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Can friendships between men and women at work promote gender equality?

Brianna Holt

When I was searching for my first job out of college, my mom would always toss around the phrase “never mix business with pleasure.” She’s a retired human resources professional, so unsolicited advice about how to properly navigate the working world was a constant during my younger years. What she would suggest, in order to gain opportunities and receive fair treatment, was to build strong friendships at work, especially with men.

There isn’t much data that can attest to whether platonic relationships at work help to narrow the gender pay gap or increase leadership roles for women, but stories of allyship do propose the idea. Take Tricia Han and Neil Vogel, who were colleagues at Dotdash (formerly About.com), where Vogel is CEO.

In early 2017, Han worked as Dotdash’s chief product officer, reporting to Vogel. At the height of the company’s success, she scheduled a one-on-one meeting with him and expressed her desire to become a CEO. “I really did love my job, but I was ready for more growth and more learning. So I told him, ‘Someday, I want to sit in a seat like yours,'” says Han. Vogel’s response? “What took you so long?”

The two started working together to help Han find her first CEO title. “I got a call from IAC that Daily Burn was looking for a CEO and I told them to talk to Tricia about it. We had a really huge turnaround challenge that Tricia clearly architected, [she] built an incredible team, and had all the traits that one needs to run a company,” says Vogel. In June 2017, Han got her CEO title and took the reins at Daily Burn, an on-demand fitness company.

The power of male allyship got a more public endorsement the following month, when actress Emma Stone spoke to Out Magazine about how her male co-stars sometimes took wage cuts so she could have pay parity. And when the #MeToo movement exploded three months later, in October 2017, the desperate need for male allyship in workplaces around the world was finally exposed.

In a 2018 study, Pew Research found that 20% of women working in a gender-balanced environment said they had been sexually harassed at work. When survey participants were asked if their gender has made it harder for them to succeed at their job, women were three times as more likely to report yes.

The conditions for friendship are ripe

Here’s the encouraging part: A 2009 study by Catalyst found that men who were made aware of gender bias were more likely to deem gender equality as an important issue in corporate settings. Quite often, this awareness stems from having daughters. It also could come from being part of another marginalized group, or from having friendships with women who bring light to their personal struggles in the workplace.

Some men and women are hesitant to form relationships in the office, even when the intensions are strictly platonic. A 2019 survey by survey by LeanIn found that 60% of male managers claimed to be uncomfortable mentoring, socializing with, and meeting one-on-one with female colleagues. Another study found that 21% of men would be reluctant to hire a woman for a role that would include close interactions like business travel.

These fears no doubt stem from a range of factors, from the #MeToo backlash to the ancient debate over whether men and women can be friends without someone being romantically interested. But in the modern work world, platonic friendships seem to form more naturally than ever.

The average American spends 8.5 hours per day at work. Is it any wonder we want to reach out to people to pass the time with? So it comes as no surprise that people befriend someone they work with.

Work also happens to provide many of the conditions that can help friendships thrive. Research shows that people prefer to befriend like-minded people, and working in the same industry or at the same company can attest to that similarity. It also can be easier to be friends with someone who understands your work schedule and your job-related stresses. Meanwhile, through social media, we’re more tapped into our co-workers’ personal lives than ever before, seeing snapshots from their vacations and getting sneak peeks into how they spent their weekend. And recent trends in office design are meant to encourage more sociability, with open floor plans and common areas that feel more like comfortable living rooms than sterile workspaces.

If the result is a wave of friendships between co-workers, the effect could be great for employee engagement and productivity. And if those friendships happen to be between co-workers of the opposite sex, with men who are willing to use their privilege to help create opportunities for the women, then all the better.

 

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