I recently read an interesting article in The Times, which made me think: have sex discrimination laws in the workplace actually done the opposite of what they were meant to do and left both men and women more disadvantaged as a result? Now, I can already hear the collective gasp of disbelief at this statement but read on and see what you think…

The idea behind this blog was articulated in a book, Sex and the Office, by American journalist Kim Elsesser. She explores the premise that women are not to blame for their lack of advancement at work and, in particular, are not to be blamed for failing to reach senior positions.

She cites many reasons for this, but one key theme that she explores is that sex discrimination laws have created such a culture in the office that women are now at a distinct disadvantage and miss out on key mentoring opportunities.

This concept could potentially be taken one step further. It could be argued that both men and women are disadvantaged in terms of a mentoring relationship where it arises between a senior manager of one sex and a junior employee of the opposite sex.

Consider this example

Simone walks into the office as the same time as a senior manager in her team, Alexandra. Simone cycles into work and as a result, is still wearing her cycling gear and carrying her cycling helmet. Alexandra is also a keen cyclist and seeing what Simone is wearing, comments on this and asks her what she is training for. Simone and Alexandra quickly realise they are interested in training for the same events and, as a result, Alexandra asks Simone if she fancies a quick drink after work to talk through some training plans.

Simone agrees and after work, as well as discussing cycling, Simone and Alexandra also talk about some of the issues Simone is facing at work. As a result, Alexandra is able to give Simone some really good advice. This relationship develops into much more of a mentoring relationship and Alexandra and Simone regularly meet as a result. A promotional opportunity comes up at work and because of the relationship they now have, Alexandra recommends Simone for the role which she subsequently gets.

The mentoring relationship that Simone and Alexandra have developed through a common interest has really helped her in terms of career advancement.

Now consider the same scenario but instead of Simone, it is Simon who bumps into his senior manager Alexandra as they enter work.

  • Would Alexandra be likely to comment on what Simon was wearing and, as a result, would they be likely to realise they both share an interest in cycling?
  • If she did comment, and as a result asked Simon for a drink after work, would he be likely to accept? It is likely that he would be concerned what others might think. Would it be considered a date? Would it be an issue with his girlfriend?
  • Would Alexandra be concerned that in asking a more junior, male colleague in the workplace for a drink after work that she had overstepped the mark?
  • If he did go for a drink after work would the conversation be as easy and free flowing as it was between Simone and Alexandra and, as a result, would they be likely to discuss issues Simon was experiencing at work as well? Would it be likely to develop into a mentoring type of relationship?
  • Would your answers be the same for the above if Alexander was the senior manager asking Simone as a more junior employee?

Where to draw the line

It could be argued that no relationship between opposite sexes is going to be as straightforward as same-gender ones. There is always room for misunderstandings or sensitivities to arise where intentions aren’t clear. In fact, sex discrimination laws have done much to publicise the dangers of inherent prejudice that have in the past resulted in huge gender inequalities. The law means that people are far more aware of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behaviour – and they have legal protection against the latter.

But is there is a danger too, that those same laws fail to fix, or even exacerbate, the issue because people are so fearful of falling on the wrong side of the sex discrimination line? Perhaps Alexandra would have always felt uncomfortable commenting on Simon’s cycling gear or asking him out for a drink after work to talk about a shared interest. But the law ensures she makes no approach whatsoever for fear of falling foul of the rules.

As a result, Simon potentially misses out on a key mentoring opportunity, which could help him develop and advance his career in the future because Alexandra is concerned her actions may result in a claim of sexual discrimination/sexual harassment against her or, at the very least, a warning about her behaviour.

We have all heard rumours about a male or female senior manager taking a more junior colleague of an opposite sex out for a drink after work and the gossip that ensues, regardless of whether the reason is justified or not.

No doubt, this greatly over-simplifies the legislation that is in place. But rightly or wrongly, the fear of being the wrong side of the law could mean that people fail to communicate as they should. The indirect and unintended consequence of that is that the very legislation that has been designed to protect opportunities for all actually results in reducing the chances for career development for men and women alike.

Now arguably, given the majority of senior management opportunities are held by men, this would have more of an impact of women. However, mentoring opportunities have the potential to be impacted in any situation where there is a senior manager of one sex and a junior employee of the opposite sex.

The legislation has clearly had a positive impact in many areas and has protected both men and women from discrimination and harassment. But in trying to ensure equality across all areas, have we actually created a situation where mentoring opportunities are likely to only happen between employees of the same sex?


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