Bryan Caplan  

The Forgotten Man/Woman

Modern Art and Occam's Razor... Cultural Philistines and Marxi...
Even today, we rarely socialize with co-workers of the opposite sex.  Back in July, the New York Times documented, then analyzed, this gender divide:

Men and women still don't seem to have figured out how to work or socialize together. For many, according to a new Morning Consult poll conducted for The New York Times, it is better simply to avoid each other.

Many men and women are wary of a range of one-on-one situations, the poll found. Around a quarter think private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate. Nearly two-thirds say people should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work. A majority of women, and nearly half of men, say it's unacceptable to have dinner or drinks alone with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse.

What are the underlying motives?

[P]eople described a cultural divide. Some said their social lives and careers depended on such solo meetings. Others described caution around people of the opposite sex, and some depicted the workplace as a fraught atmosphere in which they feared harassment, or being accused of it.

This is all supposed to be terrible:

One reason women stall professionally, research shows, is that people have a tendency to hire, promote and mentor people like themselves. When men avoid solo interactions with women -- a catch-up lunch or late night finishing a project -- it puts women at a disadvantage.


"Organizations are so concerned with their legal liabilities, but nobody's really focused on how to reduce harassment and at the same time teach men and women to have working relationships with the opposite sex," said Kim Elsesser, author of "Sex and the Office: Women, Men and the Sex Partition That's Dividing the Workplace."

The article is almost over, however, before it discusses the most obvious rationale for these norms:

People who follow the practice in their social lives described separate spheres after couplehood. They said they wanted to safeguard against impropriety -- or the appearance of it -- and to respect marriage and, in some cases, Christian values. That often meant limiting opposite-sex adult friendships to their friends' spouses.

And the piece never mentions who benefits most from these norms: husbands, wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends of the people who follow them!  It's hard to imagine that these rules don't reduce the prevalence of adultery and cheating.  And even if they didn't, the rules still provide reassurance and a sense of security for these Forgotten Men and Forgotten Women.  Any considerate partner will take such feelings into account.

The world is full of trade-offs.  If you make cross-gender relationships more comfortable at work, you also make them less comfortable at home.  And as my Rotten Spouse Theorem emphasizes, you should expect anything that brings disharmony to your relationship to ultimately harm your entire family:

Of course, it's conceivable that you can hurt your spouse without hurting your children.  But probabilistically, you have to expect your family members' pain to move in unison.  Think general equilibrium: The way you treat your spouse ripples out to your children.  The way you treat your spouse affects the way your spouse treats you, which ripples out to your children.  The direct effects are more visible, but that doesn't make them more real.  A good parent must, as Bastiat says, foresee the indirect effects of his behavior with the "inner eye of the mind."

If you're abnormally high in self-discipline and your partner is abnormally low in jealousy, the NYT critique of current workplace norms is understandable.  But not every couple is like that.  In fact, they're a rare breed indeed.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (16 to date)
blacktrance writes:

The argument for supposed benefits is premised on the relationship being more adversarial than would be healthy. If you're trying to bind your partner to prevent them from committing infidelity, something has already gone wrong. How comforting would it be if your partner were disposed to cheat and only lacked the opportunity? If your fear is justified, it's usually best to end the relationship before it gets far. And if it's not justified, then it's the jealous partner's problem. Of course, if there are enough benefits to staying in the relationship, a caring partner might be willing to temporarily accommodate that jealousy while working on the issue with their significant other, but permanently cutting off contact with half of the world like that would be extremely constraining.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Hmm... as if the tendency to sue people for sexual harassment in a he said/she said situation after a conversation or even worse a one-on-one work meeting might tend to discourage people from associating.

You can't make it a general practice to sue a group for something, with no way to protect themselves except to always have reliably neutral witnesses and no way for a "misunderstanding", and then complain about how not having what you sue them for doing hurts them.

If something like Google Glass actually became socially acceptable, maybe that would solve the problem by providing an easy way to record all encounters, but otherwise this is another in a long list of examples of where well-intentioned workplace laws end up with predictable negative consequences.

Chris writes:

If you’re really arguing against the issue stated by the NYT then your argument is weak. Should we keep women from the workplace altogether? Wouldn’t that reduce even further the chance of infidelity? Maybe we just shouldn’t let women outside without a male chaperone. Boom infidelity solved.

Or, why don’t we try to have a real discussion about professionalism in the workplace (defining coworkers as professionals instead of “things I may have sex with if not careful”) and about mature relationships? I think that’s kind of what the NYT article is getting at. Sure we have norms that ‘defend’ relationships with some value, but there is a huge downside for the country associated with it. Since we’re a country that is typically pushing for equality (theoretically at least) isn’t the economic hardship this imposed primarily on one sex a relevant issue while the hypothetical problems it may cause relationships a cultural norm that may need to change?

JFA writes:

@blacktrance: it's all about what happens at the margin. You can have a lot of faith in your spouse/significant other and still realize that he/she is human. So making it more difficult to have extra-relationship affairs at this margin might be worth it for most people.

@chris: It's not about defining *coworkers* (as such) as things you might have sex with. It's just that that is how men and women are wired. Spend a significant amount of time alone with someone (coworker or not) and that increases the chances of something happening (particularly when it is essentially in a dating environment). You can value equality without denying biology. And when considering the economic hardship, you have to account for the incidence of cost when a couple breaks up as well. If the cost for the woman is greater under break-up than under current norm, then the current norm would be preferred.

It may be that the norm of business lunches/dinners is the problem and not the norm of not socializing with the opposite sex.

Right Wing House Music writes:

Ywt another example of the left-wing's desire to tear down Chesterson's fence.

Mark writes:

@Thomas Sewell: I think that's an important point, but I don't think it's even really mostly about 'he said/she said.' Recording everything wouldn't help. Just saying something like 'this is a b.... of a problem' (an innocuous use of the b-word) or touching the shoulder to get someone's attention will offend some women (some men too, but that's probably much rarer). The trend in institutional cultures has been to expand the definition of sexual harassment to include what is frankly normal human behavior. If you interact with a normal person often enough, sooner or later they'll tell a joke or anecdote or use a swear word or something that could be construed as sexual harassment or creating a hostile work environment.

And if women are much more likely to file complaints or sue (both in cases of real sexual harassment and for frivolous cases), then interacting with women has that added cost. And while one might argue that the risk is small, it's not exactly uncommon for people to be disproportionately cautious in response to small risks.

@Chris: You're attacking a strawman, and missing the point. It is largely *women* that don't trust their boyfriends or husbands fraternizing with co-workers of the opposite sex. No one argued that we should keep women from doing anything, nor did Bryan really even make a normative argument. He simply noted the trade off. When, say, a woman objects to her husband socializing too much with a female colleague, her (the wife's) peace of mind comes at the expense of that woman's career success. Or, to put it another way, not everything is always men's fault.

JAB writes:

I would never believe a couple was in love or attracted to each other if they could not be trusted to be *good friends* with co-workers. (And who is indiscriminately attracted to co-workers? Are unattractive co-workers a threat? All of them? How does this reasoning even work? Is anyone that desperate?*)
In any case, there is no reason to normalize what it takes to preserve a relationship that is pathological. I imagine those responding that they are against their partners having friendships would admit something is missing in their relationship. Their preference is a symptom. A few more survey questions could show this.

*Sometimes I wonder if people who are "unattractive" fail to realize that an "attractive" member of a couple might be hit on daily. Rejecting advances is something they do as a matter of course. The idea that people are put in a tricky situation if someone finds them attractive is just belied by how that is a regular part of some people's day.

MarketSocialist writes:

We do need to have a serious talk about the trade offs for these kinds of social engineering. But of course the are potential benefits as well as potential problems.

To me, having a bunch of men in a company sounds almost like a fraternity. Could picture the guys going out as a group to talk to girls on the lunch break.

Chris writes:

You are right that we should look at the trade off between a breakup and being held back in a career, but remember that on the whole the existing arrangement makes a breakup MUCH worse for women in general, because, due largely to unequal treatment in the workplace, they are less likely to be financially secure on their own. Were women better allowed to advance in the workplace they would be better able to cope with the negative economic impacts of a breakup or divorce.

Also, aren’t you largely arguing that monogamy is ‘denying biology’? If you’re so sure people spending time together will have sex, maybe you should be arguin for open relationships rather than restricted workplaces.

First, who says that it’s primarily women that experience jealousy? That feels unfounded.

Second, the situation you describe at the end is explicitly sexism in the workplace. Just because it’s caused by a man’s relationship outside of the office doesn’t mean that it isn’t 100% the mans fault in the office. It’s that attitude that makes men feel justified not inviting female coworkers out with the guys for drinks, not inviting them to conferences and networking events and often times, not hiring them at all. It doesn’t matter what the man’s reasons are, if they are treating women differently in the workplace in ways that affect advancement they are discriminating.

All of this justification based on jealous partners reveals a lack of trust in relationships that seems to possibly be a larger societal issue.

Lastly, I don’t think I presented a straw man argument, I merely took the proposition to its extreme (a situation that does actually exist in several ultra-conservative societies) as a way of showing the dangers of this thinking. If we’re trying to limit the possibility of infidelity (to protect the Forgotten Partners) then why not limit it to the greatest extent possible?

JFA writes:

@Chris: great comment. Given divorce rates, I'm not quite sure monogamy being unnatural needs much arguing. I would say that humans are not natural monogamists in the sense of being biologically wired to desire one mate for life with no flings along the way (which seems to be what several comments are suggesting). Monogamy (in the above sense), like most things in advanced civilization, does not come naturally but (as with most things in advanced civilization) does come with many benefits (particularly for the kids).

I think where we disagree on two things: 1) how strong these biological constraints are and 2) the magnitude of the benefits relative to the costs of ignoring those constraints. But again this is only a problem when socializing is part of work. A norm of "do business in the office" seems a much easier sell than getting rid of "don't go to dinner alone with someone of the opposite sex."

But all that being said, I'm not sure the norm of "don't go to dinner alone with someone of the opposite sex" is actually what is "holding women back" as much as you think. It seems to be (as Claudia Goldin and others have shown) that women just can't move up (on average) as high as men in occupations that have less flexible schedules, mainly due to women being the primary caregiver to children in the first one or two years after birth. Perhaps a strong policy response of mandatory parental leave (not just offering but mandating the use of it by fathers, as well) would narrow the gap, but that seems a bit too strong.

Mark writes:


"First, who says that it’s primarily women that experience jealousy? That feels unfounded."
Who says it's primarily men who don't want to socialize with the opposite sex? Or even that it's primarily men who are sexist against the opposite sex when in positions of authority? I'm sure plenty of people argue it, but it's worth noting that most of the conventional wisdom about what men are supposedly doing to hold women back are anecdotal.

Additinally, why is the fault 100% the man's? You're saying his wife bears no responsibility for pressuring him to behave a certain way (with the tacit risk of a deteriorating marriage should he flout her urging)? I doubt, if the shoe were on the other foot, you would be as forgiving of a man influencing his female partner's behavior. This seems like another case of treating women like they don't have any agency and going out of one's way to attribute all responsibility for a situation to the male parties.

Lastly, I still think you did present a straw man. You're talking about this like there's a "we", society, designing some system to minimize infidelity. Not the case at wall. We're talking about individuals choosing who to socialize with or not socializing with based on perceived social cost of doing so. This is categorically different from 'barring women from the workplace.' The latter is institutional discrimination; the former is social discriminatory. Not a difference of scale. The way it seems to me, it would be like if, during a discussion of whether it's acceptable for someone to refuse to date outside their race, one said, "well why not just ban interracial marriage if that's how you feel about it." Such a comment would be, imo, entirely beside the point.

"All of this justification based on jealous partners reveals a lack of trust in relationships that seems to possibly be a larger societal issue."
Maybe it's rational? I don't purport to know. I generally think monogamy is overrated and popular culture oversells the wonders of it. In any case, people like to keep their alcohol collections hidden when an alcoholic friend is visiting; many think it rude to eat unhealthily around someone who is dieting. Sexual desire isn't fundamentally different. Temptation probably correlates with transgression. Maybe it's a small correlation that is overblown, but it all comes down to how risk averse one is.

Oh and men in traditional societies do not view women as “things I may have sex with if not careful.” That's a thoughtless feminist caricature.

AMT writes:

I think you should also consider whether this is a "chicken or the egg first" issue. Perhaps one of the main reasons we get jealous of a partner spending time with some other possible partner is because it is culturally, rarely platonic. The spouse has to be suspicious and worried about such a relationship then, which makes any actually platonic relationships stressful.
Supposing initially relationships were even between genders, even a tiny amount of suspicion could gradually change social norms, pushing the equilibrium. As jealous partners discourage platonic relationships, a higher proportion of relationships will be partners cheating, which reinforces the effect, and pushes the equilibrium towards no platonic relationships. (like an insurance market death spiral)

"Safeguard against impropriety - or the appearance of it."

Maybe, if social norms were different the benefit of this "peace of mind" for the spouse would be negligible or very small. We wouldn't care about the appearance of impropriety, only actual impropriety. But, while I don't think it takes all that much willpower to not cheat on your spouse, but I will fully agree it may still be rare enough to expect the current social norms will be a very stable equilibrium...

Another commenting person writes:

A long time ago I realized a problem with interacting with women at work. I am very bad at recognizing whether women are attracted to me or not and tend to automatically assume "not", but in some cases I was getting a strong feeling that some women were attracted to me - and that my natural inclination toward friendliness and my natural concern for others might be leading them on without my intending to do so. Then again, I might have simply been misinterpreting their natural friendliness and concern as something more than it was. The problem is, I have no way of knowing.

This isn't typically an issue for workers I encounter occasionally or tangentially - the cashiers I pay or the woman who works in a different department of the same company - but I could see that it could be a real problem with a woman that I worked with side-by-side. I came to realize that I didn't want to accidentally lead some woman on - a woman that I really did like and whose company I enjoyed, but who I had no romantic interest in - because it wouldn't be fair to her. I didn't want to be the cause of anyone's heartbreak. And then there are all the questions of how the things that happen at work can affect life outside of work, for both myself and her.

So I deliberately chose jobs in part based on having few or no female co-workers.

We can go on and on about what a just world is like in theory, but in practice there are simple facts of human biology which are not always easy to ignore. We cannot simply turn off our attractions to others, and this will have real world consequences when we are in constant contact with attractive others in an environment where it would be very harmful for anyone to act on those attractions. Perhaps this would be manageable if cultural norms were very different, as they have been in some places at some times around the world - but it does not coexist well with traditional Western family structure and cultural expectations.

Shane L writes:

"It's hard to imagine that these rules don't reduce the prevalence of adultery and cheating."

I would suspect that men who only relate to women as potential sexual partners and not as workmates, bosses, friends, etc., would be more likely to cheat than less.

Hazel Meade writes:

Workplace norms are still evolving, but personally I think it's strange that anyone would say they must spend one-on-one time socializing with a colleague outside of work for the sake of their career.

If people need to do out for dinner and drinks one-on-one with co-workers in order to advance their career, that's a cultural problem. There should be nothing that has to happen outside of the formal business environment in order to have an equal chance on the merits at a job or promotion. Socializing with co-workers as a group might be acceptable, for the sake of cameraderie and team building, but everyone should be invited.

Otherwise, this just seems like the sort of corporate environment that is hampered by office politics and backbiting. If you have to suck up to the boss or go out to dinner one-on-one to get ahead, that's not a very fair culture. Work relationships should be formal.

Julia V writes:

I see where you are coming from with your points about reducing the risk of cheating. However, you are forgetting two important things.

The first is that someone who is a cheater will always find a way to cheat. It does not matter if other co-workers of the opposite sex stay away; if you have reason to believe they would cheat, you should have a long, proper discussion about your fears and reasoning. Especially if they have cheated in the past, then it is far more likely they will cheat again. Not talking to the opposite sex at work will not stop them from cheating.

Second, the whole view point in your post is very heteronormative. It assumes that your partner will not cheat on you with someone of the same sex. If you are a female, does that mean your girlfriend can not have female friends? But she can not have straight male friends either. The same goes for males, can your boyfriend not have guy friends? Oh, but he can not have straight female friends either. And what if your partner is bisexual? Can they have NO friends?

In the end, people should just… not cheat. I know it is not that easy, but it is a very despicable act and you should not be with them if you are that afraid of them straying or if your partner is that controlling of you.

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