The Case Against After-Work Drinks Gets a Political Champion

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn believes that post-work booze puts women at a disadvantage.

Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

Ah, the scourge of semi-mandatory work fun. Often manifested in the form of after-hours drinks with co-workers, the act of collegial boozing received an unexpected rebuke earlier this month when British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn declared the practice to be discriminatory against female employees.

Reflecting some of the clumsiness that has made him extremely unpopular, Corbyn suggested that after-work socializing “benefits men who don't feel the need to be at home looking after their children and it discriminates against women who will want to, obviously, look after the children that they have got.” His remarks, which were delivered at an event promoting gender equality, prompted a fury—but not because the sentiment itself was sexist, but because some listeners thought Corbyn might be proposing a ban on early evening drinks. “Clearly this was not what Jeremy was suggesting…” went the beginning of a response by a Corbyn spokesperson.

The delivery might have been fumbled, but the issue struck a nerve. “True, it was not the most pressing labor issue of our age, but, the thing was, Corbyn was right,” wrote Lauren Collins in The New Yorker this week. “One didn’t want to have to go for a pint with the messenger in order to admit that after-work drinks, second only to working breakfasts, are one of the great nuisances of office life.”

While alcohol can ease the fraught boundaries of work and play, the ritual is a thorny one, particularly for women, who may face everything from double standards, stigmas, and unwanted advances when drinking in the company of work peers. “In one world, drinking women are frowned upon,” Alexandra Chang noted in The Atlantic back in 2013. “In another, women feel just as pressured to drink as men.”

Of course, booze-fueled socializing in a work setting is also problematic for employees, not just women, who, for religious or personal reasons, choose not to drink. And while many offices have tended to make drinking seem like not a big deal, the optics and the attitudes tell a different story, one in which drinking is a form of social capital. At least one study suggests that those who drink moderately earn 10-to-14 percent more than their peers who don’t.

Just look at American politics, where the default factor a candidate’s likability is whether or not he or she would be fun to have a beer with. Late last year, Hillary Clinton made a point of reminding voters that she had beaten John McCain in a drinking contest back in 2008. Meanwhile, on the campaign trail back in 2012, President Obama sought to burnish his everyman cred by drinking and professing his love for beer in Iowa, eventually inspiring a “Four More Beers” chant in one venue. This served as useful contrast to his opponent Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith forbids him from drinking.

Despite this, it does seem remarkable that three of the last four Republican candidates to snag the presidential nomination are men who completely abstain from drinking. In February, a strong argument was made that Donald Trump, despite not drinking, would win the prize for best candidate-to-have-a-beer-with contest of all candidates ever, not just his erstwhile Republican opponents. Now, that may not make a whole lot of sense, but since when has that mattered?