by Alex Fuller:
I recently attended a seminar on gender discrimination in the workplace and was surprisingly conflicted afterwards. I had begun the seminar thinking, "Of course I treat men and women equally." After, however, I was left wondering if I regularly discriminate without realizing it.
This seminar happened the same week that I heard a comment that equally surprised me. The comment came from a LDS female coworker who observed that LDS men are often less inclusive and less open with women in the workplace. She was the only woman in a small minority of Mormons in the organization. Despite her shared beliefs, she often felt excluded by her male LDS coworkers. They were tackling similar projects, but she frequently had to find her own support group.
How could this happen?
Although I don't think most LDS men discriminate on purpose, I wonder how many times we shy away from women either unconsciously or deliberately.
I've noticed that I often gravitate my conversations and networking toward male coworkers. I'm less likely to ask a female coworker to join me to talk business over lunch or a coffee chat (hot chocolate chat, that is). This preference is probably common among men in general, but being LDS may influence this behavior in two additional ways: spillover from Sunday interactions and fanatic loyalty to one's wife.
Male-Only Interactions Spillover from Sunday
On Sundays in a family ward, I spend most of my time talking with other guys. Even outside of priesthood meeting, the brethren tend to socialize within themselves and the sisters within their group. It just feels natural that relief society sisters congregate together. My interactions with the sisters in my ward are quite limited until after church is over and it's time to find my wife and head home. It's easy to see how this habit could spillover to the workplace. I am happy to interact with my female coworkers, but it doesn't feel as natural to seek them out and build strong connections with them because that's not the norm on Sundays.
In addition to spillover from Sunday interactions, there's another logical reason why we might treat female coworkers differently. That reason is a strong desire and covenant to remain faithful to our wives.
Faithfulness is an absolutely essential goal, so how can I stay loyal without going overboard? Is it common in Mormon culture to practice fanatic fidelity?
I've repeatedly heard counsel at church never to be alone with any woman who isn't my wife. Even without being alone, I don't want others to think I'm flirting with my female coworkers. Most of all, there's the "appearance of sin" that looms in the back of my mind.
So even though scheduling a one-on-one networking meeting with my female coworker named Jill would be a smart career move, I'm hesitant. If Jill were young, attractive, and/or immodestly dressed, I'm even more hesitant. If my wife walked in, what would she think? What would my elders quorum president think? My bishop?
Now if meeting with Jill is important, then of course I can talk it over with my wife and make sure everything is appropriate and professional. But that's just the point. Interacting with Jill is more difficult than interacting with John because Jill might pose more of a remote threat to my marriage.
Whether consciously or not, I may be less friendly to female coworkers because I've built extremely wide fences of safety around my marriage. I don't want to fall off the cliff of adultery, and I'll never fall off if I stay 100 miles away from any cliffs, mountains or tall buildings.
An important recognition is that the problem lies with men, not women. It's not women's fault if men feel uncomfortable and as a result, men treat them differently. It's an issue each of us as men have to address.
Don't Fences Help Protect Fidelity?
Now wait, setting up boundaries to protect your marriage is not a bad idea. I've heard many stories about affairs that started at work. Several of those stories involve friends close to me. The threat is real.
However, working with women does not equal adultery. Yet, the only stories of men and women interacting at work that I recall hearing at church were part of a law of chastity lesson. "Be careful, or you too could become a workaholic that spends too many late nights with your female coworker and BAM! ... your marriage is over." Certainly spending more time alone with women behind closed doors brings more opportunities for problems to occur.
When weighed against potential divorce, a tendency to avoid women at work seems an acceptable sacrifice. Sure, I might be seen as 'peculiar', and maybe I'll offend a couple women for wanting to be extra cautious, but at least I'll make it to heaven.
The problem with this approach is that it's discriminatory. It perpetuates a very real gender bias in the workplace by giving preference to male colleagues at the expense of equally talented female counterparts.
What's the Right Approach?
If the "avoid interactions with female coworkers" is overkill, then what's the best way to protect fidelity while also building strong relationships with all coworkers?
The first step for me was an honest, open discussion with my wife. Some of my friends have had a similar conversation, and each of us has come to different conclusions. More than anything, I'm making a new effort to be as inclusive with female coworkers as possible. What helps me most is thinking about how I want my daughter treated when she enters the workforce.
Fidelity is important enough to warrant firm boundaries. What are the right boundaries that support both marriage and inclusiveness?
Alex Fuller is currently an MBA student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. He served a mission in Nagoya, Japan, met his wife while attending BYU, and now spends most evenings playing games with his two-year-old daughter.
Image credit: The Open University (used with permission).