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Zoe Cullen and Ricardo Perez-Truglia, The Old Boys’ Club: Schmoozing and the Gender Gap, NBER Working Paper No. 26950 (Mar. 2020).

As the #MeToo movement has matured, researchers have begun to observe a second-order effect of the mass public calling-out of sexual abuse, harassment, and misconduct: the use of “defensive” tactics by male workers and managers to reduce contact with women at and outside of work, meant to avoid potential #MeToo claims. Such tactics might take the form of a “Mike Pence rule,” referencing the U.S. Vice President’s refusal to dine with a woman alone or attend an event with alcohol outside the presence of his wife, or a manager’s decision to pull back from a mentoring relationship with a junior female colleague.

Indeed, in a survey of 152 men and 303 women across industries, organizational psychologist Leanne E. Atwater and her co-authors found that one-third of male respondents reported reluctance to have a private meeting with a woman, post-#MeToo.1 Likewise, twenty-two percent of men and forty-four percent of women predicted that women would be excluded from work-related social interactions like gatherings for drinks after work.2 Another survey administered by found that sixty percent of male managers reported discomfort working alone with, mentoring, or socializing with women colleagues, an almost one-third jump from the prior year.

Recent work by economists Zoë Cullen and Ricardo Perez-Truglia suggests how harmful this professional and social exclusion may be for women workers. In a clever new study, Cullen and Perez-Truglia tracked the promotion patterns of male and female employees who were assigned to teams with male or female managers at a large, multinational commercial bank. Exploiting employees’ switches between male-led and female-led teams, the researchers found a substantial male-to-male advantage that was both statistically and economically significant: “male managers (relative to female managers) improve[d] the career progression of male employees (relative to female employees).” (P. 5.) After controlling for productivity and turnover, Cullen and Perez-Truglia estimate that this male-male advantage accounted for almost forty percent of the gender gap in pay. (P. 3.)

Interestingly for #MeToo, this finding held only when male workers and managers worked in close physical proximity. In addition, the more breaks a male worker took alongside a male manager, the greater the male-male advantage. Moreover, male workers who smoked, and who switched onto teams with male managers who also smoked (thereby presumably spending substantial break time together), saw the greatest bump in their promotion prospects. Finally, the male-male advantage emerged slowly, benefiting men’s promotion chances only after a year on male-male teams. Cullen and Perez-Truglia thus point to socialization – a slow, gradual process by which male managers come to know and advocate for their male subordinates – rather than rank misogyny, as the mechanism by which the male-male benefit was conferred.

Though Cullen and Perez-Truglia do not connect their research explicitly to #MeToo and its unintended consequences, their study complements the survey results summarized above by underlining the key role that socialization can play in advancement at work. If, as their research suggests, male workers benefit disproportionately from socialization opportunities with male managers, then the increased female exclusion and isolation that result from the Mike Pence rule and its variants will only cement the male-male advantage further in place. In addition, separate and apart from #MeToo, research like Cullen’s and Perez-Truglia’s provides a valuable empirical basis for arguments about the potentially discriminatory effect of subjective screening and evaluation processes at work.

What, then, to do? Cullen and Perez-Truglia suggest involving multiple managers in promotion decisions, using more objective measures of performance in evaluating employees, and sponsoring gender-neutral social activities. Other possibilities include “nudges” built into screening and evaluation systems to prompt managers to identify their biases and deliberately think beyond them. However, as Cullen and Perez-Truglia note, more research is necessary to determine these strategies’ effectiveness. This type of empirical work is particularly important post-#MeToo, to push back against the exclusion and isolation of women workers, and to prevent male-male advantage from becoming even further embedded in the structure and organization of work.

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  1. Leanne E. Atwater, Allison M. Tringale, Rachel E. Sturm, Scott N. Taylor and Phillip W. Braddy, Looking Ahead: How What We Know About Sexual Harassment Now Informs Us of the Future (2019).
  2. Id.
Cite as: Charlotte S. Alexander, Socialization at Work and #MeToo Backlash, JOTWELL (April 28, 2020) (reviewing Zoe Cullen and Ricardo Perez-Truglia, The Old Boys’ Club: Schmoozing and the Gender Gap, NBER Working Paper No. 26950 (Mar. 2020)),