For those of us who like to blow off steam with a beer, office happy hours are typically welcome events. Who doesn’t want to work for a company that encourages the day to end at 5 p.m., eschewing late hours for free booze? Not to mention those often-free drinks come with a perk that can run deeper than the buzz: It’s a simple way to connect and feel closer to your workplace cohorts.
But consider a 2014 study revealing that the more you drink, the higher status you might appear to have in social circles. The concept is easy to sneer at when recalling your misguided college years, but it becomes troubling in the context of the workplace — especially considering how the tech industry has resurrected Mad Men–era happy hours, making booze a near-pervasive part of assimilating into a company’s culture. But then consider how those happy hours can also be fundamental to networking and, potentially, to feeling rewarded and recognized. Inevitably, someone has to lose.
Simply according to biology, it’s women: Research shows that women will achieve higher blood alcohol content than men, even if they’re drinking the same drinks. It’s as though not just the workplace but also our own bodies are undermining us in these situations, making it difficult to keep up.
“The undermining patterns of drinking or risky patterns of drinking start in college, and they revolve around male-oriented events, like football games or fraternity parties, and dive bars,” says Gabrielle Glaser, author of Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink — And How They Can Regain Control. “And women start drinking to keep up with the guys because they’re taught ‘you’re equal to boys; you can do everything they can do.’ But there’s one place where women aren’t able to keep up with men.” And that’s when it comes to booze.
Aside from the biological constraints that make it difficult for women to match men round-for-round, there are inherent health risks associated with drinking too much. Though more men die each year from alcohol-related deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explicitly acknowledged that the dangers of women binge drinking — which, for women, is four or more drinks in one outing — should not be ignored; a 2013 release aptly called it an “under-recognized problem among women and girls.”
There are also social and professional risks: Workplace columnist and expert Anita Bruzzese pointed out to me that should excessive drinking lead to a woman being sexually harassed, a lawyer might use the fact that she was in the room with her male colleagues drinking to discredit her. Inevitably, keeping up one-for-one with the guys — or quiet peer pressure — has a price: letting men walk away, for the most part, unscathed in comparison to women.
Of course, it would be nice if the number of drinks a woman does or doesn’t consume didn’t matter, but in many workplaces, a strident though implicit message is sent from whoever is encouraging these frequent tipsy outings—and from all the people who follow along without blinking an eye—that says otherwise. Multiple women I spoke to shared anecdotes stressing just how heavily alcohol was pushed at their workplaces.
One woman — who told me she has now recognized that she’s an alcoholic — worked as a summer associate at a law firm when she was 22. She says that even though her colleagues never explicitly said drinking was required, the firm’s culture still made her feel pressured. She observed that most of the “higher-ups socialized this way,” which set a certain tone. Three of the four summer associates were women, and it was always the men who encouraged them to drink, making comments about how “being a lawyer [meant] being able to drink ‘serious drinks like scotch.’” With scotch available on Fridays, regular happy hours, and even a boating-with-booze outing, she says she was “very uncomfortable, even as a person who [at the time] enjoyed social drinking in other settings,” particularly at one happy hour, when a male colleague purchased a strong drink called a Summer Mind Eraser for the three female summer associates. At another outing with day drinking — where a colleague asked the office if they had brought their “drinking shoes” — she had a difficult time physically keeping up with her colleagues, eventually falling asleep on her boyfriend’s shoulder at a ballpark. (They were allowed to bring guests.) She was not offered a job at the company.
Another woman, who worked at a prevalent startup, told me that the heavy drinking was, in part, why she left after three and a half years. “Within my first weeks working there, I was bullied for not drinking beer with my co-workers after work,” she said. In fact, she was reprimanded for not drinking at her first happy hour. At the time, she lived at home with her parents and didn’t want to come home inebriated, but she noticed that these social events “were integral for people moving up in the company.” She observed that men who didn’t work as hard as she did got promoted, and she thought it was because they “‘meshed well’ with the higher ups” as a result of drinking together.
Some might scoff and say that drinking to fit in is foolish, but wanting to belong is a very basic human desire. And when drinking is the unofficial glue of an office’s culture, it becomes something like an unspoken job requirement. This is particularly damaging to those who either can’t or won’t opt in: Many people don’t drink for deeply personal reasons, spanning from alcoholism to religion, and, understandably, not everyone wants to explain to their colleagues why they’re abstaining. But the expectation to cut loose with a drink or five doesn’t just exclude sober employees: Working parents aren’t able to stay late to socialize, which creates a selective caste system of who fits in and who doesn’t.
There are already myriad ways the workplace makes post-childbearing life difficult for women to the point that they leave. In 2013, a statistic from Lean In made waves: 43 percent of women who have children end up leaving the workplace, Paulette Light cited in the Atlantic. In Light’s case, she wrote that “getting the job done was all about giving everything to the job, and that wasn’t sustainable for me once I had a child.” A few other statistics worth noting: According to Pew Research Center, 60 percent of mothers find balancing both their jobs and parenting a challenge, whereas only 52 percent of working fathers feel that way — and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. As of 2015, mothers spent 18 hours a week on parenting, whereas fathers spent about seven hours a week. Every firm is different and will have different expectations of their employees — Light explicitly wrote that she didn’t blame her company for her departure — which suggests that there’s something deeper for working parents, particularly for mothers, like a visceral need to go home and parent.
There’s a strange cycle, though: Alcohol in the workplace inadvertently encourages longer hours, because it’s often a reward for working relentlessly. Glaser discussed with me how her research showed that, typically, companies with drinking more deeply tied to their cultures place greater expectations on their employees, like working longer hours. (“But we have free beer!”) A 2015 study published in the British Medical Journal found that working lengthy hours each week can lead to excessive drinking, but it’s important to acknowledge that when socializing is linked to the overwhelming demands a company places on its employees, it’s easy to keep them working unruly hours; it masks the pain of what’s actually going on beneath the keg tap.
But to say that all modern companies have cultures with systemic issues ushering women into uncomfortable situations would be a sweeping, unfair, and inaccurate statement. One woman in media told me that her company “doesn’t necessarily reward people for drinking, but certain subgroups definitely form around drinking. I don’t think it’s so much of a gender thing or an emphasis on drinking a lot; more if you want to create close relationships, drinking is definitely a shortcut to that.” She understands why: For young people, “drinking is what you do with ‘friends,’ so it’s almost a shortcut to building a friendly/less professional relationships with co-workers.” While some might frown upon that, it’s an important thing to recognize: You spend most of your waking hours with your colleagues. Your job is, possibly, how you define yourself. Of course you want to hang out and become friends with your co-workers. It’s fun!
“Going out and having a drink after work is a great way to get to know people,” says Bruzzese. “But it’s important to ask: What is your goal? What you’re looking for is establishing better relationships, and you don’t do that being sloppy drunk.”
I think many women recognize that truism as they express the desire to step away from heavily drinking colleagues, but the real issue is tied to inherent judgment. “We have to make it okay [to not drink],” Glaser says, “just as we’ve made it okay for some to not eat gluten or not eat carbohydrates. We need to draw attention [to how] some people have different tolerances for alcohol.” But as with many issues revolving around spoken — or unspoken — peer pressure, the cause is often less about the person being pressured and more about the person applying the pressure. “After a while, nobody cares what’s in your glass. Nobody’s paying attention to what you’re drinking. People are more interested in their own drinking and not yours.”
As much as employees are encouraged to unwind with a drink after work, they should equally be encouraged to consider those colleagues with different relationships to alcohol, rather than interrogating them and their reasons — be they biological (a lower tolerance for alcohol), societal (like parenting), or a combination of both (like pregnancy). Otherwise, a relaxed company culture, meant to spark warmth and connection between colleagues, is bound to alienate them from one another — forcing those who don’t “fit in” to seek other opportunities while the drinkers stay behind (so long as their own relationship with alcohol remains the same).
In an already homogenous industry like tech, where women held only 25 percent of computer-related jobs as recently as 2015, creating additional barriers to entry that disproportionately affect women isn’t just bad optics — it’s prioritizing an office keg over the company’s long-term success. Remember: Diverse companies are more likely to be successful than their nondiverse counterparts. A report from McKinsey and Company found companies that are more diverse when it came to both gender and ethnicities were more likely to perform better than those that weren’t, by 15 percent and 35 percent, respectively. Who wouldn’t raise a glass — of La Croix — to that?