By Ndileka Swakamisa
New U.S. survey reveals solo interactions between the sexes in the workplace are still perceived and experienced as awkward. Here’s how this can negatively affect women in the workplace.
Earlier this year U.S. Vice President Mike Pence jokingly referenced his 2002 comment, wherein he admitted he would never dine privately with a woman other than his wife or attend events with alcohol unless his wife was in his presence too.
Unsurprisingly, this caused a bit of a Twitter tumult, for several important reasons:
Some praised the vice president for holding his wife and marriage in high esteem. Others pointed out that his mindset will only serve to the detriment of women in the workplace – an issue already worryingly prevalent, although Pence has not denied women jobs in key spots.
In an article for the Washington Post, political reporter Aaron Blake notes:
“…Pence’s arrangement was one that reeked of sexism and a bygone era — an impractical code in the modern age of men and women working alongside one another. And how could the vice president of the United States not be trusted to dine alone or attend parties with women without it venturing into unholy territory?”
Recently, a U.S. study revealed that many Americans hold very similar beliefs. According to the New York Times, a Morning Consult poll shows that one-on-one interactions with people of the opposite sex at work, especially in social settings, is met with extreme caution.
The poll results indicate that 60% of women said it is inappropriate to have a drink with a male coworker who is not your spouse, while 53% said the same thing about having dinner with a male coworker.
The response from men followed closely with 48% saying a drink alone with a female coworker was inappropriate. When it came to dinner, 45% felt like it was unacceptable.
The reason? Religious beliefs, respect for one’s partner, and depicting the workplace as an environment wherein employees fear harassment or being accused of impropriety. The point to consider is that, like many people polled revealed, their social lives and careers depend on such solo interactions.
“If I couldn’t meet with my boss one on one, I don’t get that face time to show what I can do to get that next promotion,” said Shannon Healy, a property manager, in the New York Times.
In fact, Women in the Workplace indicates that many women face push-backs when they negotiate for promotions, and that they tend to report fewer substantive interactions with their senior leaders in comparison to their male counterparts.
A recent survey by the National Journal also sheds light on the issue. The effect of an implicit policy among congregational staffers has unjust consequences for women: the policy allows only male staffers to spend one-on-one time at after-hours events with their congressmen.
This means that female staffers are excluded from crucial conversations, networking opportunities and professional exposure, consequently earning about $6,000 (R79 072) less annually than their male colleagues.
In the same New York Times article, Hannah Stackawitz, a health care consultant, said that life without solo meetings with men is impractical and that both she and her husband do it every day.
David Smith and Brad Johnson further argue in this article for the Harvard Business Review that this way of thinking would mean that a bisexual leader could never meet alone with anyone.
So, to avoid women in the workplace being excluded from career advancement opportunities, we need to address why these interactions are deemed ‘inappropriate’. A young female associate might be overlooked for a business trip with her married boss because he fears any awkwardness, opting to take a male colleague instead. This puts the female associate at a massive disadvantage career wise. But this is mainly because she’s not acknowledged as a peer, but seen as a distraction for the male colleague.
It’s not that men and women can’t work together, or are unable to achieve success together; it’s about the unequal distribution of power in the workplace in general. This imbalance needs to be corrected in order for men and women to achieve more equal standing in the workplace.