Kim Elsesser: If a woman asks a male coworker to go out for a beer, the male coworker could wonder, “Is she interested in me? What is my staff going to think if I go out with her? Will I somehow be accused of sexual harassment?” Those issues don’t necessarily come up when coworkers of the same sex go out together. This is problematic because that kind of experience—going out for a beer—is often how mentoring relationships start.
Kitchener: Can you give me a real-life example of how this dynamic might play out?
Elsesser: A boss has season tickets to see a baseball team. He generally invites men from work to join him—not because of discrimination, but because he’s worried about how the invitation would be perceived if he extended it to a woman. So he invites male coworkers to the baseball game, and they discuss work—clients and upcoming projects. The boss hears these male employees’ ideas, and that gives them an advantage in the workplace. As time goes by, he gives them opportunities the women just don’t get.
Kitchener: What are the long-term consequences?
Elsesser: Over time, men get to know other men much better and women get to know other women much better. Men run most of our companies, and therefore they tend to be the most valuable mentors. When a promotion or a new job opportunity comes up, the man chooses the person that he knows slightly better—the person he had that beer with. Over time, this can have major repercussions.
Kitchener: Do you think a lot of people feel uncomfortable hanging out with a coworker of the opposite sex after work hours?
Elsesser: The New York Times recently published a survey that showed that nearly two-thirds of people feel like they need to be extra cautious around the opposite sex. One-quarter think one-on-one work meetings between a man and a woman are inappropriate. If you can’t have one-on-one meetings with someone, that makes it really hard to find a mentor.
Kitchener: Do men feel more uncomfortable spending time with women, or do women feel more uncomfortable spending time with men?
Elsesser: My research shows that men experience more discomfort. They don’t know where the boundaries are, they don’t want to send the wrong message, they don’t want to be accused of sexual harassment. Women sense that discomfort, and they have to work at putting the men at ease.
Kitchener: How can this dynamic be changed?
Elsesser: Organizations need to make this clear to employees: If they only do things with people of the same sex, that is discrimination. Organizations need to emphasize the importance of opposite-sex interactions. They should institute formal mentoring programs that pair women and men together. This would reduce any suspicion of romantic involvement from other people in the office.
Kitchener: Do organizations need to change their sexual harassment policies?