Office Football in Washington: Get Used to It, Ladies

White House revelations notwithstanding, office football is not an actionable offense. It is a stress habit for men, like smoking or biting nails.

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Of all the revelations spurred by Ron Suskind's book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, perhaps the least surprising is that footballs were tossed around in staff meetings at the White House.

Peter Wallsten and Anne E. Kornblut report on what former White House communications director Anita Dunn described as a near-hostile workplace environment for women:

The complaints began circulating early in the administration.

In interviews at the time, female officials complained that top aides fueled the high-testosterone atmosphere. Footballs were occasionally thrown during staff meetings, by one account. Rough language abounded.

That, of course, made the White House hardly different from most other political operations.

Boy are the reporters right in that assessment. As I sat down to write this yesterday, one of my young male colleagues was playing with a hackey sack in the hallway in front of my desk.

Sometimes the men who sit either side of me toss one over my head and throw it back and forth over my desk, at high velocity. They use standing desks, so there's no risk of hitting me at my seated one, and you don't work in a newsroom for any length of time without learning how to tune out what's happening around you when you need to.

But this is not hostile workplace behavior. It is the same category of activity as smoking or nail biting, a way for people to burn off steam while they are thinking through some thorny editorial issue or unwinding from a jag being wired in (or whatever the writerly equivalent is). It is a stress habit for men, expressed socially.

And like many stress habits, it connects the hand and the mind, activating the ancient primate link between grasping with one and grasping with the other.

When I first started in journalism I don't think I understood that. As a reporter-researcher at The New Republic in the late 1990s, the hallway football-tossing seemed like an aggressive assertion of masculinity in an office that was already pretty male. In restrospect, senior editors and fact-checkers chucking footballs at each other had nothing to do with the well-documented gender issues that place had. And it wasn't as if the young men there weren't feminist, even if the owner seemed to lack interest in the careers -- or names -- of the ambitious young women who worked there. Many of the guys who liked to toss around a pigskin or keep one in their offices in later years left Washington to follow their high-powered, high-earning girlfriends or wives, sacrificing career opportunities of their own in the process. They were not guys holding women back.

Over time, I realized that football-tossing was pretty commonplace in DC workplaces, and, I am told, it's not just DC -- that it's like this in workplaces all over the country.

Such behavior is so pervasive I've even developed something I call the football test for work environment. "Is it the kind of place where people toss footballs around?" I've learned is worth asking a new employer. What I am really asking, of course, is, "How guyish is the office culture?" Because it is important to know something like that going into it.

Sometimes when I talk with my lady journalist friends I joke I should write a whole book about this stuff -- the Black Book of Being Female in Washington, the real story of what the women of this city really talk about as they trade stories among themselves, from their perspective as a minority of usually 17 to 35 percent of their workplace, and full of tips from people who have been doing this for a while.

If ever I did, it would have a whole chapter on how to think about office football.

Image credit: White House

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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