Career & Money

When Women and Men Work Together: The Costs and Benefits

Dr. Anne Litwin
By Dr. Anne Litwin

Many women and men are still wary of working together when their work requires them to have one-on-one meetings or to travel together for business. New research reported by Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times  reveals that almost two-thirds of the 5,282 registered voters surveyed by the New York Times say, “People should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work.” Miller notes that these results also partially explain “why women still don’t have the same opportunities as men. . . . They [women] are treated differently.”

Like many women, my work sometimes requires that I travel with male colleagues for my business. I currently have wonderful male colleagues with whom I have respectful and trusting relationships. I also have had those other experiences, so I understand the need for caution, especially for younger women.

Early in my career in two different contexts, two senior male colleagues who had the power to offer me business opportunities used their power to demand sexual favors. Both were married, older men. They may not have thought of themselves as “demanding favors” and may have thought they were offering me a compliment by propositioning me—but they probably knew they were abusing their positions. Because of their power to cut off my much-needed income, their actions put me in a very difficult position. I did rebuff them both—and they both stopped hiring me. The financial impact was devastating for me.

Women and men need to be able to work together, yet Miller describes real reasons to be wary:

  • Power differences do make it difficult for the lower-power individuals to protect themselves. Their vulnerability is real. This is true for both women and men. However, men do still hold a higher proportion of the high-power positions, so women are still more likely to be vulnerable.
  • The recent examples from Weinstein Entertainment, Uber and Fox clearly show that sexual harassment is still being perpetrated and tolerated and ignored by the highest levels of leadership. This makes women and men more afraid to report unwanted and unwelcome advances.
  • The perception of inappropriate behavior in the workplace, whether or not it has actually been experienced that way, can ruin careers.

The discomfort women and men can experience working together can clearly result in negative impacts on women’s careers:

  • People tend to hire and promote people like themselves with whom they are most comfortable. Miller, in a previous article, described this phenomenon as “homophily.”
  • Women may not be invited to join a male boss on a business trip because of his fear of a perception of inappropriate behavior by the female employee or by others. Women may, then, lose opportunities for advancement and exposure to new business networks. This can be career limiting.
  • If women have difficulty getting one-on-one meetings with male bosses, they may not be able to demonstrate their readiness for promotions.

I wrote in a previous article about the “tax” women pay due to fear of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

What can organizations do? Miller suggests keeping office doors open for one-on-one meetings, utilizing conference rooms with glass walls, and going for after-work drinks or dinner with multiple coworkers. Communication is key—companies can teach women and men how to have honest conversations about how to work together. Organizations should also have multiple, clear procedures and supports available for employees to use when they feel inappropriate behavior has happened. Often, perpetrators are unaware of the impact their behavior has had, and they need some low-key feedback and counseling to change their behavior.

I wish it was not still necessary for women and men to exercise thoughtful caution when working with each other, but it is. We can manage this dynamic and have enjoyable and productive work relationships without penalizing women’s careers.

What has worked for you?

Image courtesy of Highways England. CC by 2.0

Dr. Anne Litwin
Anne H. Litwin, Ph. D. Consultant, Coach, Trainer, and Author Dr. Anne Litwin has been a consultant, coach, and trainer for more than 30 years in a wide variety of organizations throughout the world, including Africa, China, Myanmar, Russia, Singapore, Europe, Canada and Mexico. Anne served as the CEO of her family business and was past chair of the Board of Directors of the National Training Labs (NTL) Institute.  She specializes in helping organizations leverage diversity, including women’s leadership development, for business success. Dr. Litwin specializes in women’s leadership development as a trainer, coach, researcher, public speaker and author. She develops and delivers women’s leadership development programs for businesses. She also provides executive coaching to help women leaders enhance their capacity by strengthening their interpersonal and strategic skills.  She works with clients to improve their ability to communicate their ideas, to listen, to give and receive feedback, to manage conflict, and to deal effectively with system power dynamics.  Dr. Litwin helps her clients understand how to take diversity and international regional differences into account as managers, colleagues, and with customers. Anne has published the findings of her research on women’s work relationships in a book entitled, New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together, published Fall of 2014 . The findings from Anne’s life-long interest in the unique dynamics among women in a wide range of work environments is at the forefront of unlocking myths about women’s work relationships. Her clients have included:  Alibiba; Aera Energy; Chevron; Analog Devices; Siemens; Hewlett Packard; Microsoft; EDS; Texas Instruments; Hasbro; Parsons; Cummins; Berlex Labs; Lucent Technologies; Verizon; Agilent; EMC; and Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. Anne has a Bachelors degree from the University of Wisconsin, a Masters in Community Psychology from Marist College, and a Masters and PhD in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University.   Dr. Litwin is a qualified user of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Leadership Circle Profile, a certified Organization Workshop trainer, a World Cafe and Future Search facilitator, and a member of the Organization Development Network.  She is co-editor of the book, Managing in the Age of Change, along with numerous articles on gender differences, women’s leadership and consulting in the global context. For more information, please contact Dr. Litwin at:, or call 617-983-0923.  Visit her website at: to learn more about her services.