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Oh I will be certainly using this as a little primer for male colleagues in my own profession (law) who don't get the soft, shadow sexism of social interaction with colleagues.

There are a lot of women in our profession and fewer and fewer as you ascend to positions of power and influence. These things are still a big problem.

I am firmly of the view that it's entirely appropriate (if not necessary!) for colleagues of any sex and sexuality to socialize together. It hasn't gone away, of course, and the very fact that it's an issue for concern and careful thought means we have a distance to go; and an obligation to think these matters through.

Craig, thanks for the kind words, and also thanks for pointing out the heteronormativity of the post.

I have a straight male economist friend who does a lot of research with a gay male economist. Both gentlemen are happily married, but not to each other.

They, too, have to deal with somewhat slightly complicated dynamics when they go out to dinner together - they're more likely to raise eyebrows and attract attention when they go out together in the gay economists town and run into one of his friends.

Similar problems arise for fathers who look after young kids full time. Arranging to meet another man's wife can be fraught with perils, even if it is only so the kids can play. Especially if you don't know the other family that well. Often you don't ever meet the husband, so you don't know what kind of guy he is, and you never know what is going on at home. An innocuous text message can lead to an irate jealous husband waving a tire iron at you.

Patrick - that's an interesting observation - I can really see that happening.

A friend of mine once spent some time as a (temporarily) single father in Korea. If you think this can be fraught in Edmonton, try Seoul! Any contact had to go through his daughter - he couldn't speak to the mothers of his daughter's friends and classmates himself.

Frances, completely off topic, but what happened to the twitter feeds that used to sit on the right hand side of WCI? I enjoyed having them there, and would love if you bought them back.

Evan, I have absolutely no idea. I'll pass that on to Stephen Gordon.

I'll get right on it!

Stephen, but you only put my tweets up, not yours!


For some reason, I can only put one up. If I put mine up, yours comes down, and vice-versa. I've asked the typepad help desk about it. (Also still waiting for a response about how to whitelist commenters.)

Typepad is acting so strange and out of control that Mark Thoma recently recommended not to use it to start a blog...

The other day I said to my soon-to-be-opposite number in engineering "we should have lunch together." I think he was taken aback. (He might not have been. It can be hard to tell with engineers.) But why? (Perhaps engineers don't do lunch?)

What do Engineers use for birth control?....

Their personalities. Ba dum Tshsh!

Give him a break, his social skills likely aren't that great. If you think Economics is bad, Engineering is worse for gender diversity (nursing is the absolute worst, actually).

It's always surprising how we let subtle sexist assumptions slip into our thoughts. I'm going to own up to one as an example, even though it's a bit embarrassing.

I've been reading this blog for years Frances, and I just assumed you were male. Not actively, but I didn't even consider it. I was reading this post with a little confusion until it struck me. I've been kicking myself since! Sorry. Great post, really enjoyed it. Makes us remember those automatic prejudices we have, even those we aren't aware of.

Interesting post. Unfortunately I do not agree that opposite-sex professional relationship can ever be on the same level as the same-sex ones. I remember reading one of those popular behavioral-economics books (freakonomics?) with a chapter about difference in stances and opinions in different emotional states. I think the study concerned university students filling in some forms about how likely it would be for them to use condoms or engage in random sex encounters etc. Not surprisingly there were vast differences if they were answering these questionnaires behind the desk as opposed to answering the same questionnaires when in private and aroused (yeah, it was this kind of experiment)

The moral of the story was - do not overestimate yourself. If you want to prevent some outcome it is more about you controlling the circumstances than you relying on you extraordinary will and then routinely walking into the situations where it is actually needed. If you want to lose weight, it is much better if you don't have any chocolate at home that can get you in your weak moment. If you want to prevent embarrassing yourself by making inappropriate advance on your colleague, then you should better not arrange any meetings alone with her - especially those involving lose atmosphere and alcohol.

From a Swedish perspective, these are all very strange questions (at least for someone in my generation). I regularly share hotel rooms with male colleagues.

PS: I do not, in any way, want to claim that Sweden has gotten particularly far in gender equality in general. A few years ago, there were a larger number of business leaders with the name “Göran” than there were female business leaders in Sweden. It is also, I think, quite uncommon for colleagues of a different sex to share a hotel room – but I think that there are very few Swedes who would have a problem with e.g. having a dinner at a restaurant together and many, like me, would not even include the gender composition as a parameter in our dinner plans (but then my parents were communists when I grow up, so maybe that has something to do with it).

I think this might be generational. The only thing that would be improper is overt flirtation. Lunch, dinner, after-work drinks are fine, in my opinion. My manager is female and it never occurred to me that anyone would think it improper for us to be alone together. Sharing a hotel room would be awkward with anyone who isn't a friend, male or female.

I'm also surprised -- as a 50 something male academic mathematician who works in the UK and Canada -- to hear these worries. That isn't at all to suggest they're not valid -- everything depends on the local environment. But it would never occur to me to worry about the appropriateness of lunch with a colleague, male or female, straight or gay, on campus or off, if there's something to talk about. Happens all the time.

And for the rest of the list: drinks or dinner on-campus, fine with anyone if there's a natural reason; drinks or dinner off-campus, fine with anyone with whom I'm already on friendly terms. (I don't drink that much, though -- a couple of glasses of wine would be about my limit. And I wouldn't share a hotel room with any colleague if I could possibly avoid it .) I think this is pretty normal, i.e. also true of many sociable colleagues. Perhaps we are all HR disasters waiting to happen, but I hope the world is just a bit more relaxed than it used to be.

"One possibility is to adopt a policy of strict symmetry - don't do anything with a male colleague that you wouldn't do with a female colleague, and vice versa."

If the purpose of the meeting is impersonal business - then do it in your office or his office. Lunch or dinner are not good environments for doing business. If the purpose is expressly to get to know someone better, whom you already know, invite them to coffee. If the purpose is to enjoy the company of someone you know and like then lunch anywhere is permissible. Drinks after work is best done as a group activity - unless you are both single and both open to the possibility of a romantic relationship. If you are out of town on business then it is ok to go out for dinner with just one other person. I'm a lawyer and when I travel on business with junior (male or female) lawyers, I take them out for dinner - but I always tell my wife that I had dinner with "so and so". If you can't tell your spouse about it afterwards - don't do it.

You should have told the engineer that you would like to meet with him in his office to get his views and advice on your new position. Meet like that a few times and you can start having coffee and lunch. It sounded like you wanted to start the relationship as a social one, when you should have started the relationship as a professional relationship.

Concerned about the graduate bar - arrange with someone you know well that you will go together.

Joe - thanks for those comments. Generally I agree.

I think attitudes towards office space in academia are a bit different from attitudes towards office space in the rest of the world. Some people inhabit the same office for 10, 20, 30 years, and it becomes very much a private space. In the building I work in, the offices all have solid wood doors, and there is no way to see what's happening inside. I suspect the engineer would have been more taken aback by me suggesting an office meeting than a coffee meeting, as coffee can be had in neutral territory half way between the two offices, whereas an in-office meeting would require one or other of us to walk 10 to 15 minutes across campus.

Frances: I work in a law firm. About thirty percent of the lawyers are women and 95% of the support staff are women. No one would give it a second thought if I had any of the female lawyers or my own secretary in my office behind closed doors or if I went to their office and closed the door.

Some faculty offices probably can't be used for meeting because they are such a mess. Sometimes my office is like that if I am working on a project. Does the department have a handy meeting room or comfortable seminar room? If a faculty member has turned his office into a personal lair that no one else can visit (not even colleagues or students) or if he feels that entering his office would be a violation of his personal space or privacy then there is a problem that has nothing to do with you.

In terms of the engineer - if you are going to him for insight and advice or you are simply the one reaching out to try to establish a relationship, you should propose a location most convenient to him. By going to him you reduce the "cost" to him of the encounter. By asking him to walk five minutes you are creating a hurdle cost for him in circumstances where he may see no benefit from the encounter (oh look, we can analyze some of these interactions using economics).

Sorry to run on - an associate dean better have his office in a condition suitable for having visitors.

Joe - associate deans definitely do have their offices in visitor-ready condition.

The issue with offices being personal space isn't necessarily about the offices being messy. The offices become personal space because people feel like they own them, in part because they are in the same place for so long, and in part because they (at least to some extent) maintain and furnish them themselves.

Take, for example, my present office. It contains some standard Carleton-issue furniture: a 40 plus year old wooden desk, an ergonomic chair of more recent vintage, two visitors chairs and some wooden bookshelves (also 40+ years old). The office also contains a bunch of furniture that I've bought or salvaged myself - a round table for meeting with students, some chairs that I found and repaired, a filing cabinet and a computer table. I had a rug in there too for a while, but it got too dirty. (Yes, it is a large office, but not nearly as large as the associate dean office.)

Some universities go for decades without painting or refurnishing standard faculty offices. So people just furnish the offices themselves. Painting is generally frowned upon, but people do it too. A surprising number of people clean their own offices, because they get so fed up with the maintenance staff. That's why people feel they own them.

The thing with the engineer will be fine - we've actually known each other for a while, and get along reasonably well.

In general, I try not to let such issues intrude with decisions as to when and how I socialize with colleagues regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, political disponsition and so forth. On the other hand it would be foolish to ignore that opportunities for misunderstanding exist; hence, no jokes, no snide remarks, nothing that might conceivably embarrass or discomfort me or the other party--no creepiness, no exceptions.

Frances, may I propose two real-life-ish scenarios (plausible but hypothetical) that are western-centric and hetero normative.

1: You are at a conference with Professor XY (whom you know, but not well) who is an expert in field W that you know is important, but one in which you are weak. During a talk you realize that a problem that has been needling you can be solved if you take method Z, in which you are an expert and combine with field W. In short you need him and he needs you - if you can convince him to work on this problem. You have to build a collaboration. He flies out first thing tomorrow morning. Do you not say in the hallway, "Hi XY, I got an idea that we could work on together. It would take a year and we'd solve this problem. I'll buy you a drink in your hotel bar after dinner to convince you we could do something good together."

2: You and a male grad student are at a conference in which he got dissed by someone he had hoped to do a postdoc with. Please tell me you make sure he ends the day with a good martini or two, that you paid for.

Chris J - your hypothetical situation #2 is in some ways much easier for me to deal with than it would be for one of my male colleagues, because I'm much less likely to be suspected of trying to hit upon a grad student. On the other hand, I would find it hard to make proposition #1 - whether the expert in question is Professor XY or Professor XX.

Does age come into play? I feel that two older coworkers socializing is less likely to raise eyebrows than two younger coworkers. At the same time I feel as if younger individuals attach less stigma to meeting one on one. How about the situation when there exists a considerable age gap say 20 years?

"Some universities go for decades without painting or refurnishing standard faculty offices. So people just furnish the offices themselves. Painting is generally frowned upon, but people do it too. A surprising number of people clean their own offices, because they get so fed up with the maintenance staff. That's why people feel they own them."

Wohoa... when I read things like this it strikes me of the considerable difference between Science/Engineering and everything else. Maybe there is a US/Canada split here too. Money.

Also, I'm surprised by the remarks here about offices being a "lair". An office is your personal space. If you choose to hold meetings there, that's your doing not the visitor's right.

Empathetic to the social rules issues though--from the other side. 1:1 meetings behind closed doors are the norm. Mixed gender situations are somewhat uncomfortable as a result. I make a point of meeting in open public space where convention, anonymity, or effective (but not conclusive) isolation makes the conversation private.

Jon "I'm surprised by the remarks here about offices being a "lair". An office is your personal space."

Not so much outside the world of university professors' offices, I don't think. I spent yesterday planning for the move to my new Associate Dean's office. One of the biggest changes? Associate Deans get official art works from the university's collection of prints. The cynical cartoons from School is Hell, the Demotivators posters, and a decades-old photo of a boat in Vancouver harbour are going to have to go into storage. Everything has to be a little bit more official, and a little bit less personal.

Terry McGarty responds on The Squirrel's Nest here http://terrymcgarty.blogspot.ca/2013/06/women-and-lunch.html. Terry, please give me a call if you're ever up in Ottawa, I would love to go for lunch.

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