Gender Barriers

Recently an article appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times entitled “When Job Puts Sexes Together, Workers Cringe.” Great title – it called out for the story to be read. But, Melissa, who read it first, and I found the story shocking in terms of the data it reported. The data were from a large survey of over 5000 registered voters. The study focused on whether it was appropriate or inappropriate for people of opposite genders (not married to each other) to be alone in certain situations and the answers were broken down by gender. In the “least offensive” category was “Having a work meeting” – but 25% of women and 22% of men said it was inappropriate for a woman and a man to be alone in a work meeting. The other scenarios were: “Driving in a car,” found to be inappropriate by 38% (women) and 29% (men); “Having lunch,” found to be inappropriate by 44% (women) and 36% (men); “Having dinner,” found to be inappropriate by 53% (women) and 45% (men); and “Having a drink,” found to be inappropriate by 60% (women) and 28% (men). “Wow!” is my reaction.’ As the article points out, it is clear that significant numbers of people find these, everyday, workplace behaviors to be inappropriate when engaged in by people of opposite genders who are not married to one another because they believe sex is implied by these settings. The shocking point is to think that these people can’t see how one can keep his/her pants on and interact professionally with the opposite gender. There is no doubt that sexual harassment is an issue – people at the highest echelon apparently don’t know what appropriate behavior is, but the sad part of this is, how can men and women function as equals in a world where these perceptions exist? I don’t know if all of the respondents to this survey were employed, or, for example, living in 1950s traditional relationships. But, for a woman to not interact, to not go to lunch, have drinks, etc., in a work environment is career limiting to say the least. And, as Melissa will likely point out, it is totally unrealistic. A career person must learn appropriate norms of behavior with opposite gender co-workers – that it might be inappropriate to ride together in a car, or any of these other things should not be an issue. Inappropriate behaviors in cars or bars is the issue, but not being able to be in these situations will create a glass wall, not ceiling, between otherwise equal co-workers. I suppose it is important to note that 1/3 to 2/3 of population segments feel this way, but it is also important to break the glass walls by breaking them down. Precautions make sense. Leaving a door open in a one on one meeting, regardless of the participants’ gender, may make sense. Meeting in glass walled conference rooms, avoiding the dark corners of a restaurant or bar, may reduce risks, but to avoid them completely introduces another layer of risk that can be difficult to overcome.

The article from the New York Times that is the subject of this post appeared on page 1 on Sunday, July 2, 2017. The title intrigued me with its implication regarding workers cringing when working with opposite sex co-workers. My first impression was that the article’s focus was on occupations that were traditionally male, such as firefighters, and the assimilation of women into these predominantly male workplaces. I was wrong. The article reported data from a study with an epic sample size of 5, 282 people, yielding results that are highly statistically significant. (For the layperson reading this post, a sample size of 400 is common in scientific survey research. A sample size of 400 yields a 95% confidence interval. Thus, a sample size of over 5,000 yields almost 100% accuracy.) The study was not about male or female dominated professions; rather, it was about working with opposite gender people in any workplace. I am an excellent reader and an informed consumer of social science research, but I thought I was confused when interpreting the bar graphs that accompanied the article. I thought, surely, I must be reading them incorrectly because they were, as far as I am concerned, so far fetched and foreign with any workplace experiences I have ever had. I, of course, read everything correctly the first time. It appears to be true that most people, particularly women, believe it is inappropriate to participate in work related activities with male co-workers that, in my opinion, are not only harmless, but are required for meaningful participation in the workforce. For example, I cannot imagine how I would be able to complete my work on behalf of my clients, almost all of whom are men, if I could not discuss their case while having lunch or dinner. I cannot begin to imagine how I would decline such an invitation. Could I tell my client, “No, I am scared to meet you in a restaurant for lunch because you are a man, so you will need to bring your wife with you”? Similarly, I cannot imagine how I could perform my job on behalf of my clients if I were unable to travel across the United States of America with my Research Associates, some of whom are, you guessed it, men. Should we drive in two separate rental cars when we disembark from our flight, one for men and one for women, lest we yield to some primordial instinct to engage in inappropriate behavior on our way to…the HOTEL where we are planning to work? I capitalized HOTEL for emphasis: Should my research team and I stay at two different hotels, one for men and one for women? How would we ever get any work done if we cannot work together? Previous posts David and I have written have focused on sexism and how, at this stage in my life and career, I am still subjected to rampant sexism, but after reading this recent article, I believe sexist attitudes will prevail for a long time to come. Just like the song by Alan Parsons says, “If I had time to, I wouldn’t want to be like you,” or in this case, like the majority of people who live their lives in fear of living in the modern world.

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