The Invisible Force Holding Back Women at Work

The Invisible Force Holding Back Women at Work

Why you should care

Because you shouldn’t listen to Harry: Men and women can be friends, and such friendships are critical to Sally’s career success.

Kim Elsesser knows what it’s like to work in a male-dominated environment. After attending graduate school at MIT, where only 19 percent of the students were women, she headed for the lion’s den: the trading floor at Morgan Stanley. Elsesser did her best to fit in, and eventually thrived as that rare commodity, a female trader, but it wasn’t easy. The dirty jokes, the work outings at topless bars, the golf games and the poker groups were just some of the many barriers that made forming friendships with male colleagues, particularly the senior ones so essential for moving up the job ladder, a challenge.

But as Elsesser, now a research scholar at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, has since learned, though her experiences at Morgan Stanley may have been more colorful than those of the average workplace, they are hardly unusual. In her new book, Sex and the Office, Elsesser explores how everything from sexual harassment policies to taboos on workplace romance — barriers she labels the “sex partition” — have made socializing and forming friendships with co-workers of the opposite sex difficult in the modern workplace. And since men still run the vast majority of organizations, such a partition leaves female employees without the influential male friends and mentors critical for career success. Such sex partitions may not exist in all workplaces, but “where women have to network with men in order to advance their careers,” Elsesser tells OZY, “then these obstacles are a big issue.”

The American workplace has come a long way from ‘Mad Men’…

A failure to “lean in,” as well as greater responsibility for family and child care duties, Elsesser argues, does not fully explain why women are not reaching the top levels of many companies. She cites one study in which the 17 percent gap between what female and male executives earned was accounted for by the two groups’ differential ability to leverage contacts at work. A raft of research has also shown that individuals with bigger networks of friends at work earn more money, get promoted faster and are generally happier in their jobs.

On the plus side, the American workplace has come a long way from Mad Men and an office environment in which skirt-chasing executives cornered their secretaries. If anything, the typical male senior manager these days is not an unrepentant misogynist but an overly cautious social agent more likely to point out the hazards of sharing a Coke with a junior female colleague than a pubic hair upon one — as U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was famously accused of doing by his onetime employee Anita Hill. According to one study in the Harvard Business Review, not only were 64 percent of senior male executives reluctant to have one-on-one meetings with junior female employees but half of those women were also reluctant to pursue one. As Andrea Sankar, a professor of anthropology at Wayne State University, once summarized the dynamic: “Every time a man and a woman are at the watercooler, Anita Hill’s right there between them.”

Often such frigid relations are not the product of formal sexual harassment policies but of office protocol. In a recent examination of female staffers on Capitol Hill by the National Journal, several women described how reluctant their male congressional bosses were to have closed-door meetings with them. “There was an office rule that I couldn’t be alone with the congressman,” one staffer explained. “The rule was to protect him and me, but it still felt unfair.”

Formal, and well-intentioned, sexual harassment policies, though, also play a role. “Sexual harassment training now,” says Elsesser, “is too focused on reducing legal liability, and not really focused on creating a hospitable environment where men and women can work together.” Elsesser is not for rolling back such training but for augmenting it by informing employees about the consequences of limiting cross-sex friendships and emphasizing what doesn’t constitute sexual harassment, like inviting a co-worker of the opposite sex to lunch. Gender-neutral networking efforts aimed at all employees, she says, such as the long lunch tables used by Google to encourage employee interaction, will also be particularly beneficial to women.

Of course, not even the most enlightened employer can change human nature, and real differences between the sexes when it comes to interests, communications styles and preferences for same-sex friends, not to mention the unavoidability of workplace romance, will continue to conspire against truly fluid professional relationships between men and women. There’s not a lot we can do about those factors, admits Elsesser, but the workplace can make matters worse; fortunately, she says, “Those things that make it worse in the workplace are also the most fixable.”

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