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When Women and Men Work Together: The Costs and Benefits

Many women and men are still wary of working together when their work requires them to have one-on-one meetings or to travel together for business. New research reported by Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times  reveals that almost two-thirds of the 5,282 registered voters surveyed by the New York Times say, “People should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work.” Miller notes that these results also partially explain “why women still don’t have the same opportunities as men. . . . They [women] are treated differently.”

Like many women, my work sometimes requires that I travel with male colleagues for my business. I currently have wonderful male colleagues with whom I have respectful and trusting relationships. I also have had those other experiences, so I understand the need for caution, especially for younger women. Early in my career in two different contexts, two senior male colleagues who had the power to offer me business opportunities used their power to demand sexual favors. Both were married, older men. They may not have thought of themselves as “demanding favors” and may have thought they were offering me a compliment by propositioning me—but they probably knew they were abusing their positions. Because of their power to cut off my much-needed income, their actions put me in a very difficult position. I did rebuff them both—and they both stopped hiring me. The financial impact was devastating for me.

Women and men need to be able to work together, yet Miller describes real reasons to be wary:

  • Power differences do make it difficult for the lower-power individuals to protect themselves. Their vulnerability is real. This is true for both women and men. However, men do still hold a higher proportion of the high-power positions, so women are still more likely to be vulnerable.
  • The recent examples from Uber and Fox clearly show that sexual harassment is still being perpetrated and tolerated and ignored by the highest levels of leadership. This makes women and men more afraid to report unwanted and unwelcome advances.
  • The perception of inappropriate behavior in the workplace, whether or not it has actually been experienced that way, can ruin careers.

The discomfort women and men can experience working together can clearly result in negative impacts on women’s careers:

  • People tend to hire and promote people like themselves with whom they are most comfortable. Miller, in a previous article, described this phenomenon as “homophily.”
  • Women may not be invited to join a male boss on a business trip because of his fear of a perception of inappropriate behavior by the female employee or by others. Women may, then, lose opportunities for advancement and exposure to new business networks. This can be career limiting.
  • If women have difficulty getting one-on-one meetings with male bosses, they may not be able to demonstrate their readiness for promotions.

I wrote in a previous article about the “tax” women pay due to fear of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

What can organizations do? Miller suggests keeping office doors open for one-on-one meetings, utilizing conference rooms with glass walls, and going for after-work drinks or dinner with multiple coworkers. Communication is key—companies can teach women and men how to have honest conversations about how to work together. Organizations should also have multiple, clear procedures and supports available for employees to use when they feel inappropriate behavior has happened. Often, perpetrators are unaware of the impact their behavior has had, and they need some low-key feedback and counseling to change their behavior.

I wish it was not still necessary for women and men to exercise thoughtful caution when working with each other, but it is. We can manage this dynamic and have enjoyable and productive work relationships without penalizing women’s careers.

What has worked for you?

 

Image courtesy of Highways England. CC by 2.0

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