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‘The Men in My Office Keep Having All-Male Outings!’

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Dear Boss,

I work at a small law firm that is about 80 percent male, 20 percent female (I am a woman, and young). Normally, this gender imbalance is only a mild bummer (but is something I have spoken out about in the past). However, this month, I found out that all of the men in my office, from senior partners to junior paralegals, had planned an outing to a local sporting event. None of the women in the office were officially invited. I was shocked when I found out about this … I mean, this is a textbook example of what they say not to do in HR courses. I’m used to more subtle expressions of sexism in the workplace (and let’s be real, everywhere), but this was just beyond. 

Some more details, in case they’re helpful. A couple of the women were asked in an offhanded way if they liked watching the sports event in question (think, “Hey, Lucinda, do you like the 49ers?”), but none of us were ever asked about it in the context of a formal office event (“Hey, Lucinda, we are planning an office outing to see a 49ers game, would you want to come?”). They used work emails and calendars to plan the event, and it occurred during the workday (none of the men took official PTO to attend). This would be irritating enough on its own, but due to the nature of our work, if 80 percent of the office leaves halfway through the day, it means that everyone else’s timelines get compressed to account for that, and also, men who are junior to me on cases were not available as a resource for that afternoon or evening. 

I did not do anything about the first outing, as I didn’t want to be the wet blanket responsible for it being canceled, nor did I want to be invited to the outing in a reluctant, awkward way. But I do think I need to do something, especially since there is talk about this turning into a monthly thing. I’m honestly just really sad that in 2017, in a liberal, progressive city, in a company that generally considers itself to be pretty “woke,” I’m being put in a position of having to be the one to say something about this. Shouldn’t the man who organized this have had one second of doubt as he was composing an email to only men?

We don’t have an official HR function, and the man who organized the event is senior to me. He is also directly above me on some cases, so he contributes to parts of my review, etc. If you were me, what would you recommend? Keep quiet and stew in outrage? Talk to the partners of the firm? 

Yep, it’s a pretty textbook example of what employers are supposed to know not to do.

It’s easy for people going to these single-sex outings to think, “We’re not intentionally excluding the women. It’s just that none of them would be interested in this 49ers game / golf game / strip club / dark back room where we’ll all smoke cigars.” But the point is, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re interested. In a professional setting, it’s not okay for men to segregate themselves in ways that exclude women from the kind of bonding, networking, information-sharing, and actual business that happen at these outings. It’s the kind of thing that contributes to men having, on average, more of the relationships, mentoring, and sponsorships that help their careers and women having fewer.

Of course, that’s not to say it’s intentional (usually). Very few men participating in all-male bonding with colleagues intend to deliberately freeze women out. Plenty of them probably even consider themselves champions of equality and just haven’t stopped to think about the impact of professional boys-afternoons.

But the impact is a real one, which is why smart companies keep an eye out for this kind of thing and step in when they see it happening. That’s even more important in companies and industries that are already struggling to attract and retain women, like your 80 percent male office.

So, what should you do?

Everything you’re struggling with — not wanting to be a wet blanket and worrying about causing tension with people who review your work — is exactly what women struggle with when this stuff comes up. It’s what makes it so hard! If you could just file a complaint about sexism and not have to worry about professional ramifications … well, there would be a lot more complaints being filed, that’s for sure.

The thing that really sucks is that even if you’re pretty confident that there won’t be overt professional ramifications (and there probably won’t be blatant ones, because companies tend not to want to be sued once they realize they’re in legal-land-mine territory), it’s harder to ward off more subtle ramifications. If men in your office end up thinking that you’re easily offended and that they have to tiptoe around you, that’s not exactly conducive to developing the professional bonds that you’re annoyed at being locked out of in the first place.

One thing that can help: There’s safety in numbers. Are there other women in your office who would be willing to speak up about this with you? If a group of you speak up, it will be harder to label any one of you as the Uptight One. It’ll also be harder to blow off your concerns.

As for whom to say something to, it depends on whom you have to choose from. If you had an HR, you could start there, but since you don’t, is there someone who manages the day-to-day operations (like a COO)? A partner who’s particularly open-minded or approachable? If you’re not sure, or if you’re junior enough that you feel awkward approaching a partner, you can always start with your own manager and ask her advice about whom you should talk to.

If you’re up for it, you can also talk to men in your office individually, especially those you have a particular rapport with. For example, you could say, “It seems problematic to have all the men in the office getting together without any women.” Or, “Offices typically don’t do men-only work outings anymore because they put women at a professional disadvantage.” (And if someone points out that there are professional events and groups geared specifically toward women, point out that those groups exist to address the historic disadvantage that has left women out of leadership pipelines for generations, and that men as a group don’t face that kind of institutional bias.)

It may be that simply pointing out why this is problematic will be all it takes to solve it, and that your male colleagues will be sheepish about not realizing it in the first place. It’s also possible that you will be seen as the killjoy who ruined all the fun.

I don’t know which it will be in your situation — I hope the former — but you and your female colleagues are going to learn something valuable about your employer and your co-workers, however this plays out. (Here’s hoping they learn something, too.)

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Ask a Boss: ‘The Men at Work Keep Having All-Male Outings!’