November 7, 2018
WeWork has turned off the unlimited beer tap. As of 30 October, those in the co-working community in New York City will get a maximum of four 12-ounce beers a day and only between the hours of 12 pm and 8 pm.
There’s no word yet on whether or not this policy will be rolled out to WeWork offices globally, but it’s a telling indicator of how the business is looking at its workplace culture, which is presently under extra scrutiny.
The adjustment closely follows last month’s lawsuit from Ruby Anaya, WeWork’s product manager and director of culture of nearly four years, which alleges that she was twice sexually assaulted at WeWork company events and was then fired for speaking up about it. Her alleged assailant’s defense, according to her complaint? He was too drunk to remember it.
Do co-working spaces have the potential to foster a culture of workplace sexism? If you’re familiar with the #MeToo movement, you may already have an opinion on the matter. But there’s a bigger question to answer – is WeWork’s revised beer policy just damage control, or could it be a small indication that the tech industry might be shaping up and addressing some underlying issues?
Free Beer Is a Symptom, Not the Cause
Hey, everyone loves an open bar. Granted, anyone drinking more than four beers during work hours might be less of a workaholic and more of the different kind of “-aholic.” But even for drinking on work premises after hours, the change may prove welcome. WeWork’s policy adjustment is definitely a step in the right direction for a healthy workplace culture. But the beer in and of itself isn’t the issue.
Unlimited free beer taps aren’t about the drink, so much as the environment that it signifies. And that’s one that’s male-dominated and forgiving of excessive drinking. The two biggest points of comparison that come to mind are a frat party and a Mad Men-era workplace, neither of which are exactly known for their gender parity.
Sure, the women of WeWork can down a beer as easily as their male counterparts, but offering an inebriating beverage at a workplace isn’t just a matter of questionable professionalism. Given the systemic power inequality between the sexes, inebriation can serve as a cover for worse abuses of privilege.
“In both [sexual assault] cases, the company interviewed no witnesses other than the male employee in question. In both instances, the male employee professed to be too drunk to remember the incident,” Anaya’s lawsuit claims.
Being too drunk to remember a crime is a thin excuse. But the corporate culture at WeWork doesn’t appear to have needed much of one, given the case’s allegation that no further witnesses were interviewed.
Tech Culture’s Sexist Structures Are Cracking
Tech’s bro culture and its nerd culture can seem at first to be polar opposites – the jocks pick on the nerds, right? But, in reality they’re two sides of the same coin. Both focus on propping up male-centric societal norms.
Other articles have detailed the tech world’s sexual politics more deftly than I can, but the basic equation is pretty easy to point out: Men in power tend to put other men into power, too.
Men are hired at the larger companies more often, if Amazon’s past decade of historical data on job applicants is any indication. They’re paid more in general, too, as indicated by a recent study finding all but one of 58 major U.S. cites paid women in tech less on average than men.
And, when just one gender has such an obvious economic advantage over the other, that power imbalance trickles down into cultural structures as minuscule and seemingly unimportant as providing unlimited beer.
In 2018, the cracks in the tech industry are beginning to show.
#MeToo Might Actually Be Changing Tech Culture
One of the common backlashes to the #MeToo movement was the argument that it’s unsustainable, that uprooting every sexual harasser from positions of power in society was just too harrowing and unstable to last.
But, here’s the thing. Plenty of #MeToo advocates would agree with that. They’re not trying to create an ongoing parade of accusations. They’re try to highlight the broken system we have now, in order to usher in the next step, which is to restructure society in order to reduce sexism.
We’re unlikely to be able to keep calling out sexual harassment at the same pace as the #MeToo movement has sustained so far. When that ends, we’ll either have successfully changed society, or we’ll be right back to the old status quo.
It’s easy to point out the existence of sexism or racism. It’s tough to actually make meaningful change. But cultural shifts, like WeWork getting rid of unlimited beer taps, are an early, if tiny, indication of the necessary restructuring.
How Co-Working Spaces Will Need to Evolve
Change hurts. But, it doesn’t tend to happen unless the change hurts less than keeping things the same. Thanks to #MeToo, tech companies are changing.
Co-working spaces are far from inherently bad. They can be a great community-building space, helping people casually network and support each other. And yes, that includes providing a brilliant space for female innovators to network.
As they move forward, co-working spaces everywhere must continue the conversation about workplace culture, giving due attention to how tech’s sexism dovetails with the environment co-working spaces are designed around.
Picking Up Momentum?
Of course, a lot of things hurt in 2018. This shift to addressing sexism mirrors the tech industry’s shift towards greater accountability in general.
Even the top leaders in tech are pushing for greater regulation at this point: Tim Cook spoke about the need for better data privacy at an international privacy conference last month, and later tweeted about the event, saying “It all boils down to a fundamental question: What kind of world do we want to live in?”
That also begs the question, what kind of workspace do we want to work in? And no one is vilifying alcohol, or even beer. But, “unlimited” can mean unchecked. WeWork has taken a healthy first step towards reconsidering the culture that it’s shaping.
The #MeToo movement has outlined a huge problem with the world we live in today. Now, the next step is to begin — and continue — rebuilding.
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