The Pros and Cons of Being a Woman Who Drinks With Her Colleagues

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Having a beer at work can foster closeness with co-workers, but it can also lead to compromising situations.

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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.

The situation for women in male-dominated industries, like finance or computer programming, might be more severe. "Women entering in male-dominated industries may face more pressure to drink," Corinne Reczek, Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Cincinnati says, though she points out that few empirical studies back this up. Keyes says that there are, however, several studies that have found women in predominantly male environments—like medical and law schools—tend to have higher rates of binge drinking.

"I work at a tech company and though there's definitely fewer women, my coworkers treat me as a member of the team (and I'm happy that they do) and one of the things that comes with that is going out for happy hour/drinks," one Jezebel commenter notes. But she adds that making the effort to just show up at an event, and not drink, worked for her.

That approach may not work for everyone. Leah Epstein, who runs a website called Drinking Diaries with Caren Gerzberg, says that it's hard to be a non-drinking woman in a drinking environment. "All of a sudden everybody can look silly and stupid because of your not drinking. And you can perceived as being uptight and rejected," she says.

But on the flip side, women face another challenge: Not drinking what's perceived to be "too much."

My same friend at the consulting firm told me that one of her male co-workers has shunned her because of a night of heavy drinking with her work team. "I think he thinks I'm crazy now," she says.

She also recounts times when she has been drinking a similar amount to her male counterparts and left on her own to go home, only to incite call after call from male co-workers asking where she went and how she plans to get home. "They don't ever worry about the guys," she says.

Overbearing worry is one of the lighter offenses women encounter when drinking like "one of the guys." Epstein says that in her personal experience, mixed-gender drinking situations easily cross become sexual for women, in ways that don't necessarily affect men. "A woman drinking with a group of men in a work-related situation could cross into flirtation and the sexual. She might be stigmatized," she says.

For women, drinking or not drinking at work can often create difficult situations. But even though women have to deal with more than a few stereotypes when alcohol is involved in professional settings, there are ways to cope. Women who don't drink, much like the men mentioned in the New York Times piece, can find other ways to bond with co-workers and close deals sans liquor. Think weekday lunches and coffee meet-ups. Others go to drinking events and order a soft drink.

And as for women who do drink at work, it can be beneficial for their careers. As drinking becomes much more commonplace for women , it offers the same benefits to women as it does to men. Take editor Jane Friedman's account in the book Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up:

One time, not long after I'd received a promotion at work, I was forced to sit at the CEO's table during a formal dinner. Had I been sober, I would've been so critically self-aware that I wouldn't have spoken a word. But with a few drinks in me, I became a better listener and empathizer. When the CEO made an offhand comment, I caught a sudden glimpse of the man behind the label, and for a moment I felt a kinship. I made a small comment to him, a subtle wink at what I'd glimpsed—and his eyes lit up. Because drinking helped unchain me from thoughts of poor little me and inspired grander idealism, I allowed the possibility of something in common with a CEO. And there was—of course there was!"
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Alexandra Chang is a staff writer at Wired. She has also written for The Bold Italic, Macworld, and All Things Digital.  

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