The Hollywood-born "Me Too" movement against sexual harassment has had the paradoxical effect that many working women now find themselves isolated in the office as their male colleagues studiously avoid them.
Korea has an ingrained office drinking culture, where all kinds of bullying by superiors goes on amid enforced conviviality. To be on the safe side, men now deliberately exclude women from office gatherings and business trips, leading to an equally unwelcome form of ostracism.
One 29-year-old office worker at a mid-sized company in southern Seoul said, "I feel very uncomfortable at work these days." She said her boss told female staff to go home when he took out the men out drinking.
But the office worker would have liked to bond with her coworkers and felt that opportunity was taken away from her against her will. "I didn't do anything wrong, but I felt like I was being treated like I had," she said.
Another office worker at a shipping company in Seoul said, "I rarely talk with my boss these days. He used to be very chatty with the female staff, but nowadays he only gives instructions by text message." Her boss apparently told other workers that he feared any comments could be misunderstood by female staff. "I feel like I became invisible in my office," she said.
The overly sensitive reaction among men at work is called the "Pence Rule" after the bizarre code of conduct of the evangelical U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. In 2002 Pence said he would never meet an unaccompanied woman without his wife present.
Online communities here are filled with comments from men saying that their female colleagues scare them now.
"We need to keep our distance from women, since we don't know what they may do," one wrote. One male office worker in southern Seoul said, "My male coworkers are telling each other to watch out for female staff who may jump on the #Me Too bandwagon. My friend advised me recently to avoid interacting with women at work."
Women may be suffering disadvantages at work if the Pence Rule keeps them from vital tasks and prejudices their male colleagues against them.
One 29-year-old staffer with a medical equipment maker in Gyeonggi Province said she was abruptly excluded from a business trip next month to China and a man was assigned instead. "I spent a lot of time convincing buyers in China as I prepared for the business trip, but all my efforts were wasted," she said. "Since the #Me Too campaign started, my boss seems to be scared to go on business trips with female staff. This will reduce opportunities for me to achieve results at work."
In the U.S., where the hysteria started, senior executives are also avoiding interacting with female staff, which often reduces the women's chances of getting ahead in business.
Koh Kang-sup at the Young Professionals Institute of Korea said, "The Pence Rule is a flawed approach. Avoiding addressing the crux of the problem will only deepen the rift between men and women in the office. We need to find ways to address the issue together."