Do Women Feel More Pressure to Hug Coworkers?

Cameron Mason*, a marketing coordinator, was headed to a summer holiday party to meet her coworkers when she started to feel uneasy. Not because of how she looked or the possibility of having nothing to talk about, but because she was scared her coworkers would straight-away greet her with a hug, a type of touch she’d rather not embrace.

Mason is one of the few women employees at her marketing firm, where she primarily works remotely except for the occasional client meetings and coworker meetups throughout the year. Not wanting to appear unapproachable or unfriendly, Mason hugged all her coworkers that night. In hindsight, she felt frustrated with herself for not maintaining her boundaries out of the fear of seeming unapproachable or unfriendly.

Isabella Rivera*, a PR executive, has also felt pressure to hug colleagues. “I have felt pressure to hug my coworkers when everyone in the office is already hugging them before me or if it’s my first time meeting someone in person,” she tells PS. “As someone who is learning to be OK with touch, I notice it often.” Rivera has ultimately found herself going for a handshake with her male colleagues and hugging her women colleagues as it feels a little easier.

Like many women in the workplace, Mason and Rivera have felt a pressure to hug colleagues likely due to societal expectations ingrained from their upbringing as women. “There are deeply ingrained gender norms where men are expected to greet other men with a handshake, yet women are perceived as ‘cold’ and unapproachable if they choose to do the same,” says licensed psychotherapist Topsie VandenBosch, LMSW. “Physical affection between men has historically been seen as ‘feminine’ and inappropriate, but women are expected to embody both of those characteristics.”

In other words, VandenBosch adds, women are expected to be approachable and may even feel implicit pressures to be personable so they aren’t excluded from opportunities in the workplace.

Experts Featured in This Article

Topsie VandenBosch, LMSW, is a licensed psychotherapist, mindset coach, and emotional intelligence and psychological safety consultant specializing in workplace culture.

Stephanie Alston is an HR professional, executive recruiter, and president of BGG Enterprises.

It’s no secret gender also impacts upward mobility in the workplace: men are more likely to get promotions, speak up in meetings, and be in C-suite positions. In fact, a McKinsey & Company 2023 Women in the Workplace report showed women represent roughly one in four C-suite leaders, and women of color, just one in 16.

Physical interactions are just one of the many ways gender influences the workplace. Even for women who don’t feel pressure to hug a coworker or a superior, it’s likely — even on a subconscious level — that they feel pressure to conform to societal expectations on being affectionate or approachable.

“Expectations and norms around physical affection and friendliness make women feel they are frequently expected to be friendly,” says BGG Enterprises president Stephanie Alston. “This could by default be translated into more physical forms of greeting, such as hugging.” Alston notes it’s crucial for workplaces to foster an inclusive environment where all employees feel comfortable and respected, regardless of gender.

Mason often feels the need to conform in her job. “It’s not a huge deal, but at the same time, I’m more of a wave person because touch in the workplace makes me uncomfortable. If everyone else is hugging one another, it is hard to stick to my boundaries without making things awkward,” she explains.

There aren’t any uniform guidelines for workplace greetings. Although there are clear expectations on what’s wholly unacceptable, within the realm of “normal” politeness and niceties, each person has their own preferred way of greeting and interacting, making it challenging to determine the right approach. So, what rules should we be following, exactly?

It’s scientifically proven that hugs are good for humans and can even reduce the harmful effects of stress or relieve blood pressure. If you feel comfortable hugging a colleague and it’s reciprocated, then by all means. What’s most important for everyone in a work environment is the prioritization of boundaries and personal needs without confusing them with being off-putting or rude.

Alston recommends following etiquette that prioritizes respect and personal boundaries. “A simple handshake, wave, or hello is generally appropriate for most professional settings,” she says. “For closer workplace relationships, like long-term colleagues or team members, a more informal greeting such as a friendly hug (if both parties are comfortable) might be acceptable.”

Your company might already have established policies regarding physical contact in the workplace, especially in light of increased awareness around consent, amplified by movements like #MeToo, which highlighted the importance of gender-based power dynamics in professional settings. VandenBosch explains that disregarding a coworker’s consent can lead to an environment lacking psychological, emotional, and physical safety. This has led many companies to establish more barriers, rules, and regulations around interpersonal interactions, ensuring everyone feels secure and respected in the workplace.

Women in the workforce like Mason and Rivera, meanwhile, are navigating these evolving norms and personal boundaries, highlighting the ongoing learning process within office cultures. “I don’t necessarily want a hug I also kind of feel like maybe a handshake is too stern,” Mason says, “but that’s literally just my brain trying to make sure everyone around me but myself is comfortable first.” VandenBosch says neither a hug nor a handshake is good or bad; it just depends on how resonant and authentic they feel for you.

“The office culture is something I’m still learning, along with my own boundaries.”

Rivera, who feels she can mostly handle setting boundaries with her coworkers as needed, is also relatively new to the in-person corporate world. She’s still learning what’s acceptable. “As someone who graduated undergrad during the pandemic, landed their first office job during quarantine, and works mostly remotely, office manners and norms are very foreign to me,” she says. “The office culture is something I’m still learning, along with my own boundaries, as colleague relationships look different for everyone.”

No one needs to hug a colleague if they do not want to. Although a lot easier said than done, it can, unfortunately, be hard to manage those dynamics for women, as not agreeing to a hug could come with inconspicuous repercussions — especially from male coworkers.

If you are firm in your no-hugging boundary, Alston recommends offering your hand for a handshake, accompanied by a smile and a friendly comment such as, “I’m more of a handshake person.”

If you’re unsure of your boundaries, VandenBosch recommends staying true to your instincts: “If discomfort, or even disgust, is felt, this is an important sign. It means that this boundary regarding your personal space is not one you want to be crossed. Remind yourself that boundaries are not being ‘difficult’ or ‘mean’ — they’re a sign of her self-respect.”

Over time, Rivera has gotten comfortable enough to free herself of the pressure. “If someone comes in for a hug, I feel comfortable enough to offer a fist bump or do what I call a ‘double-handed handshake’ where we shake hands, but my other hand comes to hold their hand as well.”

Mason, however, has a little more work to do to find the courage to set those boundaries. “I know I’ll get to a place where I put my foot down in my boundaries,” she says. “I am allowed to not want a hug. It’s so easy for my coworkers to jump in and hug me, and I’m confident I’ll get to a place where it’s easy for me to decline.”

*Names have been changed.

Jillian Angelini (she/her) is a sexual wellness and lifestyle journalist with words in PS, Bustle, Betches, MindBodyGreen, and more. She runs the queer advice column “The B Spot” on and specifically enjoys writing about sex, relationships, and anything involving the queer experience.

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