If there’s one part of life that’s more likely to dominate casual office banter than the latest hot streaming shows, it’s the weekly flow of high-profile sports events, as served up by TV and radio.
But one, major thought leader in the management realm believes that the type of workplace repartee that stems from this constant diet of adrenaline-fuelled events is unhelpful from a gender perspective.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 27 January,  Chartered Management Institute (CMI) CEO Ann Francke said: “A lot of women, in particular, feel left out. They don't follow those sports and they don’t like either being forced to talk about them or not being included. I have nothing against sports enthusiasts or cricket fans – that’s great. But the issue is many people aren’t cricket fans.”
She noted: “It’s very easy for it to escalate from VAR talk and chat to slapping each other on the back and talking about their conquests at the weekend. It’s a gateway to more laddish behaviour and, if it just goes unchecked, it’s a signal of a more laddish culture.”
Francke added: “If you permit that kind of banter, you are excluding people. And your job as a leader is to include them.”
Fittingly for sports discourse, an opponent was waiting in the wings in the form of broadcaster Jacqui Oatley – the first woman ever to commentate on BBC’s Match of the Day. She said that banning sports banter in the workplace would be a “terrible idea”, adding: “If you ban football chat or banter of any description, then all you’re going to do is alienate the people who actually want to communicate with each other.
“It would be so, so negative to tell people not to talk about sport because girls don’t like it or women don’t like it – that’s far more divisive.”
So… what’s the score, here, exactly?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “As our research in 2018 indicated, three-quarters of people would not ban banter in the workplace. The benefits it brings are significant – indeed, our new research on job satisfaction, published this week, suggests that for 77% of people, their good relationships with colleagues form one of the most important factors behind their drive to get up and go to work. So, you enjoy working with colleagues because of the informal side of the relationships you have with them, in those times when you’re not talking about work.”
With that in mind, Cooper notes: “To say that we shouldn’t have these sorts of informal conversations is somewhat counterproductive. Of course, as a topic, sport can be very excluding towards anyone who doesn’t enjoy football, cricket or tennis. Being in an office with people who are hovering over their phones all the time during the high point of the transfer window, or playing fantasy leagues, or obsessing over last weekend’s results or what’s going to happen over the coming weekend, is pretty dreadful for anyone who isn’t interested in football. But there are lots of men who aren’t interested in football – and lots of women who are!”
She explains: “The key issue here is not the topic of the conversation. How do we know what works in each and every context? How can we legislate for conversations that may have a terrifically positive effect in one aspect, but may be slightly alienating in another? It’s entirely conceivable that a conversation could be a vehicle for inclusion that just so happens to touch on a topic that may be a vehicle for exclusion. So the real questions for leaders and managers are: What are the dominant, conversational themes? Who is being left out? How are they being left out? Could we change up, or roam around, the various topics of conversation so that everyone has an opportunity to contribute to that informal part of working life?
“That’s a far more difficult challenge than saying, ‘We’ll have no more talk of football.’ Because if you start making sweeping generalisations, it really puts people’s backs up. The assumption that what we like to talk about is so specifically gendered is dangerous for all underrepresented groups. You can only know what works when you’re actually there, in the context of your own office. It’s a process of being very mindful of conversations that include, equally mindful of those that exclude, and really tuning into what’s going on.”
Cooper adds: “For people whose passions are football, or cookery, or foreign travel, their natural assumption is that their enthusiasm for those topics is infectious. But others in the room may find them rather boring. When you have a lot of people who are buying into a subject that you’re not particularly interested in, it can become even more boring. So yes, let’s be mindful with what we talk about at work. But by the same token, let’s remember how important talking to other people at work actually is.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on conversation.
Plus, read the Institute’s reports:
New Decade, New Direction (released this week)
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