Should we ban office football chat?



Sometimes, the veil is whisked aside and the diversity, equity and inclusion advocates who claim to be on the side of the poor and the dispossessed are revealed as the purse-lipped kill-joys they really are. It’s not about giving the least-well-off a fair shake – it never is. Rather, it’s about making sure white heterosexual men aren’t enjoying themselves. As HL Mencken once said, puritanism is the haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy.

I’m thinking of the moment earlier this week when Ann Francke, head of the Chartered Management Institute, told the Today programme that men shouldn’t be allowed to talk about football or cricket in the workplace. 

“A lot of women, in particular, feel left out,” she said. “They don’t follow those sports and they don’t like either being forced to talk about them or not being included.”

When I first heard this I thought it must be a joke. I’d never heard of the Chartered Management Institute, obviously, but it sounded made-up. Was “Ann Francke” the latest fictional persona of master satirist Andrew Doyle, creator of Titania McGrath?

She continued: “It’s a gateway to more laddish behaviour – and if it just goes unchecked it’s a signal of a more laddish culture.”

“It’s very easy for it to escalate from VAR talk and chat to slapping each other on the back and talking about their conquests at the weekend.”

This couldn’t be real, surely? Football chat a “gateway” drug to toxic masculinity? Doesn’t Ms Francke realise that soccer nerds who spend Monday morning by the Nespresso machine arguing about the pros and cons of VAR are not the sort to make “conquests” at the weekend? At 10.30pm on a Saturday night their only “date” is with Gary Lineker on Match of the Day

It sounded so much like a wind-up that I Googled Ann Francke to make sure she didn’t exist before sending my congratulations to Mr Doyle. Turns out, she’s real! She has honorary degrees up the wazoo – although they’re all from places like Nottingham Trent University, i.e. glorified polytechnics – and she’s just published a book called Create a Gender-Balanced Workplace. According to the blurb – again, this is 100% real – we could add 28 trillion dollars to global GDP if we achieve gender equality everywhere, more than the GDPs of the US and China combined. Yes, of course we could. 

I’ve always been slightly mystified by the head-down, lean-in, elbows-out feminism of people like Francke. On the one hand, all differences between men and women are socially constructed and have no basis in biology. If some women prefer to take mid-career breaks to have children and then return to work part-time, that’s only because they’ve been socially conditioned to think that way by “the patriarchy”. Yet at the same time, if firms employ more women, particularly in senior management positions, their profits will start soaring. 

But, surely, if there are no fundamental differences between men and women when it comes to personality and behaviour, then they’re completely interchangeable? A firm could just employ men and it would fare no worse than if 50 per cent of its employees were women.

Here’s another contradiction. If women are every bit as tough and resilient as men, why would they give a stuff about two sad-looking, middle-aged blokes having a furtive conversation in the office about who Ole Gunnar Solskjaer should buy in the transfer window to strengthen Man United’s back line? 

Either all “exclusionary” chat is banned, in which case women shouldn’t be allowed to exchange hair-and-make-up tips or talk about last night’s episode of Love Island, or office workers of both genders are allowed to talk about whatever they damn well please. To just stop men from talking about football and cricket on the grounds that it will leave their female co-workers deflated and upset suggests the fairer sex are so psychologically fragile – so easily put off their stride – that perhaps they shouldn’t be at work in the first place. I mean, apart from in the typing pool.

It’s all nonsense, of course. Plenty of women are interested in football and cricket, just as plenty of men are obsessed with Love Island. And I’ve never met any women – literally, never – who feel “excluded” by men talking about a subject they’re not interested in. On the contrary, they’re always delighted so they don’t have to engage boring bastards like me in conversation and can turn to their female companions and talk about something more interesting instead.

It’s clear that Ann Francke isn’t really interested in helping women climb the corporate ladder. If she was, she wouldn’t traffic in these outdated gender stereotypes. No, her obsession is in making sure no one – men or women – are having a good time. Her book should be called Create a Joyless Workplace. The crucial thing is to make life 28 trillion times more boring. So far, she’s doing a great job.

oby Young is a broadcaster, writer and journalist. Follow him on twitter: @toadmeister