Perspective: Women are more likely to make friends at work than men. Here’s why that matters
Research shows that the more friends we have, the less likely we are to be depressed or anxious, and work friendships boost productivity and worker retention
Despite efforts to close the gender wage gap, the difference between men’s and women’s wages remains a stubborn fixture of modern society. Women still make 83 cents for every dollar men make. Commonly offered explanations include gender discrimination and occupational segregation. One study identified a “care penalty” that disproportionately affects women “when workers in jobs that require higher levels of caregiving earn lower wages than workers with similar skills in jobs that involve less caregiving.”
The gender pay gap is pernicious and affects women from every background, industry and experience level. But a new study from the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life finds that female workers appear to be fostering much deeper and more rewarding social connections at work than their male colleagues. And the research suggests that both workplaces and employees would benefit from investments in relationship building.
The report, “The Social Workplace: Social Capital, Human Dignity, and Work in America,” says that the workplace is an increasingly essential place for social capital development, particularly among college-educated workers. More than half of workers have made a close friend at work or through a partner or spouse’s place of employment.
But it’s women who truly excel in building connections at work. College-educated women are much more likely than college-educated men to have a close friend where they work, and they are far more likely to confide in their coworkers as well.
What benefits are associated with increased workplace relationships? Research shows that people who establish close friendships where they work are generally happier, more engaged and less apt to be looking for other employment opportunities.
An abundance of previous research tells a similar story. A 2019 Harvard Business Review article argues that encouraging positive social interactions in the workplace “facilitates learning and knowledge sharing, increases employee retention and engagement, reduces burnout, sparks innovation, and improves employee and organizational performance.”
It turns out that even watercooler “chitchat” might be a crucial tool for improving worker satisfaction and strengthening bonds. Studies show positive impacts of social capital on health outcomes and economic mobility as well.
Today, the workplace is an even more important source of social capital. The decline of regular religious attendance, plummeting marriage rates and diminished civic structures in American society mean fewer opportunities for people to build friendships and develop social support. Americans’ social lives have suffered as a result.
For men facing dwindling opportunities to build healthy social networks, colleagues and coworkers offer critical connections. In a perfect world, there would be no direct tradeoff between developing social capital and pursuing economic gains. But the hours spent working late or traveling are hours not spent at community meetings, socializing with neighbors or participating in a sports league.
Studies have shown that the relationship between earnings and happiness is not linear — every dollar earned after most basic needs are met does not substantially increase our sense of well-being. The same is not true for friendships. Every hour we invest offers a considerable return on that investment. Research even shows that the more friends we have, the less often we feel depressed, lonely or anxious.
The workplace sociability gap between men and women is an extension of the overall gender divide. On average, women have more close friends and larger networks of social connections than men do. And the gap is growing. A survey I conducted last year found that men had experienced a substantial decline in close friendships over the past 30 years — a “friendship recession.”
A major source of the discrepancy is simply motivation. Women are more invested in a variety of institutions and organizations that help foster friendships. For instance, mothers are much more likely to be involved in the PTA than fathers. As a result, they develop closer relationships through their children’s schools. This is hardly rocket science. Women develop these connections because they prioritize activities that yield considerable social benefits.
It’s not just formal membership organizations where women are more involved. Women participate in a variety of social activities, such as book clubs, workout groups and Bible study groups, much more often than men as well.
In the workplace, women are often socialized to work collaboratively, whereas men are more often encouraged to be competitive. It’s possible that certain occupations lend themselves more to social capital building than others. Certainly, some professions require more extensive social engagement than others. For instance, school teachers, a profession dominated by women, frequently develop strong ties with their students, parents, other teachers, administrators and the broader community. Other careers, particularly those in technical fields, tend to be far less relationship based. Many of these occupations are also disproportionately male.
It’s fair to question how much women are dedicating their time and energy to these pursuits out of their own volition, because of societal norms or even as a result of workplace expectations. And our survey shows that women are far more likely than men to organize social activities at work. But regardless of why women engage in these social activities, the benefits they derive are difficult to ignore.
For employers, there are a few important lessons here. First, employers should make investments in social activities, team building and other efforts to build coworker cohesion. These types of activities can be difficult to quantify, but our research shows they can help foster worker engagement, loyalty and longevity. Second, workplaces should provide their employees with opportunities to socialize, especially during normal work hours, so as not to penalize those with child care or other responsibilities.
The pay disparity between men and women should continue to receive our attention. But we should not ignore the growing social deficit in the workplace. Employers that invest in building a culture that encourages worker sociability will be far better off in the long run, and so will the people who work for them.
Daniel A. Cox is the director and founder of the Survey Center on American Life. Brent Orrell is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.