(Illustration by Jefferson Miller)

Dilemma of the Month: Can My Boss Hold ‘Boys Only’ Work Events?

Back Article Aug 16, 2023 By Suzanne Lucas

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I currently work for a small mom-and-pop company of only 11 employees, including the owners. The owners are husband and wife, 65 and 75 years old. There are two full-time female employees and one part-time female employee, and the rest are male.
The co-owner (husband) keeps having “boys only” events, such as weekly happy hours and trips on his boats; women are not invited. I have had several heated conversations with him about this, and nothing has changed.
They are now planning another “fun-packed, boys-only” boat trip. This trip is posted on the company’s Outlook calendar with invites to men only stating, “Gents, get ready for a fun-filled day.” I’m fuming! This company has no HR, so I don’t have anyone to go to. What do I do?

Well, to be honest, you should look for a new job and leave, because you aren’t going to get these people to change. You’ve already pointed out the problem with the “boys only” events, and these conversations haven’t gone well.

This, of course, isn’t the legal answer, but it is practical. Sometimes the best punishment for bad businesses is for their best employees to leave. But if you choose, you can legally fight this. Here’s what you need to know.

Gender discrimination with 11 employees is illegal in California, but not everywhere

Title VII is the federal law prohibiting employers from discriminating based on sex, but that doesn’t kick in until 15 employees. However, you’re in California, where the regulation is stricter: California discrimination law starts at five employees. This business qualifies with 11 employees.

This falls under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, which protects employees from discrimination based on a range of statuses, including ancestry, age, color, disability, genetic information, gender identity, marital status and sex. It’s probably the most comprehensive protection in the United States.

But this is just a happy hour or a boat trip; it’s not a promotion or hiring decision. Is it still illegal?

Do fun activities still count as work events?

Your boss probably has two stock answers for why he doesn’t invite women. One, they don’t want to come anyway. Who wants to go to the bar and get drunk with the boys? And two, it’s just a fun activity. It’s not work-related, so it’s not a big deal.

But all events where there are coworkers are work situations. They may not be getting paid, but they are building relationships with each other and sharing ideas. Researchers found that the more face-to-face time you have with your managers, the more likely you will get promoted. By having activities that only include men, you limit women’s face time. Therefore, the expected result is fewer promotions for women.

And if you can prove that your career has suffered because you weren’t able to attend the men-only events, then you have a legal case that you experienced sex-based discrimination in the workplace. So this is a big deal, even if your boss thinks it is not one.

What you can do about this

I don’t know whether you are a woman the boss excludes or a man who recognizes this unfairness. The first step would be to talk with the boss, but you’ve done that, so you need something additional. If getting a new job isn’t an option (or will take a while), here are some suggestions. 

File a formal complaint. You can file a formal complaint through the California Civil Rights Office, but for that to take hold, you’re likely to need to show that you have suffered a negative consequence because of the policies. If you’re a man or a woman who hasn’t been passed over for a promotion, they may not take you seriously. Nevertheless, you can complain. While retaliating against you would be illegal, you can expect that it won’t go over well.

Recruit others to your cause. People go along because they don’t want to rock the boat. But they might be willing when they know someone else is standing up for this. So stop talking with the boss and start talking with coworkers.

Make a change yourself. If you’re female, say, “That sounds like fun. I’ll be there too!” And show up. Start with the happy hour, as that will be a public setting, and it will be super awkward if the boss tries to kick you out. You may be accepted. If you’re male, say, “I won’t go unless the women are also invited.” And then hold firm. Acting is far more potent than arguing.

Appeal to the female owner. You mention that the male boss organizes this, but both own the business. So, ask her why she tolerates this. She may want her husband out of the house! But she may be more open to reason when you present that this behavior is unfair and illegal.

Overall, this is a big deal, and I applaud you for not letting it go. Change only happens when we’re willing to do something about it.

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