our traditionally male company has an annual golf trip — but our new female employees don’t play — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

Our smallish family-owned business has been taking our sales team on a long weekend golf trip on and off for many years/decades. It is intended to be a reward/retreat type trip, and little if any business is discussed when we are there. Mostly beer drinking, side betting golf, in a beach town with multiple golf courses and a long weekend. Many of our team have young children and the weekend getaway is well received and appreciated, and talked about throughout the year. The sales team of 10-15 people in two branches are the only ones eligible for the trip because they are paid via commission, and therefore do not receive bonuses under our pay structure.

Historically, all or very nearly all of our sales team have been male, and golfers. The managers are all golfers and our company is based in a town where golf is a big deal (major tournament held here every year, we sponsor many charity golf tournaments, customers and vendors regularly take our sales members golfing). This year, we have three female employees eligible for the trip who do not play golf. In the past if we had a male sales rep who did not play golf, he might come on the trip and ride in a cart, and just drink beer or observe, or might elect to not attend at all. We play a “best ball” style game where you really do not have to play well at all to participate.

So we are currently trying to decide how to handle this year’s trip, without ostracizing anyone and also without taking away a much appreciated day off and benefit. I am relatively new, but the rest of the managers have been here for decades. We usually take a Friday off and return on Sunday. Their proposed options include:

– Providing a separate cabin for the women, and offering them money (equivalent to the golf package spent on the men) to take a day trip and eat/shop/day trip in a nearby major destination city while the men are golfing.

– Providing them the separate cabin, but no other plan options (basically ride along on the course, and not miss the fellowship aspect of the trip). One of the women already proposed being a “cart girl” passing out beers, but I don’t think the other women would appreciate such a plan.

– Offering a cash benefit, based on the value of the trip, and the day off, as an alternative to attending. The proposal was based on the assumption that some or all of them may not want to attend, but those that did want to could. But here is the catch — this would not be offered to the men. It has always been jokingly referred to as a mandatory trip, but it seems every year one or two people cannot attend. They are not expected to work that day but have never been given additional benefits.

Any thoughts on this? I feel like offering all three would cover our bases, but it doesn’t address the fact that if you are not actively playing golf in this tournament style weekend, you will be missing time with managers and owners of the company. In the past none of these options were offered to men who did not play golf. I am a little nervous any time gender issues come up at work and feel like this situation is ripe to strike out with at least one of our female employees.

I think your golf trip is going to have to change. Maybe not this year, but for future years.

Here’s the thing: You cannot, as a business, host trips that men attend and women don’t. That’s true even if the women are invited but choose not to go. If you find that you’re sponsoring something that women generally don’t want to participate in while the men do, you need another plan.

The push-back to that is, of course, “But other people like it! Why should they have to lose a trip that they look forward to and which historically has been a fun thing we’ve rallied around?”

And the answer to that is: Because you’re a workplace and you need to ensure that the activities you sponsor aren’t segregated by gender, even if it happens voluntarily. As an employer, there are priorities above “let people have fun,” like ensuring that women aren’t alienated and that they have equal access to networking opportunites and to your leadership. And “let people have fun” is also trumped by your organization’s obligation to follow the law — because this kind of thing has led to sex discrimination lawsuits. In fact, there’s a long, well established history of women being excluded professionally through socializing of exactly this kind of thing (golf is probably the most common example that comes up, in fact). At a minimum your company is going to appear remarkably oblivious to that deeply entrenched history — but it also risks actual legal problems sprouting from it.

And yes, the push-back to that is, “Well, the women could participate if they wanted to! They’re choosing not to.”

The answer to that is: Yes. They’re choosing not to. So it’s on your company to see that and change its practices accordingly, so that it’s not organizing networking opportunites that only men are responding to. The intent isn’t what matters here — the actual outcome is.

To respond to the specifics in your letter: Your instincts are right that under no circumstances should anyone suggest the women be “cart girls.”

You also shouldn’t offer to send women shopping while the men golf. That’s playing right into sexist stereotypes. You can’t do that.

And you can’t offer the women cash and a day off while not offering that to men because it’s illegal to pass out perks based on sex.

Nor should you be hosting a trip where the men golf and network while they women get a cabin but miss out on the rest (again, even if it’s their choice).

So, what do you do? Honestly, I think you’ll need to phase out the trip and instead find things that both men and women are up for participating in. That’s your responsibility as a business. And yes, you’re going to get some complaints, but complaints are not a reason not to do the correct thing. You can frame it as, “As our staff has grown, we’re hearing that there are other things people would enjoy doing.” (In fact, it might be worth surveying your staff about what activities they’d enjoy, or whether they want off-hours activities at at all. And who knows, you might find out that this trip isn’t the first choice for all of the men either.)

Assuming it’s too late to do that for this year, though, you should make the trip voluntary for everyone, not just the women, and give everyone the choice of the trip or the time off. And you should consider planning something else for this year that will have broader appeal (ideally scheduled during work hours so people don’t have to give up their weekends to attend).

Does it suck for people who liked and looked forward to this trip each year? Yes! It does. And it’s still what you need to do if you want to be a workplace that’s inclusive (and legally sound).

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