Having a beer at work can foster closeness with co-workers, but it can also lead to compromising situations.
Drinking in a work setting can be a complicated thing. Refuse a glass of wine at a dinner meeting and you're seen as uptight or a prude. Throw back one too many cocktails at your company happy hour and you're irresponsible or a floozy. When it comes to drinking at work, women in particular have to maintain a precise balance.
Studies show that women are feeling both the pressure and the freedom to drink. The gap between the number of men and women who drink is quickly narrowing, as increasingly more women take to harder beverages.
"The rates of binge drinking and alcohol use disorder are increasing in women," Katherine Keyes, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University, says. "While men are more likely to have alcohol disorders than women, the increase in women outpace what we see in men." Keyes says that data tracking back over the last 60 to 70 years suggests that more gender equality in a country may correlate with higher drinking rates. As more women enter the workplace, they have more opportunities and societal benefits. But one of the consequences is that more women "engage in at-risk drinking behavior."
So how do women approach the bumpy terrain of drinking at work?
Personally, I err on the "uptight" side, rarely picking up a drink at social events, let alone work ones. This leads to a lot of questioning, and in some cases, somebody forcing a drink on me. It means I also tend to avoid situations where drinking is likely to be happening. So when I read a New York Times story on how non-drinkers felt left out or disadvantaged specifically because they didn't or couldn't drink in work situations, I could relate. I thought, "This is my life!"
Until I read that it actually wasn't. Because apparently pressures to drink at work don't apply to women--or, at least, not aaccording to the New York Times:
Sober women might actually benefit from an old double standard. "Men are still expected to get together and go wild, but in some ways it's frowned upon if the woman engages in it," Dr. Crepsac said, noting that few of his female patients have complained that sobriety hurt their careers. "There are plenty of things for which women are discriminated against in the workplace, but this isn't one of them."
Dr. Crepsac's comment just illustrates how much attitudes toward women drinking in work settings can vary. In one world, drinking women are frowned upon. In another, women feel just as pressured to drink as men. As Jezebel writer Katie J.M. Baker put it, "Dr. Crepsac clearly isn't hanging out with the same women I'm hanging out with."
A female friend of mine says that her consulting-firm co-workers pressure her to go to after-work drinks, especially after she declines. "People have said things to me like, 'You don't go to things with us' because I don't go to every single happy hour," she says. "If I don't go out drinking with my co-workers, then I don't get to bond with them."
It wasn't until she went out to an extended, after-work drinking event that one of her female co-workers even spoke to her.
"She did not ever talk to me, it was almost weird. Then I went out with them one night and we were drinking a lot and we went out to karaoke. Now she is one of my closer work colleagues and it's just because of that night. Before, I felt so uncomfortable asking her questions; I might even ask her and she wouldn't answer them. Now we have conversations, work-related and non-work-related," she recounts.
This has a lot to do with how prevalent a role alcohol still plays at work. While three-martini lunches are mostly a relic of a by-gone era, today you'd still be hard-pressed to find a work event that doesn't serve some form of alcohol. Many industries wholeheartedly embrace drinking and center events around it. Take the Silicon Valley startup culture, where kegs are commonplace in company lounges and open bars at events are expected. And if you're a non-drinker, or just not in the mood to drink that night, it can hurt how people perceive you.