If a man and a woman are seen together having lunch, the inevitable gossip ensues. The two of them may be colleagues or they may simply be friends. But rumors start. Does this always happen? Not always, of course, but often enough to discourage pairing off for an exchange of ideas or career advice perhaps in business. Now, with sexual harassment in the news, there is added pressure for the sexes to go their separate ways lest any movement or words be misunderstood between them. What nonsense.
Please be assured that I am as passionately against sexual harassment as anyone on the planet. Wherever it may be found, it should be exposed and halted. But the pendulum, I believe, may be swinging too far in the other direction. Recently Vice President Mike Pence mentioned that he doesn’t eat alone with a woman who is not his wife. Recent polls indicate that a majority of employees of both sexes feel it is inappropriate to have a drink or dinner together and, although less so, it may also be inappropriate for lunch. Even driving together in a car can be looked at askance.
This wariness, although perhaps helpful in avoiding situations of sexual harassment, is a loser for both sexes, especially in the workplace. For men, who are apparently unsure where the boundaries are for a touch on the arm or an innocent compliment on a colleague’s dress, there is the loss of diversity. Women can have different sensibilities and can offer different perspectives than men, to the benefit of both. A recent advertisement featuring a woman has just been yanked by a major company because it may be misinterpreted as racist. My guess is that no woman executive of that company saw the ad before it went public.
For women, the loss is perhaps greater. Since most of the leadership of companies and institutions is still made up of men, the mentorship and sponsorship of female employees is at least as vital, or even more so, than for male junior-level employees. But if a woman cannot enjoy a close professional working relationship with such a sponsor, she is often blocked from moving up in the ranks.
I am reminded of my own business life and the people who helped me advance. Yes, there were a couple of women mentors who were willing to share their skills with me and promote my status, but there were more men along the way who selected me for advancement. One local businessman volunteered important advice to me at a critical time in the early years of the newspaper. Another energetically proposed me as a candidate for president of the New York Press Association, a position for which I will always be grateful. Another supported my intuition at a decisive juncture, I’m sure I don’t know why, but it worked out well. Several others helped me with various financial matters.
Did I meet with them alone for lunch or dinner or, heavens, for a drink? You bet I did. How else to get private time for critical conversation? Meetings in the office are routinely interrupted or overheard. Did I ever meet alone with anyone of the opposite sex in his bedroom? You can put money on the answer being “no”! There are lines one doesn’t cross, no matter what generation one belongs to, and they really are not so difficult to decipher.
Are work colleagues ever sexually attracted to each other? As long as there are men and women, there can be attraction between them. But so what? That’s the way the two sexes were put forth. Presumably we adults know all about that and can conduct ourselves accordingly. Or, to return to square one, we can avoid each other completely.
We women have a great deal we can offer men and vice versa. It would be so foolish to limit our contacts to only half the population. And besides, it wouldn’t nearly be as much fun.