'Sex and the Office'

Researcher and author claims women aren't getting ahead because the men who could be helping them fear their own discriminatory foibles.

We've all heard the theories behind why females still lag behind males in terms of workforce power and pay: their failures to claim their piece of the business hierarchy and slice of the paycheck pie; their failures to network properly and powerfully, or to speak up for themselves in key moments and meetings; the male-centric bias of most male-centric management structures.

Now there's an argument to refute those missteps, or at least put them in a less female-focused, male-malice light. According to Kim Elsesser, research affiliate at the Center for the Study of Women at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Sex and the Office: Women, Men and the Sex Partition That's Dividing the Workplace, which hit the shelves Sept. 2, women are not to blame for their lack of advancement at work, nor are the men who are earning more and wielding more power necessarily malicious. They're just uncomfortable and anxious about harassing or discriminating against their female cohorts.

As her book description on Amazon puts it, "many senior male executives are reluctant to have a one-on-one meeting with a junior woman at work [because they're] afraid that an offhand remark will be misinterpreted as sexual harassment or that their friendliness will be mistaken for romantic interest."

As a result, it says, "many male executives stick with other men, especially when it comes to dinners, drinks, late-night meetings or business trips, [and] when it's time for promotions or pay raises, these same executives are more likely to show preference to the employees with whom they feel most comfortable -- other men."

It's Elsesser's premise that the advancement of women in the workplace suffers because of this discomfort among men -- which she considers the unintended consequences of sexual-harassment policies designed by lawyers looking to squelch legal liabilities rather than behavioral scientists looking to change and improve the way working relationships evolve. This barrier concept, which she calls the "sex partition," resulted from years of research starting in 2006 and still going strong today.

Managing Editor Kristen B. Frasch recently spoke with Elsesser in a Q&A to learn more about her theory, and how she thinks employers and their HR leaders can turn this around.

What findings or observations are behind your opinion that anxiety over possible sexual harassment is more to blame for women's lack of advancement at work than failing to "lean in" or secure adequate child care and work/life balance?

I'm certainly not denying that these factors you mention are important to women's advancement, but several studies indicate that barriers to networking -- particularly with men -- account for some, if not all, of the gender gap. For example, one study in 2011 by Marie Lalanne and Paul Seabright [The Old Boy Network: Gender Differences in the Impact of Social Networks on Remuneration in Top Executive Jobs] counted influential people who executives had encountered in their careers. Although women had generally worked alongside more influential people than men, the male executives were able to leverage these contacts into higher pay, while the women were not. The authors suggest that this leveraging ability accounts for the 17-percent gender pay gap in the executives they studied.

And you would agree with that?

I would. Since the influential people were mostly men, I suggest the sex partition is what kept the women in the study from leveraging these contacts. And I think this problem is especially acute among female executives. Very junior-level employees may run into it when they want to find a senior mentor, let's say, but as you climb the corporate ladder and really need to network with these people, that's where it's backfiring on women the most. Junior women may have trouble connecting with senior men, but often can easily socialize with other junior men. Since men at the top have more to lose and are therefore more cautious, senior women may be left with even fewer networking opportunities.

Have male executives confirmed this with you, that they feel reluctant to "slip up" when communicating or networking with women at work, be they younger or otherwise, so they simply avoid them instead, leading to women's stagnation on the corporate ladder?

Absolutely. I provide numerous quotes in my book, from professors who are reluctant to meet with female students to business executives who are reluctant to socialize with female employees. However, they're typically not worried they're going to "slip up." I'd say misinterpretation is a better word to describe what they're worried about. For example, a male professor doesn't meet with female students in the evening because of how they might interpret an invitation to his office after hours, but the same professor regularly meets with male students in the evening.

[Workplace demographic expert] Sylvia Ann Hewlett reported recently that two-thirds of senior executives are reluctant to meet one-on-one with junior women. Also, a recent survey from the National Journal found that some female congressional aides were not permitted to meet one-on-one with their male congressmen bosses, and were not permitted to accompany the congressmen to events, because the congressmen didn't want to suggest any impropriety. Business trips are another good example of where men may choose to travel with other men in order to reduce any suggestion of impropriety.

Are you the only one speaking up about this, as far as you know?

The more people I talk to, especially after writing this book, the more I'm convinced that just about everyone can relate. Executives, especially. But, in terms of acknowledging this as an issue and going public with it, I'm really kind of starting the dialogue on this.

What got you interested, perhaps even personally, in this topic and new line of reasoning?

I co-started a quantitative proprietary equity trading group at Morgan Stanley. I noticed that while my male bosses socialized easily with the other executives, they seemed more nervous and reserved in their interactions with me. So I decided to delve into this phenomenon a little more.

What should HR executives be doing or thinking about in light of this new concept?

HR executives need to be aware that focus on sexual-harassment prevention may have secondary consequences. Right now, our efforts to eliminate sexual harassment may be creating this barrier between the sexes. Obviously, we need to continue on the path of reducing sexual harassment -- but we must figure out a way to do this without creating this barrier. Instead, we should be thinking of ways to bring the sexes together. In the book, I provide very specific guidelines that HR executives can follow to accomplish just this goal.

Such as?

Well, for one, a lot of organizations have women's luncheons and women's networking workshops. If some of these mentor programs could be turned into multi-gender events instead, those meetings and relationships therein would become more normal and accepted. For another, instead of having lawyers craft the employee handbooks and create the sexual-harassment training in an effort simply to reduce legal liability, companies can and should be inviting psychologists into these efforts and getting their expertise on human interactions and behavior change involved.

Mind you, it's very, very important to me to make it clear that sexual harassment is a huge issue in the workplace. I certainly don't want to go backwards in any progress we've made. I'm just suggesting that, instead of focusing on the legal liability, employers and HR leaders should really start looking at the secondary issues -- primarily, is sexual-harassment training actually leading to the wrong perception of women, and is it holding them back?

I think we need to recognize that sex partition is a problem and then step back from the fear of legal liability and assess it from other perspectives, look at the secondary repercussions, what you can do and what you can't do.

We need to make it very clear to all employees, high-ranking and otherwise, that it's not OK to choose someone of your same sex to take a business trip with out of fear; that it's not OK to just go to lunch with same-sex co-workers, supervisors or employees. We need to make it very clear that that is discrimination.

How would a CHRO start breaking down this sex partition?

The first step is clearly awareness of the issue. I doubt many HR leaders have considered this issue previously. Second, get all of management involved and on the same page when it comes to finding solutions and making changes. For example, Google researched the optimal length of the lunch line so that colleagues could get to know someone without wasting too much time in line [or risking any inappropriate communication]. They also installed long lunch tables so that employees were forced to eat close to their co-workers.

I provide other suggestions from how to modify sexual-harassment training -- for example, by emphasizing inclusiveness -- to how to teach employees to broach workplace romance; the current organizational strategy of hoping it doesn't happen much doesn't seem to be working very well.



Oct 13, 2015
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