Men and Women Can (and Should) Be Friends in the Modern Workplace

Men and Women Can (and Should) Be Friends in the Modern Workplace

Erika Jackson

As a teenager, I loved the film When Harry Met Sally and would watch it whenever I was home sick from school. Most kids long to be adults, but Generation X expressed a specific affinity for the trappings of adulthood. In true Gen X fashion, what I pined for in adulthood was the friendship at the center of the film between Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan), which blossoms into a romantic relationship in spite of the film’s premise that “men and women can’t be friends, because the sex part always gets in the way.”[1] The film follows the progression of the two characters from college graduation into their thirties. The audience sees Harry transform from a buffoonish nihilist into an empathetic womanizer. Sally, on the other hand, remains steadfast in her “high maintenance” independence, hesitant to start something with Harry because of his insensitivity toward the women he sleeps with. At eighteen, all I wanted was to have the conversational banter and indelible chemistry shared by Harry and Sally. Sure, I saw the inherent sexism in Harry’s conviction that heterosexual men cannot control their sexual whims and will always have ulterior motives when it comes to women. But as a high maintenance teen girl, I longed for the day I would have a best friend who would eventually realize that my insatiable desire to compete with everyone around me was adorable, and not a major character flaw.

Film poster for When Harry Met Sally...
Courtesy Wikimedia and MGM.

Now, as a forty-something married, professional woman attempting to navigate the male-dominated world of academia, I see a new version of “men and women can’t be friends” framed by the assertion that it is the “work part” that gets in the way. It should come as no surprise that academia is an individual enterprise in which teamwork is devalued. Especially within the humanities, professors encourage students to operate in isolation from one another, which can promote unhealthy competition. Because of this, I have had to train myself to reject the inclination to compete with colleagues. On the other end of the spectrum, I hear colleagues joke about their platonic relationships with “work husbands” and “work wives,” which feels cringey to me. While not a universal reaction, mine is based on the suggestive nature of a spousal relationship within the context of the workplace that appears to confirm the “men and women can’t be friends” logic. Its suggestion takes away from the development of a foundational partnership that can benefit both colleagues regardless of sex. Male-female professional partnerships are the key to workplace equality and one of the only ways women will be taken seriously.

The question, “can men and women be friends?” is a twentieth-century concept rooted in the proliferation of women within previously male-dominated spaces. Women have always participated in the labor force, especially poor women and women of color, and experienced varied challenges of harassment, discrimination, and sexism well before the twentieth century. Women entered the professional workplace in droves following the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1967, at a time when women comprised only twenty-nine percent of the civilian workforce. Women’s presence in the U.S. labor force substantially grew between the 1960s and 1990s, reaching a peak of sixty percent in 1999. Susan Faludi and Betty Friedan both reckoned with the transformation brought about by women’s entrance into the workforce en masse and their continued inequality at work and in the family.[2] Second wave feminists’ drive for economic equality, according to Faludi and Friedan, placed men and women in direct competition for jobs and financial security, leaving men unsatisfied and emasculated, and both sexes without work/life balance. It is difficult to talk about dissatisfaction between the sexes without acknowledging sexual harassment and a lack of women in positions of higher management. The solution posed at the turn of the turn of the twenty-first century was neoliberal feminism, which focuses on capitalist achievement as the antidote to patriarchy.

Even before the #MeToo movement addressed the ever-present issue of sexual harassment, the question of whether male-female friendships could truly be platonic persisted. “Can men and women be, essentially, adults who value each other without throwing the complications of “other messy stuff” into it?” Jen Doll asked in a 2012 piece in the Atlantic. Doll published the essay on the heels of William Deresiewicz’s critical position in the New York Times that, no, nonsexual male-female relationships are an impossibility. Both politics and popular culture, according to Deresiewicz, reinforce the argument that men and women still live in separate spheres despite feminist goals of equal rights across all facets of society. Yet platonic male-female friendships that benefit both individuals are prevalent in reality and popular culture. Think about Don Draper and Peggy Olsen on Mad Men, or Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation. Following #MeToo, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and other publications suggested that the very existence of women in the modern workplace presented too much of a liability for men. If women must be included, men should follow “the Mike Pence Rule”’ by avoiding all interactions that place them alone with a woman who is not their spouse. When Fox News senior analyst Brit Hume tweeted “Mike Pence’s policy of avoiding being alone with women other than his wife looking better every day,” he was largely ridiculed by journalists from left-leaning publications. Still, a New York Times poll found that men and women across America were wary of one-on-one interactions that did not involve respective partners. This line of reasoning presents a troublesome conclusion: if men and women cannot be friends within the context of the workplace, women will systematically be denied a seat at the table.

Over thirteen years I have built a unique partnership with my department colleague and dear friend Dr. Justin Gollob, who, like me, sees immense value in our work as a male-female team. Justin was hired at our university two years before me and served on my hiring committee. Because of this, I have always viewed him as a valued mentor and slightly above me in the academic hierarchy. Throughout our careers, we have had several lengthy conversations about power and gender dynamics. These conversations would have occurred regardless of sex; same-sex relationships within the context of work share their own set of challenges that often mirror male-female issues. Justin and I have come to recognize we share a bond that transcends the sexist structures intended to divide us. In conversation, we identified shared values that make our partnership work:

Empathy for students and common ground with colleagues

Both of us were raised in similar circumstances: in small(ish), conservative towns in middle-class families who assumed we would attend college and made sacrifices to help us achieve our degrees. We both recognize how the advantages we were given paid off and strive to provide similar opportunities for our students. The motivation and empathy we instill in our students, colleagues, and each other is time well-spent. We view this as a shared endeavor that gives us a sense of purpose and helps forge a strong professional relationship.

Work ethic, dedication, and ambition

Aside from our shared sense of humor, we first saw a similar drive and ambition in one another. These common values allow us to not only connect professionally, but also to feel comfortable promoting each other’s work and value to the institution. This is not to suggest that we do not have our differences (it would be strange if we did not), but we respect how the other approaches their job, and trust that effort will be appreciated and reciprocated. We also value differences in opinion and see the danger in using those differences against one another in challenging moments.

Open, honest communication

Trust can be fickle. One day you feel like you have it, but the next day you fear it is lost. The best advice we have given each other is just to be honest. Mutual respect and a desire to maintain trust means that we can rely on each other to provide healthy – sometimes hard – advice that elevates agency. Pulling punches, we have learned, can be more harmful than brutal honesty. This has been a difficult lesson to learn, but once learned, it has built confidence. We also involve our spouses in our relationship by seeking their advice on how to navigate potential miscommunication with each other.

Our relationship is built on profound admiration and respect. In the world of academia, traditions die hard. Institutions still operate around seniority, traditions, and hierarchy. Defining a work relationship that challenges these attributes has been an effective way to appreciate the value each of us brings to the job. This does not mean we are ignorant to these gendered dynamics. Instead, we choose to devalue them as much as possible in our relationship. If one is more elevated (for a time) within the institutional hierarchy, there is a shared understanding that it does not change our perspectives or shake the values practiced. This helps us navigate the tricky landscape of academia. Being complicit to gendered divisions of labor is not our answer. Rather, it is understanding our place in these structures while staying optimistic that teamwork like ours will help to bridge those gaps. We share in and celebrate each other’s accomplishments, and value our friendship and teamwork more than any position or work opportunity.


  1. When Harry Met Sally, directed by Rob Reiner (1989, Los Angeles: Castle Rock Entertainment, 2006), DVD.
  2. Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1999; Betty Friedan, Beyond Gender: The New Politics of Work and Family (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1997).

Featured image caption: Courtesy Mikhail Nilov on Pexels)

Erika K. Jackson is an associate professor of history at Colorado Mesa University and is author of the book, Scandinavians in Chicago: The Origins of White Privilege in Modern America (University of Illinois Press, 2019). Her next book project examines the experiences of the “alt” girl of the 1990s who watched My So-Called Life, wore Doc Martens, and rocked out to Bikini Kill.