Nobel Laureate Resigns After Comments on Workplace Romance

NobelNobel Laureate Tim Hunt found himself in hot water this week when he suggested that sexual or romantic attraction was an issue for male and female scientists working together.   “I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me,”  Hunt reported.  So chastised was he for his comments on this issue, that he resigned from his position as an honorary professor at University College London.  But my research suggests that Hunt is correct on this point. Romance is a big issue in the workplace, and one we can’t ignore if we want to eliminate the gender pay gap and provide women equal opportunity to reach the top levels of corporations.

Surveys find that between 40 and 60 percent of us report we’ve had a romance at work.  Why are we unable to resist our coworkers?  Coworkers see each other every day, and that alone can increase attraction.  Those that work together also typically share a common interest in their chosen field.   Finding a potential mate with a keen interest in cell division, Hunt’s field, might have been challenging if he sought to meet women at the local pub or by searching on

Nonetheless, coworker romances are fraught with problems for both the employees and the organization.  In addition to issues of favoritism that arise in boss-subordinate relationships, complications can also arise at work when only one of the pair is interested in pursuing a relationship, or when a relationship blossoms and then goes sour.   Organizations aiming to avoid these issues typically discourage their employees from becoming romantically entangled.

However, I believe one of the biggest issues surrounding workplace romance doesn’t involve romance at all – but instead results in the exclusion of women. Since, even the mere suggestion of romantic interest can get employees in trouble at work, workers tend to avoid unnecessary interactions with the opposite sex so that no possible misinterpretation is possible. Workplace romance is so taboo that men, who still run most of our companies, prefer to stick with other men when it comes to business trips, dinners or late night meetings.  Women are excluded so as not to suggest any impropriety.  This exclusion leaves women with less opportunities for advancement at work.

Last month, female congressional staffers made news when they reported they were not permitted to meet alone with the male congressmen, were excluded from events so as not to appear in too many photos with their congressmen, and were barred from driving their congressmen around town to avoid the appearance of impropriety. This exclusion extends to the corporate world as well, with one survey indicating that nearly two-thirds of senior executive men are reluctant to have a one-on-one meeting with a junior female employee.   Women also describe difficulties developing valuable mentor relationships.  No eyebrows are raised when a senior male executive mentors a junior male employee.   However, when a senior male executive takes a junior female employee under his wing, rumors can fly. Often it’s easier for the male executive to limit his mentoring to other men.

These issues surrounding romantic attraction create a barrier between the sexes at work that I’ve labeled “the sex partition.”  If we want to eliminate the gender pay gap, we need to break down this partition between male and female coworkers.  Lately, the sources of the gender pay gap have been a hot topic, yet the issues of sex and attraction are rarely raised when we talk about causes of this disparity.  Nonetheless, I suspect most women and men can identify with this problem, and see its harmful effects for women in the workplace.

Clearly, the exclusion of women is not acceptable, nor is the unwelcome pursuit of relationships, but what can we do?  Cultural anthropologist and writer Margaret Meade suggested that that only the complete eradication of workplace romance would allow both sexes to work productively together.  Unfortunately, it’s futile to attempt to completely eliminate romance at work.  Hunt’s suggestion that we segregate the sexes at work is equally impractical (not to mention ridiculous).  However, that doesn’t mean we give up.

Instead of ignoring these issues, and chastising those who raise them, we need to get them out in the open.  We need to teach employees how to professionally navigate issues surrounding workplace romance.  While “ a professional workplace romance” may seem like an oxymoron, it’s not.  There are plenty of steps that organizations can take to help employees pursue relationships in a professional manner. Many of these practical steps for organizations and employees are outlined in my forthcoming book, Sex and the Office.  A more open and professional approach to these relationships will also alleviate the threat that friendliness toward a female colleague will be misinterpreted as romantic interest.  Organizations must also make it clear to employees that excluding women for any reason is discriminatory.

The critical first step in eradicating problems stemming from workplace romance is to start a dialog on these issues.  Although Hunt’s delivery was a little uncoventional, and his proposed solution a little Victorian, we should at least appreciate his shedding light on this important problem.

The Dark Side of Title IX

title9Title IX has been a boost for women in sports.  The number of women in college sports has exploded since 1972 when the law was enacted (the law forced equal funding for men’s and women’s sports in organizations that receive federal funding).  But, for some women, Title IX has been anything but helpful.

For female coaches, Title IX has been a red card.  In 1972, the year that Title IX was enacted, 90% of women’s college teams were coached by women.  By 2012, a mere 43% of these teams were coached by women.   It turns out the same law enacted to protect women’s sports, has cut jobs for female coaches. Why?  As a result of Title IX, universities were forced to offer significantly higher salaries to coaches of women’s sports.  Suddenly, men were interested in these jobs.  And they were hired.

Men are now coaching 57% of women’s sports.  (In case you’re wondering, women coach a whopping 2% of men’s collegiate sports).  What’s most interesting about this trend is that it defies the most common theories about why women are not advancing in the workplace. The argument that women aren’t interested in these jobs or that women are still making their way through the pipeline, clearly don’t apply here.  Women were interested in coaching and were in the coaching pipeline back in 1972.

So, why did men land these jobs after the pay increased?  One reason is that university athletic directors are still predominantly male, and they hired other men to fill the jobs.  Don’t believe me?  Schools that have female athletic directors have significantly more female coaches.  A second reason is that despite Title IX, sports is still considered a man’s domain. When you picture a coach, it’s likely to be a man.  If a man applies for the job, he’s more likely to be hired.

Assistant coaches are another story.  Women represent 57.1% of paid assistant coaches of women’s teams.  Some think this statistic provides a glimmer of progress, but, I’m not convinced.  Sadly, it seems women don’t have trouble landing the role of “assistant”.

Statistics on percentages of female coaches in university athletics can be found here.

Microsoft CEO Tells Women They Shouldn’t Ask For a Raise

satya nadella                                                         Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

I like to think that we’re past blatant forms of sexism at work.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of gender discrimination, but I’d like to think it’s more subtle these days.  On Thursday, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella proved me wrong.  He told female technology employees that if they ask for a raise they won’t be trusted.  His exact words:

It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along. And that, I think, might be one of the additional superpowers that quite frankly women who don’t ask for a raise have. Because that’s good karma. It’ll come back, because somebody’s going to know that’s the kind of person that I want to trust. That’s the kind of person that I want to really give more responsibility to.

He said this out loud…  While he was on stage… Addressing a group of female technologists celebrating women in computing.  After his talk, someone most likely pointed out to him that this was an insanely stupid comment (not to mention potentially illegal and actionable).  Nadella retracted, stating his comment was “completely wrong.”

Traditionally, people don’t like those who behave counter to their gender stereotypes (or counter to how their gender is expected to behave).  Men are supposed to be the aggressive sex – climbing corporate ladders, assuming leadership positions, and asking for raises.  Women are supposed to be nice and not rock the boat. Asking for a raise isn’t ladylike.  Therefore, women who ask for raises can’t be trusted.

It’s one thing to have these stereotypes impact your decisions without your conscious awareness, it’s a whole different ballgame when you recommend to women that they should adhere to these stereotypes.

The worst part is that he’s a smart guy.  He’s the CEO of one of the largest companies in the world. Yet, despite all the discussion on the gender pay gap, particularly in the field of technology, he didn’t realize that his comments would be inappropriate.  He actually thought he was dishing out some valuable advice.

And, as for karma? Judging by the Twitter response to his comments, Nadella may have some karma problems of his own to deal with.


Hats Off to Women at Baseball Games

baseball cap

At a Dodgers game recently, my son asked me why I didn’t have to take off my baseball cap.  As always, the game opened with the traditional singing of the national anthem.  And, as always, the anthem was preceded by the announcement:  “We ask you to rise for the national anthem, and we ask that men remove their hats.”   It seemed like a logical question –  Why don’t women have to remove their caps?

I explained to him that this tradition started when women used to pin their hats into their hair, and it would have been a big production for women to take their hats off.  But almost all of the hat-wearing women at the baseball game were donning  baseball caps.  Same as the men.   I told him I honestly didn’t know why we the tradition remained – I certainly think women can handle taking caps off to show respect to the country.

Why make a big deal about this?   After all, women can still remove their hats if they so desire.  Like so many other things I carp about, it’s the messages sent by this tradition that causes problems.   The first message is that women are so different from men, we need to develop gender-specific traditions, even when it comes to singing our national anthem.  The second message is that women are somehow more fragile than their male counterparts, unable to remove their cap or afraid to mess their hair.  Neither of these messages are good for women.

Believe it or not, Congress revisited protocol for the singing of the national anthem only seven years ago (see 36 USC 301), yet they didn’t modify the men-only cap removal rule.   Our present Congress has pledged to address the gender pay gap – that is, they’re figuring out why women in the US are paid less than men for the same jobs.  I see these two as linked.  If we start treating women and men equally in our social traditions, perhaps the workplace will begin to follow suit.

Unintentional Discrimination is Still Discrimination


If a chemical plant inadvertently dumps poisonous chemicals in a local water source, they’re liable.  If a restaurant inadvertently causes food poisoning in its customers, it’s liable.  Yet, if a company inadvertently pays women less than men?  In many cases, this isn’t a problem.

That’s why bills like the one recently proposed in Louisiana are so important.  The Louisiana law would make unintentional discrimination illegal.  Right now, for private businesses in the state, only intentional discrimination is illegal.  In other words, “Oh, I didn’t realize women in my organization only make half what their male peers make,” is a legitimate excuse for paying women less.

The state already bans unintentional discrimination under the Equal Pay for Women Act passed last year.  Now Democrats are trying to expand the law to cover private businesses.  Louisiana does not have a great record on this issues, as women in the state take home only 67 cents for every dollar earned by a man.  This law is a big step in the right direction.

If there is one thing that women tell me when I interview them about sex discrimination at work, it’s that it’s subtle.  Subtle, subtle subtle.   There’s obviously nothing in writing saying women should receive less money because of their gender.  No policies stating men should get promoted ahead of women.  If you have to prove intent, you might as well give up.

Businesses need to be responsible for their own ignorance on this one.  Let’s hope the Louisiana dems can get this passed. 

Carl’s Jr’s Burgers Are For Men Only – And I’m OK With That

carls jr


According to a new ad from Carl’s Jr, even female superheroes are no match for the Carl’s Jr. Burger (view ad here).   In the ad, the female superhero transforms into a human man, and we’re instructed that we need to “man up” to consume the burger.

I hate the phrase “man up,” and typically have a negative reaction to anyone who suggests women can’t do everything men can do.   But I’m not sure how I feel about this one – maybe I should be feeling bad for the boys this time.  After all, marketing artery-clogging, high salt, high fat burgers exclusively to men may be worse for men than women.  For once, I think I’m happy women are left out.

Are Women Funny?

lucille ballAre women funny?  Are they as funny as men?  A recent poll provides some good news and some bad news on perceptions of female humor.  First the good news:  the majority of us (56%) think that women and men are equally funny.  Now for the bad news:  the remaining 44% were six times more likely to think men are funnier than women.   There are certainly plenty of funny women around (think Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig, just to name a few), so why do so many think women aren’t funny?

One explanation is that women have been socialized to be unfunny (funniness is apparently unladylike).  Therefore, we stereotype women as humorless.  At least this explanation leaves open the possibility that women have the same potential as men to be funny.

Another explanation is that men have evolved to be funnier than women.  Evolutionarily speaking, men must prove their intelligence to potential mates.  (Women just have to look good, so they’ll produce good offspring – no need for intelligence or a sense of humor).   In past generations, those men that didn’t have a good sense of humor were less likely to find mates.  Therefore, unfunny genes were less likely to get passed on to future unfunny generations.  Since the unfunny men got weeded out,  the remaining men have evolved to have a better sense of humor than women.

I find it hard to believe that sense of humor has evolved, although I’ll agree that sense of humor does seem more important for men who are looking for a date than for women.  I rarely hear my male friends saying they want to date a girl because of her fabulous sense of humor, but women certainly seem attracted to a man who can make them laugh.

Why not test funniness in the laboratory, and, once and for all, establish if women are, in general, funnier than men?  Researchers have tried, but the results are inconclusive.  Some studies asked participants to rate how funny something was. The thinking here is that people with a greater sense of humor will find more things funny.  That’s like judging if someone is an artist, by asking them if the Mona Lisa is a good painting.  These tests measures humor appreciation, but not ability to be funny.

In a more recent attempt at measuring funniness, researchers asked male and female subjects to write captions to accompany cartoon images from the New Yorker.  They then asked male and female raters to evaluate the captions.  Men, they report, wrote funnier captions.  Therefore, they conclude, men are funnier than women.  I still don’t buy it.  Cartoon captions are women’s strong suit.  Women have a more interpersonal style of humor.  Unfortunately, nobody has tested for that yet.

Given that this question of which sex is funnier remains unanswered, it’s up to women to go out and convince the remaining 44% of the population that we’re funny.  Get out there today and make someone laugh.

Gender-neutral Oscars – It’s Time


It’s awards season again, and it’s a pet peeve of mine that the Academy insists on awarding separate Oscars to male and female actors.  Not many share my opinion. When I published my plea for gender-neutral Oscar Awards in The New York Times a few years ago, the response was overwhelmingly negative.  Arguments as to why this was a bad idea flooded my inbox.  From Fox News to NPR, everyone I spoke with seemed to think it was a ridiculous suggestion. One blogger even crowned me “Idiot of the Week,” for proposing such a ludicrous idea.

Objections to my plea for gender-neutral Oscars primarily fell into three categories.  The first centered around the fact that men and women are cast into different roles.  Cate Blanchett wouldn’t play Jordan Belfort from the Wolf of Wall Street and Jasmine from Blue Jasmine wouldn’t be the same if Leonardo DiCaprio had the role.  Clearly, my detractors said, different roles warrant different awards.   But I don’t believe the different role argument justifies separate awards.  Although men and women typically do play different roles, the same can be said for comedians and dramatic actors – Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn’t play Ron Burgundy from the Anchorman films and Will Ferrell wouldn’t be cast as Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort.  Yet separate awards don’t exist for comedians and dramatic actors.  These actors are judged side by side on how well they portrayed their particular role, just as male and female actors should be.

“Women wouldn’t win” was another popular rationale for retaining a female-only category.  Since women generally have fewer meatier roles in films, my critics said, female actors would be less likely to go home with a gold statuette.  Again, this claim just doesn’t hold water.   Female directors don’t win as frequently as men, but there’s no separate category for directresses.  Let’s see if women would win, and if there are inequities in Hollywood, we should highlight these injustices rather than hiding them in separate awards.

Finally, there were those who didn’t like the idea of an Oscar show with fewer awards.  (I guess these people just don’t have to get up in the morning).  But if the Academy wanted to preserve the number of awards, there are several reasonable alternatives.  Awarding separate Oscars for comedic and dramatic roles, for example, would preserve the number of awards without gender bias.

To be fair, not everyone hates the gender-neutral idea.  After reading my piece, Howard Stern commented on his radio program that it would be weird if the Academy offered an Oscar just for Jews, so why have a separate award just for women?  Recently, MSNBC host Krystal Ball asserted it’s sexist to have separate awards for men and women.  Stern and Ball, that’s a start.

One last reaction to my call for gender-neutral Oscars was “What difference does it make?”   Making this change would not only effect male and female actors, but would positively impact the perceptions of women in all professions.  From Beyoncé to Obama, everyone is discussing how to  help women’s status in the workplace.  Suggestions range from teaching women to lean in to offering even more childcare.  Yet we allow one of the most-watched television shows of the year to perpetuate stereotypes that men and women are so different that they can’t compete for the same acting awards.  If we want things to change for women, we have to make sure we practice gender equity everywhere, particularly in an awards program that is such an integral part of American culture.

What’s in a Name?

mom childI’m a Lucy Stoner.  Feminist, Lucy Stone, was the first U.S. woman to keep her own name after marriage, and other women who follow her example are referred to as Lucy Stoners. Current research indicates that only about 10% of married women in the United States are Lucy Stoners.

Many don’t realize the taking-your-husband’s-name tradition is primarily practiced only in English-speaking countries (with a few exceptions).  In many countries  –  China, Iran, Italy and Korea to name a few – women retain their birth name throughout their lives.   For English-speakers, our surname change tradition dates back to European Feudal times, when both husband and wife adopted the more powerful surname.  If the wife’s family owned more land, both husband and wife would use her surname after marriage.  However, starting in the Middle Ages, women were cut off from inheriting land – making the husband naturally more powerful.   Thus began the tradition of taking of the husband’s name.

Regardless of marital naming traditions, in almost all cultures, children take the father’s surname.  That’s the hardest part about being a Lucy Stoner –  having a different last name than my son.   When signing documents for my son’s school or his participation in sports, I always write ‘mother’ in parentheses, so they know who I am.  At the airport, when we show our tickets and identification, I feel like TSA agents are sizing me up as a kidnapper.  And when my son becomes President of the United States or is elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, people will think I’m crazy when I claim to be his mom.

High divorce rates have increased the number of single parent households.  And, who is it that raises these kids?  About 82% of single-parent families are run by moms.  On their own, many of these moms are raising their kids who are using dad’s last name.  And what message does it send to our kids when all children take their dad’s name?  That dad’s name is somehow more important?

I think it’s time we start changing this naming “tradition.”  I’m not suggesting all kids get the mom’s name – that wouldn’t be fair either.  And hyphenated names are just too long and clumsy.   But  I bet we could find some sort of compromise (children born on odd days get mom’s surname and even days get dad’s, or first borns get dad’s name, and second children get mom’s?).

Taking mom’s last name is not as unusual as you might think.  Four percent of women are already passing their surnames to their children, and listed below are a few celebrities who chose to use their mom’s last name.  As for my son, I think it’s too late for a surname change – but it’s not too late to make him understand why this tradition is a bit unfair.

    • Barry Manilow
    • Diane Keaton
    • Garry Kasparov
    • Katy Perry
    • Eddie Vedder
    • Eric Clapton
    • Lauren Bacall
    • Pablo Picasso

Where are All the Wiki-Women?

pink pencilpink_wikipedia

Less than 15% of Wikipedia editors are women.  How can that be?  No one hires Wikipedia editors, so no one can claim gender bias or favoritism.  I’ve edited Wikipedia myself, and there’s no background check.  No need to prove you’re a credible source.   Anyone with internet access is free to edit almost every Wikipedia entry.  My ten-year-old could edit Wikipedia if he wanted.

So why are so few women contributing?  A recent piece by Kat Stoeffel in  New York Magazine suggested that socialization is to blame.  Women, she says, aren’t raised to consider themselves authorities on anything.   They don’t contribute, because they don’t think they’re qualified.  I don’t buy it.  Women outnumber men in graduate school in this country.   Women are earning more Ph.D.’s than men.  Women are experts , and they know it.

A second proposed explanation for the paucity of female contribution was free time. Greater responsibility for childcare leaves women with less free time than men.  Less free time means less time to edit Wikipedia.  I don’t buy this argument either.  Regardless as to which gender has more free time, women are more likely than men to volunteer, so why not volunteer to edit Wikipedia?   Lack of free time doesn’t seem like it holds up as an explanation –  women are just choosing to put their volunteer efforts into causes other than creating a giant encyclopedia.

Maybe it’s the internet – too scary and technical for women?  Sorry, but about half of all internet bloggers are women and women tend to dominate social networking sites.  Women seem to be able to navigate the internet just fine.

Still others have suggested Wikipedia’s argumentative culture isn’t attractive to women.  A survey of female contributors found a third had been assaulted, attacked, or treated poorly by colleagues on projects.  However, there’s no indication that this abuse is related to gender, and there’s no information on the percentage of men who have been treated poorly on Wikipedia.  I suspect the figure is similar for men.

In reality, we don’t know what’s keeping women from Wikipedia.  My guess is that women prefer to spend their free time doing something more social than editing an on-line encyclopedia.  Whatever the cause, we need women to get over it.  Otherwise, this massive encyclopedia will become completely skewed in its coverage.  According to Stoeffel, a single character from Grand Theft Auto currently has more Wikipedia citations than Sex and the City, and pages covering women tend to be less developed than those covering men.

Like it or not, Wikipedia is becoming the go-to source for many people.  It’s important that women, and topics important to women, are recognized in this encyclopedia.  This time, there’s no one to blame but ourselves, women.  Let’s get out there and contribute.