Are Obama's All-Guy Basketball Games Really a Big Deal?

When the president held an office basketball game and invited only male employees to play, it sparked anger, simply because it looked so familiar.

This just in: work isn't fair. It's true. No matter how good you are at your job, how committed you are to the organization, how many extra hours you put it and how many grandparents' funerals or illnesses you've refused to take time off for, your success will still depend, to a large measure, not on these things but on less controllable social factors. Specifically, it will depend on whether or not people like you. And, more specifically, it will depend on whether or not you are liked by your boss.

It would be tempting to whine about these facts, and how they affect the antisocial curmudgeons of the world (hey, we need jobs too), were it not so very pointless. People are more inclined to trust, respect, reward and forgive each other if there is a mutual bond of affection, and not all the lectures on professional detachment in the world can change that. However, when these social factors edge into old, entrenched power dynamics, they cease to be yet another example of the petty unfairness that is built into the world, and become a legitimate concern.

When Barack Obama held an office basketball game and invited only male employees to participate, it sparked anger, simply because it looked so familiar. It's tempting to view Hoopgate as essentially silly – one more example of the supremely trivial non-controversies that have dogged Obama throughout his first year in office. (Was it right for the president to call Kanye West a "jackass"? Should presidents know how to use swear words? Is Obama a secret Taylor Swift fan, and, if so, should we be worried?)

But for women, this situation is anything but trivial. The sight of a male boss bonding with his male employees over a stereotypically male activity – and leaving female employees out – is something that many of us have seen before, at our own places of employment. And it can result in real-world inequalities.

First things first. It's important to acknowledge that Obama has appointed women to positions of power, to an admirable extent. We have our secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. We have US supreme court justice Sonia Sotomayor. It's also important to recognise that the Obama administration has largely taken a progressive stance on women's issues and has advocated for women's rights. Clinton alone has done an immense service in that regard.

But this isn't the point here. Hiring women and taking a high-minded approach to gender equality are good things (and, sadly, still not things we can take for granted at this point in history), but they are not enough, on their own, to ensure a workplace that is totally devoid of preferential treatment for men.


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