5 Ways to Break Down Gender Barriers in the Workplace

By Desda Moss Nov 25, 2015
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KimElsesser.jpgWomen aren’t to blame for their own lack of advancement at work. Failure to lean in and greater responsibility for child care don’t fully explain why women aren’t reaching the top levels of many corporations.

The difficulty women experience networking with male colleagues and senior male executives is a major culprit behind women’s lack of advancement.

Why do women have such trouble networking?

Research for my book, Sex and the Office: Women, Men and the Sex Partition that's Dividing the Workplace (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2015), suggests that heightened awareness of issues of sexual harassment has left men afraid that their friendliness toward women will be misinterpreted as romantic interest or sexual harassment.

As a result, men stick with other men when it comes time for dinners, drinks, late-night meetings or business trips. Many men are even reluctant to have a one-on-one meeting with a woman. Since men typically dominate senior management positions, there's evidence that the most valuable friends and mentors are men. Women are often left without the male connections and mentors that are critical for career success.

Fortunately, there is plenty the organization can do to help break down the barriers between the sexes at work. Here are five ways to get the men and women in your organization networking:

1.  Teach employees about what is NOT sexual harassment. Obviously, it’s critical to teach employees about what behaviors could be perceived as harassing, but it’s equally important that they understand what behaviors are not considered harassment. Male employees who are nervous about asking a female colleague to join them for lunch or on a Starbucks run should be reassured that these behaviors do not constitute sexual harassment.

2.  Establish networking initiatives. Networking strategies aimed at all employees tend to help break down barriers between the sexes as well. From corporate outings to formal mentoring programs, there’s plenty organizations can do to spark new connections between employees. As a great example of this strategy, Google determined the optimal length of the lunch line so that employees would be likely to meet a co-worker while waiting for their lunch. (It’s three to four minutes.)

3.  Emphasize inclusion of the opposite sex, not exclusion. Avoiding opposite-sex employees is not the solution to eradicating sexual harassment from our workplaces. We need to teach employees the importance of including all workers in their social circles. If employees are encouraged to invite opposite-sex employees to lunch, dinner or coffee, these outings won’t seem as suspicious or unusual.

4.  Educate employees on how to handle workplace romance situations. Statistics suggest that about half of all employees have been involved in a workplace romance at some point in their careers. Therefore, we need to guide employees on how to professionally navigate the thorny situations that can arise within these relationships. From how to obtain consent to how to turn down a co-worker, these interactions can be tricky—employees need guidance on how to handle them if men and women are to work together productively.

5.  Eliminate secrecy surrounding workplace romance. Because workplace romances are often discouraged, employees engaged in romantic relationships with colleagues typically try to keep them secret. But when the relationship is a secret, the organization can’t ensure that there is no favoritism as a result of the relationship. Another problem with secrecy is that employees are then left to play detective to figure out which of their co-workers are involved in a workplace romance. If John and Sue are spotted at Starbucks together several afternoons a week, rumors can fly.

Nobody wants to set the clock back on the progress we’ve made in reducing sexual harassment in the workplace, but we must break down the barriers between the sexes at work. With HR’s help, we can maintain appropriate boundaries at work and allow women to have the same access to friendships that their male colleagues enjoy. It’s necessary if women are to achieve parity with men in the workplace.

Kim Elsesser, Ph.D., @kimelsesser on Twitter, is the author of Sex and the Office: Women, Men and the Sex Partition that’s Dividing the Workplace. She is a lecturer at UCLA, where she teaches courses on psychology and gender.

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