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  • Megan Goldin

The Weird Ways That Offices Make Women Stumble

The biggest barrier for women at work isn't made of glass

If you’ve ever wondered what’s really keeping women from rising up the corporate ladder then there’s no need to crane your neck looking for a glass ceiling. Simply mosey on down to the men’s toilets where the most serious networking business in the office is taking place.

As male friends have long told me, there’s no greater equaliser than standing alongside your boss at a urinal. Even if there is no steady stream of conversation - which I’ve been told proper urinal etiquette does not encourage - peeing alongside your boss is the ultimate ice breaker.

Since men constitute around 70% of senior managers in Australian companies, that means male employees have more opportunities to get face time with their bosses. Or at least peripheral vision time, since another rule of urinal etiquette requires eyes straight ahead at all times.

For women, hobnobbing with the boss, in the event she is female, might at best involve applying lipstick together in the bathroom mirror, soaping hands in adjacent sinks, or perhaps even sharing the hot air hand dryer.

None of which come close to the bonding experience of communal peeing.But let’s be clear here, I am not advocating for women to get access to men's urinals. I'm sure we all agree that we can do without levelling that particular playing field. The urinals are a metaphor for the missed opportunities that tend to affect women more than men in the corporate world.

I researched some of them when I wrote my corporate noir thriller The Escape Room which examines corporate sexism as a backdrop to the story in which four colleagues get stuck in an elevator only to discover that one of them is a killer.

The way that offices are designed today, open-plan with glass walls, gives some women the creepy feeling they are being ogled across the office by male colleagues. British researchers who studied the effects of open-plan offices in Britain found that "women in particular felt anxious about the idea of being constantly watched, and they felt they had to dress in a certain way," they said. "Men in particular, often in groups, look obsessively at women."

Office attire is where men have another leg up over women

It takes a man maybe five minutes to put on his trousers, shirt and tie for work. It takes women almost that length of time to put on stockings without laddering them, and that's not even accounting for the trouble of selecting an outfit for the day.

“Men barely need to think about what to wear to the office. They throw on a Ferragamo suit and tie and they’re instantly classy. Women have it tougher. We have to be feminine and yet professional. Fashionable yet conservative. It’s hard to navigate all the contradictions,’ a department store saleswoman tells Sara Hall, in The Escape Room when she buys a new wardrobe for her new job at a top Wall Street firm.

But perhaps the biggest barriers for women is Friday night drinks

The mere mention of which sends shivers down the spines of working mums. For many working mums, Friday night drinks is either a pain-in-the-ass obligation from which they rush off early with muttered apologies so they can get to see their kids before they go to bed. Or it’s a non-starter.

Yet the informal alcohol-induced shoulder rubbing with colleagues over a beer or chardonnay on a Friday night can make or break a career. It's the reason why that colleague (every office has one) who is semi competent and barely gets any work done but is unbelievably good at networking — lands up being promoted above you. At the end of the day, women can't change the playing field overnight but if we know where the obstacles lie then we can make sure not to get tripped up by them.

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