Last summer, I was invited by a few friends to meet at four o'clock on a weekday to play a few holes of golf on a sunny afternoon. As I got out of my car, a guy I know waved and said, "Hey, great to see you, but don't you still work?" (Yes). Over on the driving range, another man I've known for years, came by and said, "So, you've finally decided to retire?" (No).
Since this was the first time in memory that I had left the office early (and it wasn't even that early) for a fun activity, I wasn't used to these questions. I realized, of course, that both men were professionals, as were most people on the golf course that weekday afternoon, and no one was asking them if they still were employed. So why did they ask me?
I didn't play golf until a few years ago, but for thirty plus years, I have witnessed my husband play occasional weekday golf, usually with his buddies, but sometimes with industry friends; I know many male business associates who sometimes play in tournaments starting on Thursdays, and I have one female friend who plays decent golf and gets the invite to an annual broker sponsored event. I have never begrudged them this perk, as I see them all as hard working professionals who wouldn't shirk responsibility and abuse their colleagues or their company. So I was startled when my appearance at the course got such a reaction.
Since taking up golf, I've mentioned to my partners each spring that I would like to leave early about once every four weeks to play some golf. I work plenty of hours, arriving at the office before the Today Show starts about twice a week, so why not? However, I find I only leave early to play about once a year; there is always something keeping me in the office. My reluctance led me to question why there were so few working women on the golf course -- so few that we apparently look like retirees to our brothers!
I decided to survey executives with over 15 years of experience to see whether there is a distinction by gender in attitude about one's own participation in leisure activities, or if people view men or women's golf playing differently. While golf is a common form of recreation for business associates during the work week, it is by no means the only such activity. However, for simplicity, I will use golf as a shorthand for them all. Golf is so embedded in U.S. corporate culture that there are innumerable articles describing its use as a key business asset, to which women have limited access and often feel excluded.
Among the 40 responders, there were slightly more women than men. I found that 90 percent of the men, and around 40 percent of the women, participate in some weekday outings, generally three to four times per year. And while several mentioned being encouraged to take clients out for a round of golf, the breakdown between leisure outings and business outings was evenly divided, suggesting that business may be overstated as a rationale for golf excursions.
Those who did not play golf or other sports primarily cited work as the reason. Women in the study gave this answer much more frequently than men, perhaps suggesting that they feel less comfortable being away from work than their male peers, who have generations of experience with such pastimes. Several women also said that they were never asked to join the weekday excursions. Janine, the CEO of a financial services firm wrote, "I don't play golf, but I fly fish competently and my male colleagues have never invited me to join them."
Somewhat surprisingly, although many experienced some guilt, no one reported receiving real criticism from co-workers (we have colleagues above in the quote) for taking a day here and there for golf. However, once the questions turned to speculating about how golf playing might affect someone's career, answers varied dramatically between sexes.
47 percent of responders, and a majority of the women, thought their colleagues would be more critical of female leisure activity than male. Those feeling strongest about this were at the highest organization level, perhaps because these women are of an age when exhibiting perseverance and determination has been critical to their advancement. More women than men felt guilty about playing golf.
Yet almost all men disagreed that there would be career bias against women who were out occasionally to play a sport. Even so, almost all the foursomes that the men played in were unisex.
To the women of the office, I say let your colleagues and business associates know that you would like the opportunity to join them on an outing. If they don't know you play, they won't ever ask you. Or arrange an outing yourself.
To the men: Try inviting some women along. As one male executive at a real estate firm said, "If my partner were a decent golfer, I would welcome her anytime, but she hates golf." I told him I play -- let's see if he asks.
THIS FIRST APPEARED ON HBR BLOG.