Some critics believe this new-found confusion amounts to a cop-out. Sexual-harassment codes have been on the books for decades now. These are hardly new social norms. Men who complain that workplace standards have become unreasonable lately sound out of touch or like they've got something to hide.

"Men aren't dumb. We need to laugh at them when they pretend they're dumb," said Jaclyn Friedman, who wrote the new book Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All. "You're either a competent employee who deserves to be a leader in his field or you're confused about whether or not you should press your dick up against someone in a work meeting. If you genuinely can't tell the difference then you're not qualified to do your job. You pick."

In their scripted apologies, many of the high-profile men accused of sexual abuse sound bewildered by modern workplace mores. Weinstein explained that he came of age in a different time. PBS talk show host Charlie Rose thought he was "pursuing shared feelings." Director Woody Allen weighed in with his own, ill-advised Weinstein postmortem: "You don't want it to lead to a witch-hunt atmosphere," Allen told the BBC, "where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself."

Charlie Rose attends the TIME 100 Gala in this April 26, 2016, file photo.

The idea that women can't distinguish between such light fare and coercive sexual harassment is patronizing, and a distraction from the far heavier realities victims have been reporting over the past two months: violently exploited workplace relationships, sexual assault, perpetrators with webs of co-conspirators and careers undone. "There's not a lot of room for misinterpretation in these stories," Friedman said.

Even so, Friedman believes some well-intentioned guys may be walking on eggshells at the office these days. "If you feel uncomfortable, resistant and defensive, think about what the root of that might be," is Friedman's advice to those men. "The response shouldn't be retrenchment. It should be a giant spotlight on where we need to focus next."

Stronger corporate transparency, the hiring of more women and real support of whistleblowers are crucial steps forward. Bypassing female colleagues is a step backward, and it amounts to workplace discrimination.

"Men shouldn't shy away from mentoring now. Men should embrace that opportunity," said Humberto Carolo, executive director of White Ribbon, an organization that works with men and boys to end violence against women.

Carolo sees "legitimate confusion" in men who see workplace sexual harassment but don't know how to help. A good start, he says, is asking victims what they need and serving as a witness. Hart said she urged frustrated men at the masculinity summit to focus on stepping up and calling perps out instead. "Can you imagine if we lived in a world where every single guy called out the beginning stages," Hart said, "before it could scale to something worse?"

Work environments where sexual harassment goes unabated become poisonous for women and for men. This is where real mistrust flourishes, breeding conflict, poor productivity and tarnishing an employer's reputation. There are more constructive alternatives for men than turning away from female colleagues as another bombshell sexual-harassment allegation drops, which it inevitably will.

"Shifting culture takes a long time. Two months is a tiny drop in the bucket," Friedman said. "If we're going to really make a change so that women get to be three-dimensional, sovereign humans in the workplace and out of it, we're going to have to be uncomfortable for a lot longer."