“Trainwreck” hilariously depicts some sobering news: Alcohol consumption is on the rise among educated professional women. And in a high-pressure culture where workdays can end in rounds of drinks, collegial boozing is creating some tricky situations.
For the young creatives at one Washington, D.C.-based marketing agency, grabbing a beer together is as typical as a group coffee run. And on days when the company holds its marathon board game tournaments, a beer often turns into three.
“I would say at least every day there’s probably someone having a beer at five,” says one female employee, who didn’t want to use her name. Meanwhile, the public relations company where Alexandra H. works in New York City holds Wino Fridays starting at 5 p.m. — with wine, beer and snacks — and Thirsty Thursdays during the summer. “It’s a great way for everyone to unwind and catch up, and people usually end up hanging out past 6 o’clock,” she says.
Drinking has long been part of work culture, from Madison Avenue’s storied bar carts to Silicon Valley’s keggers. As workplaces have evolved to be more egalitarian, it makes sense that alcohol consumption has become an equal opportunity pursuit, too. Overall, men still drink more, guzzling just over six drinks per week to women’s two. But a new study in the American Journal of Public Health reveals that between 2002 and 2012, the rate of binge drinking among women increased more than seven times that of men. Another study found that 15 percent of women binge-drank in 2013 — more than double what it was in 1993. In 2013, an estimated 50 percent of women over 26 were considered drinkers, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
An Equal Right To Drink
Historically, men have used drinking to symbolize their freedom to disregard responsibilities at work or at home,” while drinking was considered less appropriate for women because of their domestic duties, wrote University of North Dakota alcohol researchers Sharon and Richard Wilsnack in 2013. As women entered the workforce in greater numbers, their social habits began to look a lot like those of their male colleagues.
“If I want to be treated as an equal, I need to act like an equal to the men in my industry,” says Anne S., 34, founder of a tech startup, who lives in Washington, D.C. “And so when they talk about craft beer or want to go out and have some whiskey, I might not say yes every time, but I’m not going to say no every time.”
Educated women in high-pressure jobs are more likely to drink, but it’s hard to untangle whether it’s because they’re trying to keep pace with their office drinking culture, looking for fun and relief from demanding jobs or because they have the income to enjoy a few expensive cocktails (or some combination thereof). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 74 percent of women with a master’s degree or higher drink, compared to just 34 percent of those without a diploma. And women who make $60,000 per year or more drink 24 percent more than those who made between $40,000 and $60,000 a year. Working long hours also is a factor: A meta-analysis published in BMJ in January found that, compared with people who worked 35 to 40 hours per week, those who work 49 hours or more are about 12 percent more likely to start drinking in a “risky” way.
Sipping Our Way To Success
Drinking is just an extension of work in some offices, a way of getting to know each other better. As the marketing agency employee recalls, “Because most of us were friends and so dedicated to our work, sometimes we’d end up continuing to work while having a drink, instead of going to a bar.” But happy hour can also break down gender and hierarchy in a way that offers rare access to higher-ups. Hannah Geyer, a 28 year old who works for a healthcare and advocacy nonprofit, goes out for drinks with coworkers once or twice a week and finds that the bar is an ideal venue for pumping older colleagues for career advice. Casually networking over a Manhattan is much less awkward, she says, than waltzing into someone’s office to say, “What do you think about my future?
In some industries, drinking is also part of a networking culture where people who might otherwise be adversaries or competitors can mingle informally. When Victoria Pasko, 28, first moved to Washington, D.C., from Texas in 2009, she got a job as a staff assistant on Capitol Hill. She and other junior staffers would often flock to congressional parties for free food and libations. Unlike in Congress, both Democratic and Republicans would come together civilly. “It was a lot easier, if you had a drink or two, to be able to talk about campaigns and elections,” she says. “It really helped me get to know this world.”
Sometimes, however, booze can make a collegial atmosphere a little too relaxed, as Amy Schumer in “Trainwreck” so vividly depicted in one talked-about scene where an after-work bender with coworkers landed her in bed with the office intern. Anne S. says she has seen how the heavy drinking culture of the tech industry can cause some to push their limits. “The risk of overdoing it is a real one,” she says. “It’s instant loss of credibility.”
The Glass Half Empty
Beyond the social costs, alcohol can have health implications for women. Drinking can help you fall asleep faster, but even an extra glass a day can interfere with REM sleep, says Wayne Scott Andersen, a lifestyle intervention doctor and medical director of Take Shape For Life in Annapolis, Md. And a lousy night’s sleep means “daytime drowsiness, poor concentration and it can affect your memory,” he adds. Drinking can also impede exercise performance and slow recovery after workouts.
And there’s a reason women are called lightweights. Compared to men, it takes less alcohol for women to get drunk and to suffer alcohol-related illnesses because, on average, our bodies are smaller and have more fat and less of an enzyme that breaks down alcohol. “The impact on the brain, the liver, the heart, is greater in a woman who drinks the same amount as a man drinks,” says Deidra Roach, M.D. a medical project officer with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The risk for breast cancer also increases with each additional drink a woman has per day.
Regular drinking — and particularly binge drinking, defined as four or more drinks within two hours for women — is especially dangerous for women of childbearing age, because it can damage a fetus before a pregnancy is detected. Drinking may also affect fertility: Studies have shown that women who have three or more drinks per day are more likely to have reproductive hormone imbalances. It’s believed that alcohol may disrupt the delicate balance critical to maintaining human female reproductive hormonal cycles. Of course, the more alcohol consumed, the greater the incidence of adverse effects on fertility and birth outcomes.
Treating stress with booze can also be damaging. Studies have found that people with anxiety are more likely to self-medicate with substances like alcohol, but those who do so are at a greater risk of developing alcohol dependence. Experts say alcohol use bleeds into abuse when relationships, work or friendships suffer, or when the person craves alcohol or tries in vain to quit. “If they maintain their ability to moderate or control [their alcohol intake], they’re not an alcoholic,” says Chapman Sledge, M.D., chief medical officer at the Cumberland Heights addiction treatment facility in Nashville. “The alcoholic is one who has lost the ability to control.”
First-wave feminists struggled to eliminate social stigma for women who drank at all. The latest challenge is finding a comfortable place of moderation in today’s high-pressured drinking culture. Some women have devised strategies that allow them to drink socially without risking hangovers, embarrassment and many of alcohol’s worst health effects.
Anne S. says drinking is hard to avoid in the startup scene, where nearly every demo session seems to end with programmers pounding craft beers. To keep her own drinking in check without feeling left out, she’ll order a vodka tonic followed by several seltzers. Or she’ll get a dark stout that both takes a while to finish and boosts her status among her bro-ish interlocutors (“Like, ‘You ordered a Guinness, that’s cool'” she says.) Sometimes, she’ll just say she has to work out the next morning — an excuse that goes over well in today’s sweat-hard culture.
When Geyer wants to stick to just one or two drinks for the night, she orders Scotch or bourbon. The strong taste makes it hard to drink quickly — and, like Guinness, seems to elicit a thumbs-up. “It makes me look like a badass, and I can function the next day,” she says.
With summer Fridays and warmer temperatures coaxing colleagues from desktops to rooftops, finding a comfortable way to negotiate this tricky balance is key. What’s not always an option for most is staying home. “I want to be able to hang, and I want to be taken seriously,” Anne S. says. “I can drink to a point and still keep my wits about me, while also enjoying all the benefits that come from doing it with others.”