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February 18, 2011 9:05 AM   Subscribe

What happens that results in business women not eating lunch, or anything throughout the day?

Odd question, but more than a few businesswomen have hit me with that "I'm STARVING - I just didn't have a chance to eat at all today". Which baffles me, because I don't get that same thing from the businessmen.

Obviously this is not an exclusive thing and plenty of businessmen skip food all day while many businesswomen get their grub on. I know that. But this has been bothering me for a while because the people I hear this from are seriously ravenously hungry.

My guess has been that it is some combination of social pressures on women not to eat, combined with some kind of dynamic whereby if a woman is seen eating and not working, she is "marked down" for lack of a better term. I don't know the answer, which is why I'm asking this question. The reply to "what? You're starving? why didn't you eat?" is usually something like "I just did not have time". Not even for a banana. Not even for a piece of bread. Unless you're in a hostage stand off, few corporate positions seem to make this a valid excuse dozens of times.

It is not one or two instances. It is not a lack of access, in fact numerous times the people already had food with them. It is not oops I just forgot to eat, I'm not really hungry anyway. The person is typically so hungry that it approaches that panic feeling. It is not just "well it was a tough day that day and the person did not have time".

What is the dynamic here? Is it a corporate thing? Does eating involve reapplying makeup, therefore going to the restroom, therefore if the restrooms are disgusting you mentally decide not to eat? What? Asked at lunch, just to be cute.
posted by cashman to Food & Drink (41 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It's not a gender thing. My husband regularly forgets to eat lunch or just works through on purpose if he has a lot going on. And often he doesn't eat breakfast either and by the time he gets home, he's ravenous but still doesn't make an effort to eat lunch. I, on the other hand, would NEVER skip lunch, even if it means eating crackers out of a vending machine.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:09 AM on February 18, 2011

I have a friend, though not a business woman, who honestly just forgets to eat. She gets so absorbed in what she's doing that until she stops working her brain doesn't even process that she's hungry. Perhaps a similar thing is going on? I'm certainly not one of those people, so I can't be sure.
posted by raccoon409 at 9:09 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a tendency to not notice I'm hungry until I'm well past regular hungry and on to approaching that panic feeling. Lunch just seems like a lot of work at noon and so I skip it then and all of a sudden it's 4:00 and I haven't eaten in 8 hours and I stand up and suddenly OH GOD FOOD NOW.
posted by brainmouse at 9:10 AM on February 18, 2011 [7 favorites]

Sometimes if I'm really busy and absorbed in something I can't be bothered to make food - it's as if the hunger impulse just goes away. Until I see some food/think about food/start to eat something, then I'm absolutely ravenous.

I think that sometimes it can a bit of a power thing though.
posted by Encipher at 9:11 AM on February 18, 2011

Consider that there's a roughly equal number of men and women not eating lunch, but you're simply running into more women willing to TELL you that they didn't eat lunch.

It could just be that the women you know like to share these details, and the men you know (who may or may not be eating lunch more or less often) simply don't bother.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:13 AM on February 18, 2011 [10 favorites]

You don't even need to be in the corporate world to experience this. Sometimes you can be so focused on getting a project done that you simply don't think about food or have any sensation of hunger.
posted by Anima Mundi at 9:13 AM on February 18, 2011

My own personal experience - typically, I am on conference calls or attending in-person meetings all day long, with very little time to eat. I try to fit in meals during the day, but usually I only have a few minutes, only enough time for a quick snack. Sometimes I do get so busy that I don't realize that I've missed lunch, and will only realize this when I finally become ravenously hungry.

I am female, but this also happens to several of my coworkers that are male. I don't necessarily think this happens only to women; that is your confirmation bias speaking.
posted by bedhead at 9:14 AM on February 18, 2011

In a lot of offices there is an unarticulated pressure to maintain the appearance of being busy all of the time. Eating lunch breaks the illusion that we are not the most busy, most important people in the office.
posted by dobie at 9:16 AM on February 18, 2011 [8 favorites]

Consider that there's a roughly equal number of men and women not eating lunch, but you're simply running into more women willing to TELL you that they didn't eat lunch.

CPB has it.

Having been part of the hectic corporate world I also noticed a tendency for the women to tell you they haven't had lunch. From my observations, the men weren't having lunch either, but the women, for whatever reason, were more likely to share that with you.
posted by vacapinta at 9:16 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

My husband gets so busy at work that he forgets to eat lunch. It happens on an almost daily basis. Me, I don't think about eating or drinking until the middle of the afternoon. Why, I have no idea. It's how I work. It occurred to me yesterday as I was drinking a glass of water with dinner that it was the first thing I had to drink all day. I'm just never hungry or thirsty until night time and I have no hard and fast schedule so there's no "it's noon, time to eat lunch" trigger in my brain. I'm also a huge scatterbrain so I may head towards the kitchen to get food but chances are so excellent that I'll be distracted by a shiny thing before I get there.
posted by iconomy at 9:16 AM on February 18, 2011

Confirmation bias, I think. Also, people who work in GMT -5 (Eastern time) often get caught up in conference calls with people on the west coast at traditional lunchtime, and it's embarrassing to be heard eating lunch into your headset's mike.
posted by catlet at 9:18 AM on February 18, 2011

While I cannot be considered a business woman, I've had jobs that often required my working through lunch, one job even demanded it (and men had to do the same). It had nothing to do with social pressure not to eat, I just had to work.

Many women need to prove themselves in the work force by going above and beyond to rise above the negative stereotypes, and are willing the sacrifice lunch to do so. ... come to think of it, it's probably why I was expected the work through lunch so often.

(I seriously doubt the reapplying makeup idea you suggested is accurate.)
posted by Neekee at 9:18 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, plenty of men do this too ... my husband forgets lunch all the time because he gets wrapped up and by the time he gets home he's a cranky, cranky bear.

However, I will point out that women are expected to bear the bulk of home and family management AS WELL AS a full-time job. Married working women with children may be missing lunch because they have to run a change of clothes over to daycare after a three-blowout day, or skipping lunch to take the kids to the dentist, or coming in late and working through lunch because the dog had to go to the vet, or picking up everyone's drycleaning over the lunch hour.

Not ever two-career family is like this, but even with the best of intentions on everyone's part, the woman simply tends to end up bearing more of the burden of this home-and-family tasks that have to be done during the workday.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:21 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Interesting thing to notice. I'm guilty.

I'll posit a couple ideas. As a woman, I feel like I was definitely socialized to put the needs of others before my own. I try to combat this, but the reaction is still there. So if I had planned to sit down and eat my lunch at 12:30, but the lady from Publications calls and says "they just moved up my deadline and I really need you to come look at the proofs right now," I find it very, very hard to say "Not right now, I'm eating lunch." It just seems like the lunch need is always much less important than other demands.

Another possibility. Once I get going on a task, I get absorbed and hate to stop. Lunch can go right by because I feel I've got great momentum and am making progress. I forget about stopping for lunch, or feel irritated by the thought of stopping, until hunger reminds me I didn't eat. I'm not sure that's gender based. It's probably more ADD based. When I can muster intense attention I don't want to waste it.

Finally, looking at my own company, most of the executive staff have an admin. A lot of the men ask their admin to order and/or pick up lunch for them. The women really seem to do this less. It could be partly because they order out less - the women are more likely to be eating healthy-ish lunches, like yogurt and veggies they brought from home, because they are trying to avoid sandwiches and pizza for lunch. But it could also be because women know that one of the more demeaning tasks of being an admin can be doing anything that feels like 'waiting on' the boss, as a housemaid or wife might, and want to avoid asking the admins to take that on.

Just some ideas.
posted by Miko at 9:22 AM on February 18, 2011 [19 favorites]

Also, if I have wasted time ON MEFI or elsewhere earlier in the day, I feel guilty and like I have to "make up" time which may come out of lunch.
posted by Miko at 9:23 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to be an administrative assistant and sometimes my boss would have meetings scheduled from 7:00a-4:00p, back to back, with no time in between even to get from place to place. Because of the recession we were being really frugal so lunch was never provided, so in those situations he generally couldn't get lunch unless he brought a snack. So you can probably blame stupid work culture for some of it.
posted by ghharr at 9:27 AM on February 18, 2011

It can be a show-offy status thing too. I worked for a woman who was always "too busy" for lunch but she wasn't actually that busy.

She just loved to make a big show about being soooo busy and important, and restricting her calorie intake, and other Type A self-fluffing bullshit.

What I hated was that she expected me to not eat lunch too, and I can't live like that.
posted by Squeak Attack at 9:36 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

For some women, having housework to do during what would otherwise have been lunch breaks accounts for this.

Otherwise, it combines vanity (I'm so thin!) with type-A-ness (I'm so busy!) with self-neglect (a real women puts herself last!) while diminishing none of these.
posted by tel3path at 9:39 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

For me, I really get into my coding groove around 10:30 or 11, and on a good day, I'll keep my head down and not notice what time it is until like 3, and by then I'm starving, but the day's almost over, so it's not really worth it to eat a late lunch and screw up my dinner schedule. Then I get home around 5:30 or 6 and my fiance has to deal with me being hangry.
posted by specialagentwebb at 9:41 AM on February 18, 2011

Sorta related: I saw this article linked in one of the threads on the blue recently, about the phenomenon of interviews with actresses including a description of what they're eating. I think there's something in our culture that makes women more likely to talk about food and their appetites in general. I also think, with the pressure on women in particular to be thin and in control of their appetites, it can be a source of pride for some women to demonstrate that they don't really need food, or that they have more important things to do than pay attention to lunch. (FWIW, in high school a lot of girls I know talked about being too busy to eat breakfast or pack lunch, and being so hungry at the end of the day. It starts early, I guess.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:43 AM on February 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

Related observation: every woman I've ever dated has had multiple days (every day, almost) where they're so busy that they don't go to the bathroom.

As a man, I don't understand this at all. These were all achiever ladies, but not the kind to brag that they're so busy that they can't take time to pee. It just seemed like they would focus on a task to the exclusion of even simply bodily functions (to say nothing of eating lunch).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:54 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Male here. I rarely eat lunch at work as in less than once a month. It just isn't worth the trouble to me. Never mention the fact I don't eat lunch to anyone. I've had people who have noticed ask me about it. When I tell them my reasons they seem to think I'm incredibly lazy or some sort of space alien.
posted by Carbolic at 9:59 AM on February 18, 2011

I know that many days, I use my lunch break to race around and do errands related to my home life. Maybe that's what some of these women are doing. (I do eat at my desk as I work, though. I can't not eat or I get a headache and lose my mental focus.)
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 10:08 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you don't bring lunch with you, getting lunch requires leaving the office. Which takes a LOT more time, especially if you're not downtown and getting food means getting in the car.

Sometimes I'll work through "normal" lunch time to hit a deadline (I work in an extremely tight deadline environment), and will look up at, say, 4pm. That's too late to have lunch and then be able to eat dinner later with friends/family, so I'll maybe get a vending machine snack.

If I bring my lunch, even if I'm on a tight deadline I'll be able to stop for a few minutes, warm up my lunch, get a soda, and eat.
posted by clone boulevard at 10:16 AM on February 18, 2011

In my experience, for businessmen, going our to lunch is a required social ritual. For businesswomen, it's time away from their desk, which for many is unexpendable.
posted by litnerd at 10:17 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

This made me think, off the top of my head, of the male editor, male Web developer, and female designer who sit near me (I'm female). They all have had pretty erratic eating habits at work—they get wrapped up in project after project that (they think) only they can finish, question after question that (they think) only they can answer, and it all has to be done now, and before long it's 2 or 3 p.m. and they haven't eaten lunch. Sometimes the Web developer still hasn't eaten by the time he goes home at 5 p.m. It really depends on the person and on the instance as to what the underlying reasons are; sometimes it's a "Look at me not eating, I'm so busy" thing, sometimes it's a "God, there are too many demands on my time and I'm doing the job of four people, food really isn't at the top of my list right now" thing, sometimes it's an "I need to please everyone at once" thing, and sometimes, I think, it's one of those "I'm just out of college and my metabolism is still high enough that I don't even feel it" sort of things...

If I'm really preoccupied by the volume of work I have to get done and break my usual morning routine to get a jump on it, I very occasionally end up forgetting to eat breakfast, since chomping a breakfast bar and vitamin and cracking open the caffeine water is normally the first thing I do when I get into the office. But in general, I don't—I can't—forget to eat, or I know I'll get angry or depressed at the drop of a hat and/or screw up crucial edits and/or worse.

In college, I found myself really annoyed by creatures of habit—nearly everyone, it seemed—who insisted on eating lunch at 12 p.m. and dinner at 5 p.m. regularly. It seemed so predictable, so conformist. I'd make a point of eating at odd times of day. But now, when I sit in one spot all day during the workweek, I'm super attuned to my body's hunger/low blood-sugar signals. I have to eat at 8:30 a.m. and 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. like clockwork, or I immediately feel it—and I have female coworkers I've discussed this with who feel exactly the same way. On the weekends, though, I barely eat and barely notice it, 'cept when I sleep in long enough to start to go into caffeine withdrawal. [[shrugs]]

I think a lot of it is state of mind. Some people work themselves into a siege mentality during the week and feel like they're chained to their desks or need to maintain the appearance of being so, even if that's not at all the case. Some people are so busy they're not even thinking about appearances. Some people don't have enough work to do and have time to play mind games about food. There are many reasons why people obsess (or pretend not to obsess) about food at work.
posted by limeonaire at 10:17 AM on February 18, 2011

Related observation: every woman I've ever dated has had multiple days (every day, almost) where they're so busy that they don't go to the bathroom.

Yes! This was actually a thing with my predecessor in this job; he'd always mention having been so busy that he didn't even have time to get up and take a piss. And I always thought, really? I mean, the job is an important one, but...dude, you can make yourself sick that way. I've since found myself in that position on occasion, where I really don't have time to get up to go to the bathroom for a few hours... but definitely not with the frequency that he seemed to.
posted by limeonaire at 10:20 AM on February 18, 2011

I don't eat lunch until my stomach starts to hurt. Part of it is that I want to eat when I'm actually hungry, versus eating at a set time, so I don't become an emotional eater.
posted by anniecat at 10:27 AM on February 18, 2011

I am exactly the same as several people who you've marked as best answer -- I'll put off eating because I'm in the groove or too busy or don't notice I'm hungry until it's far too late and I'm ravenous and grumpy. Happens pretty frequently.

I'm a guy.

I think you are wrong to assume this is gender related, except possibly for the 'women are more likely to talk about it than men are' theory (which at least sounds plausible, unlike whatever the heck you were getting at with the makeup / bathroom thing.)
posted by ook at 10:28 AM on February 18, 2011

I'm putting in votes for Neekee and Miko's answers. Being female can occasionally mean feeling pressure to constantly prove ourselves as it's often assumed that we value other things just as much if not more than we value work, which is a remnant of our value being traditionally placed outside of the office and in more social or homemaking spheres instead. When I'm at work in an office, I often feel as though I need to show that I'm all business, which can mean skipping lunch or sometimes talking about skipping lunch. When I'm in heavily male work environments, I can feel as though I have to perform the role of "busy and industrious" to show that I'm just as valuable a worker as a man, especially as my coworkers might assume that my mind is also on dinner, kids, a husband, reality TV, reapplying make-up (WTF), how thinking about how the bathroom is so gross that poor-widdle-delicate-flower me can't even muster up an appetite (WTF squared).

As Miko pointed out, we're socialized to put others' needs before ours--but we're always socialized to put others' opinions of us before our own, which can drown out our actual needs when we want to make and keep a good impression in order to keep our jobs. Is this true of every heavily male environment? No, just some I've encountered.
posted by pineappleheart at 10:57 AM on February 18, 2011 [6 favorites]

Urgh! The major point of that little rantette was not only why I didn't eat, but why I didn't talk about not eating.

I did raise the issue of workload in a meeting where I said, very humourlessly, that if I accepted all the tasks being assigned to me I would have to give up on eating and sleeping altogether. Of course my boss humorously joked that eating and sleeping were valueless activities anyway - and since she frequently boasted of doing neither of these things, and believably, since she was an alcoholic - she was happy to dismiss my concerns with a handwave.

After I had an accident as a direct result of exhaustion, I was under the impression that my concerns would after all be taken seriously. I got presented with a large bottle of whisky in front of the whole team in ostensible gratitude for my self-sacrifice (thanks, yay, I don't drink! great). Then in private, I got written up for poor time management.

So I might as well F3@#!!!ING eat from now on, I reckon.
posted by tel3path at 11:17 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

...um, and the final way in which I haven't answered the question is "why women and not men?" My cow-orker was a man, and he was from the very beginning a Man Who Gets His Needs Met, because that's what Real Men do. I don't know how much he was eating and sleeping, but he didn't wait to burn out. As soon as his part of the project was over, he quit. Because he wasn't going to get his Real Manly Needs met in that environment.

Our mutual cow-orker, Wuss Man, who had been there for four years growing increasingly resentful, followed Real Man's example and also left. Milquetoast no more!

I would've left too, but I got assigned all of Real Man and Wuss Man's workload and I didn't have time to look for another job.
posted by tel3path at 11:36 AM on February 18, 2011

I think it's fair (given the testimony here) to say that men and women both skip lunch at equal rates. However, with my 20 years of corporate office experience, I don't think I've ever heard a man say "I'm so busy I skipped lunch." But I have often heard women say it.

After pondering this question and racking my memories, I believe the male equivalent is "I'm so busy I was here until [ridiculously late hour] last night."

Here's my working theory:

There is a lot of pressure in an office to prove how busy you are, using a benchmark like "didn't eat lunch" or "stayed very late." (Note that these benchmarks are both easy to hit, and easy to explain.)

Women are more likely to skip lunch and go home on time because women are disproportionately tasked with familial chores (the so-called "Second Shift"). Women also run a lot more errands on their way home, so a woman who leaves work at 5 may still not be getting home until 7 or 8.

Men on the other hand are more willing and able to stay late. Because (to make a gross generalization) their wives are at home taking care of stuff.
posted by ErikaB at 11:51 AM on February 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think Cool Papa Bell has a good point. Women talk about food openly more than men do. Especially the sort of body-shaming What You Ate or Did You Eat conversations. There's a sense within some groups of women that the group's food intake is to be heavily policed.

For instance in the same hypothetical office you're thinking of, I can easily imagine taking part in conversations like "I was so bad. I had two donuts from the break room this morning," or "I'm definitely going to eat salad for lunch every day this week."

Thus, there might be more reason for a woman to brag about not eating.
posted by Sara C. at 12:46 PM on February 18, 2011

I often feel too lazy to eat. I would rather just sit at my desk and go about my job rather than take the time to eat. I try to bring snacks. I find myself getting bored if I ever take a lunch. Plus, I can leave earlier if I skip lunch.

I'm also lazy about using the bathroom. I like to work while wearing headphones, listening to music. The effort of taking off the headphones and locking up my phone and purse in a cabinet seems like more trouble than it is worth.

I know this is a bad habit. I usually wait to use the bathroom or eat until I feel like I'm going to keel over.

(I'm female by the way.)
posted by parakeetdog at 12:50 PM on February 18, 2011

I know some male lawyers who fairly often are, at the end of the day, starving because they haven't had anything to eat because they didn't have time. Assuming that corporate business people are somewhat similar to law firm attorneys in terms of stressors and stuff to do, it's quite possible that it's not a gender thing at all, and it's just that you're only hearing about it from women.
posted by J. Wilson at 3:25 PM on February 18, 2011

Another thing that might be going on is that women feel the need to excuse their late-afternoon/early-evening hunger. "OMG I didn't eat lunch!" makes it more acceptable to have a sandwich at 4 or than, "Weird, I ate at noon and I'm already hungry again!" Also, it makes it seem more acceptable to have a larger dinner.

In other words, a lot of those women are probably lying.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:42 PM on February 18, 2011

Depends on the work environment. Mine does NOT accomodate lunch breaks. Even during valentine season-but we were allowed to eat WHILE we worked. Many times we are too busy to stop, or we do have a free minute to bite into that sandwich-but then the phone rings and we have to figure out how to answer it without choking.

I honestly feel like workplaces need to be required to have lunch breaks.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:17 PM on February 18, 2011

I don't think I've ever heard a man say "I'm so busy I skipped lunch."

Well, just a data point, but my boss has said that and he's male - at least twice, I've gone to a 2:00 regular meeting with him where he's devouring his sandwich and apologizing that he didn't get to eat earlier because of some competing demand, and so he has to eat in our meeting. I guess the deal is you don't eat in meetings with higher status people but you can eat in your meetings with people on the tiers downward from you.

I honestly feel like workplaces need to be required to have lunch breaks.

In most states, they definitely are required to - I just checked and was kind of shocked to find that yours does not, for anyone over 16. Wow.
posted by Miko at 6:39 PM on February 18, 2011

My coworker is a legal assistant and on long court days, she and the boss would get to court at say, 9am, and not get out until after 3. This is why I had to stop going to court with my boss because I get hypoglycemic.

Regarding Admiral Haddock's post, there were days when I was in my nursing school clinicals where I would not have time to pee for 8 hours or more.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:20 AM on February 19, 2011

One of my former male bosses was one of those "not even time to use the bathroom" guys, until he got really bad kidney stones. Then he became an "office full of bottled water" guy.

In my office senior-level folks will often have trouble finding time to eat lunch due to back-to-back-to-back meetings, but this seems to apply equally to men and women (god knows I've been at many a meeting with senior people eating salads at 3pm). Personally, I really hate eating in front of people that aren't eating so this will occasionally screw up my eating schedules (or cause me to eat nothing but girl scout cookies and a protein shake for lunch).
posted by ch1x0r at 10:04 AM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

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