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 Match.com.

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.

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