Tommy Martin: Does talking sport reinforce office patriarchy?

Tommy Martin: Does talking sport reinforce office patriarchy?

What do we talk about when we talk about sport? Why, the preservation of the patriarchy, of course!

That’s according to Ann Francke, the head of the UK’s Chartered Management Institute. Francke went on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week to demand that companies curb office sports banter, claiming that “a lot of women, in particular, feel left out … they don’t follow those sports and they don’t like either being forced to talk about them or not being included”.

I like to refer to these debates as ‘vegan sausage rolls’, in reference to the progressive pastry snack whose introduction by British chain Greggs in 2019 sparked a minor culture war skirmish.

The media loves a good, silly vegan sausage roll debate because they can pit the ‘it’s-PC-gone-mad’ brigade against the snowflake regiments and watch the clicks roll in.

Francke’s claim — that watercooler chat about the local sports franchise reinforces the glass ceiling — was an unusual example of the vegan sausage roll genre, in that it managed to piss both sides off.

Naturally Piers Morgan and his red-faced ilk got involved, but so too did many female sports fans, angry at the notion that only men were allowed to drone on about United’s transfer policy while on a conference call.

“If you ban football chat or banter of any description,” said the sports broadcaster Jacqui Oatley on the same programme, “then you alienate the people who actually want to communicate with each other.

It would be so negative to tell people not to talk about sport because girls don’t like it or women don’t like it, that’s far more divisive.

Obviously, the idea of policing conversation in the workplace for any reason is terribly Orwellian. And of all the easily available examples of toxic masculinity, canteen-based debates about who should be Ireland’s starting scrum-half are surely not the worst.

But, Francke argues, office sports waffle can often take a darker turn.

“It’s very easy for it to escalate from VAR chat to slapping each other on the back and talking about their conquests at the weekend,” she said, identifying the all-too-familiar progression from dissecting the IFAB protocols to sleazy sex talk.

Now, while reasons not to talk about VAR are to be encouraged, the accusation that Stockley Park is creating a new generation of workplace Weinsteins might be a stretch.

But, as ever with a vegan sausage roll, underneath the greasy layer of predictable outrage lies a savoury morsel of moral dilemma.

When we talk about sport at work, are we forming bonds and alliances of which non-sports fans, oblivious to the pleasures of a post-Carabao Cup debrief, can never be a part? And, as much as it is horrendously dated to think that women cannot take part in discussions of such gravity, do men use sports jabber as a sort of subconscious territory-marking exercise, spraying their working habitat with locker room yak so that it becomes a forbidding, musky banterscape?

I tried to put myself in the shoes of the sports babble-oppressed by recalling a time when I was a victim of such discrimination.

Two male colleagues with whom I once shared an open plan office would open Monday mornings with a shot-by-shot retelling of their weekend golfing adventures. Every tedious detail was recounted, from scuffed opening drive to knee-knocking birdie putt on the last.

It would go on until lunchtime; phone calls were diverted, emails left unanswered.

No matter of grave corporate importance could be allowed to interrupt this two-handed golfing Iliad. I don’t recall if the whole thing made me feel excluded or not; I only remember the pressing need to stab myself in the eye with a biro.

It therefore follows that there would, in a Mussolini making the trains run on time kind of way, be a positive upshot to any clampdown on workplace sports chatter.

Golf bores, schools rugby drones, GAA countyman-related banter — all would be silenced on the shop floor forever. If authorities act quickly enough, they might even be able to muzzle smug Liverpool fans before their unbearable title-winning nadir.

Of course, there is a simple way to navigate any of these vegan sausage roll-type quandaries, in which traditional mores are challenged by the equality agenda: don’t be a dickhead.

You probably talk to your work colleagues about sport because you all like talking about sport, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Sports chat helps people who are forced together by their jobs to rub along agreeably, and is considerably safer than other potential topics like politics, religion or, God forbid, lurid tales of weekend conquests.

But if there’s somebody who doesn’t like sport sitting nearby, whatever their gender, perhaps curtail the chat before it gets to lineout strategies or the merits of gegenpressing.

Don’t be a dickhead: other trivial topics are available, like Love Island, the decline of the Star Wars franchise, or children — feel free to use them.

One would hate to think that men ever used sport as a weapon to subjugate female colleagues.

Better to be glad that men were talking at all, about anything. See how men’s mental health or bereavement counselling groups use sport as a gateway to real sharing.

What we are talking about when we are talking about sport is not always just sport.

Workplaces are changing, mostly for the better. Yapping about sport as a means of skiving off is no longer just a man’s game, and presumably will become less so as old stereotypes fall away.

Gender equality means anyone should be able to debate whether Jose Mourinho has lost it or if Mayo need to find a marquee forward.

And the best thing is, you’re getting paid for it.

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