We have to tread on eggshells in the workplace – and it’s negatively impacting women

Woman sat talking to a counsellor

According to research by Lean In, 60% of male managers are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socialising together.

We spoke to a male senior executive in financial services for his insight into how relationships between male and female colleagues have altered over the past decade, for better and for worse…


I’ve worked in the City since 1981. In those days, I witnessed some appalling attitudes towards women, but I’ve watched it progress to somewhere that I hope is much more welcoming. It’s definitely not perfect, and there’s still work to be done to eradicate all of the #MeToo-style behaviour, but there has been major reform, largely for the better.

I’m certainly not uncomfortable in one-on-one situations with women – I currently mentor two female employees – but I do think there is a lot of fear around ‘saying the wrong thing’, which has become pervasive. It’s getting in the way of building team relationships, and I think it’s negatively impacting women the most.


Jokes in the workplace – a thing of the past? 

Joking and teasing is one of the ways people bond with each other, and while it’s of course important to be appropriate and never overstep any boundaries, if you have a reasonable level of emotional intelligence, you’ll know what is and isn’t offensive, and you’ll be able to gauge where the line stops for each individual, male or female.

But what I have witnessed happening several times is that a male and female colleague will be chatting and joking, and someone else has overheard and complained that they felt it overstepped the mark, despite the fact that the woman involved in the conversation was perfectly happy. This then has the effect that men are more cautious, and reserve these kinds of ‘jokey’ conversations for their male colleagues.

Years ago, a lot of the team bonding took place in environments that were clearly exclusionary to women. A mild example would be ‘the boys’ going out to play golf, a more egregious one would be a trip to a lap-dance club. Thankfully, that isn’t the case anymore, but if women are left out of humorous conversations in the workplace, they still risk being excluded from the reality of how humans interact on a day-to-day basis.


A reflection of society 

Another aspect that I think more people would benefit from understanding is that many male senior executives, including myself, have been brought up to extend common courtesies that we wouldn’t to men. For instance, when in a lift, you’d wait until all the women had left before leaving. Now, I would be worried about doing that in case it is seen as patronising. And I would happily compliment a male colleague on, a nice tie, for instance, but I wouldn’t compliment a woman on her outfit.

On face value, this may not look of importance but I believe the overall impact is that conversation with female colleagues becomes purely functional.

To clarify, this is not the fault of women – it’s a reflection of society. We’re becoming much less tolerant of mistakes – just look at social media for example. If you make a mistake on there, you can be absolutely slaughtered.

This mindset has spilled over to the workplace and more than anything I think it’s unnecessary. If everyone simply invested the time in getting to know their colleagues, male or female, they would understand their personalities, their sense of humour and most importantly, their boundaries, and so no one should be offended.