If you saw this in the press earlier this week and just before you ask, no, cracking down on sports-related chat for the benefit of women in your workplace is not a good idea. This novel suggestion comes from the Chartered Management Institute this week on the grounds that “A lot of women feel left out. They don’t follow those sports and don’t like either being forced to talk about them or not being included” and then the truly gob-smacking “It’s very easy for it to escalate from VAR talk to slapping each other on the back and talking about their [sexual] conquests at the weekend”. What, really?

This is truly terrible stuff, but on the upside, it is at least equal-opportunities terrible – demeaning of men that their next thought after video assistance for referees is generally sex (a somewhat tenuous little link, you might think), and demeaning of women that they aren’t interested in sport, don’t have their own conversations and can’t tell a man droning on about cricket just how crucifyingly tedious it is.

Think where that most clumsy and stereotypical of approaches to your interests would end. No more chat about cars or war films, Love Island or soft furnishings, for example. Groups of giggling men in dark corners leering over Match of the Day excerpts on their phone as a warm-up to a conversation about sex. Any employee’s uninvited attempt to explain the offside rule (which is presumably all of them) would be a matter for HR, not because it is constructive-dismissal boring, as should be the case, but because it may herald another TMI discussion about his big weekend.

Workplace chat around issues which tend to interest one gender rather than the other is inevitable. Almost everything tends to interest one gender rather than the other except possibly commuting woes which blight everyone equally, and, say, the role of symbolism in Latin verse, which in the average office doesn’t really interest anyone. Trying to ban or discourage sports chat is therefore not only King-Canute foolish but, maybe worse, sets back workplace equality by decades. Sports [insert equally here, cars, films, curtains, etc.] is not a protected characteristic and so has none of the same conversational bunkers as religion or (to use the CMI’s delicate phrase) “weekend conquests”. Almost all responsible bodies agree that getting more women into sport would be an actively good idea, so the suggestion that they should be protected from talk about it is (with the best intentions taken as read) utterly risible.

Lessons for employers

  1. No one has a right to be included in workplace conversations, merely not to be excluded from them on the grounds of a protected characteristic. Finding your team’s chatter to be trivial, irrelevant or not something you can contribute to intelligently (on whatever topic and on the part of whichever gender) does not amount to exclusion on that basis.
  2. If an employee who is perhaps in a minority in his/her gender in that team or office were to voice a sense of isolation to HR, it would have to be better to focus on helping that employee with techniques to break into the conversation or change the subject rather than to prevent the majority chatting without malice or deliberation about something of great interest to them – the inevitable human reaction would be the actual rather than perceived exclusion of that employee, since there is no way that you are going to prevent those innocent conversations continuing.
  3. Nothing in this legitimises deliberate exclusion or conversations about weekend conquests or other chat which creates a hostile, humiliating, etc., workplace environment, but there is no evidence of which I am aware that an interest in professional refereeing standards makes someone particularly prone to that as a next conversational gambit. Without that evidence, the CMI’s suggestion is no more than the most blatant and dated stereotyping of the genders and should be ignored.