Suits, sequins, and velvet punctuate the festive din as I trade my red raffle ticket for punnily named cocktail. Bravely, I turn to face a room full of my colleagues and their plus-ones all a’mingling with holiday cheer, and wonder what the heck am I doing here?
The office holiday party is a strange mashup of quasi-regulated fun, shop-talk, and the very human instinct to let loose — which frankly, feels to me like a potential pot of trouble for any attendee, and women doubly so. So why do we all still gussy up and go?
Humans like to swap our responsible-hats for our party-hats
Partying, aka the organized act of stepping away from the ordinary to celebrate, is human nature (hat tip Emile Durkheim). In essence, parties are social rituals we partake in to come together. Add to that ritual Johan Huizinga’s idea that people are meant to “play” — basically let go of norms and have fun — and you might be thinking, “Well, this doesn’t sound so bad.” Durkheim refers to these shared experiences as collective effervescence, where everyone is laughing, joking and buoying each other up.
Except parties and play come with both benefits and costs.
Sure, it’s a bonding moment when, outside the confines of the office, a group discovers that Hamid, the buttoned-up guy on the data science team, has an impressive array of moves on the dance floor. But what happens when you discover something less entertaining, or even deeply troubling? Think Martha from HR who gets indiscriminately snarky after three drinks, or Colin from marketing who doesn’t understand “no.” Like many other aspects of the holiday party, there are ramifications beyond this one night.
Doing the Electric Slide with the VP of Finance can change your life…
Standard operating party procedure (SOPP) dictates we celebrate with our community. Long work hours, combined with the fact we’re encouraged to connect with coworkers (think about the oft-asked question during recruitment in tech: would you want to get a beer with this candidate?), so we’re blending private and public versions of self together with a healthy serving of booze at these events.
And ideally, this facetime with the powers that be could be a good thing. Holiday parties are the slightly more inclusive version of a round of golf, which gives managers a chance to have qualitative feelings about us, rather than merely a tally of how many TPS reports we turned in — and maybe even up our chances of promotion.
...except women, work, and party-hats don’t mix that well (yet)
Parties make people feel like work rules don’t apply because of what they inherently are: a time to step outside our everyday experiences. At work there’s often a company culture of equality between men and women. So, in the workplace, “everyday” includes putting aside our ascribed social statuses, (like men seeing women as brains rather than bodies, and women believing they can climb the power ladder through employment rather than sex and marriage, and everyone floats on an air of work-appropriate conversation and behavior.
Which means unless we’re very careful, everything women are striving for socially unravels at a party.
Women are still often considered objects of admiration and desire first if not at work, then certainly in society. Put us in a party and suddenly we return to being on display, where how we look and what we wear matters, or worse, where we become a perk for the men. The “wrong” outfit can hurt our reputation (hence why I returned this velvet jumpsuit in favor of a very modest party dress), and the “wrong” actions can dictate our trajectory at the company. Whereas a man who gets boisterous when drunk or sleeps with a colleague will be seen through the “boys will be boys” lens (yes, still), a woman doing so runs the risk of being labeled irresponsible or sleeping her way up.
The proof is in the party-hat
Socially speaking, men and women aren’t equals. There’s a power dynamic at play, insidiously deep misogyny we’ll spend decades to come pulling apart, and a lot of work left to do in the workplace being exposed through #MeToo. As much as the construct of a company holiday party suggests we can wear both our work-hats and our party-hats, there are ramifications whether we like it or not. Which sucks for a couple reasons: one, because it means we can’t be ourselves; but two, because companies themselves aren’t seeing an issue (and you can’t begin to fix something that people don’t believe is happening).
So how do we change it?
Maybe the first step is acknowledging the imbalance. Like Black Lives Matter before us, who continue to press society to see that saying “I’m not racist” doesn’t make a culture not racist, what if we could see that just saying, “Everyone is treated equally here,” doesn’t make everyone at work seen as equal. Rules and sexual-harassment training haven’t just whiz-bang balanced gender inequality at the office, just like laws and classes haven’t eliminated systemic racism in our country. And then, the real work begins.