Are We Networking, Or…?

23 Jan

Loyal readers will recall that my very first contribution to this blog was a riff on Lean In in which I predicted that none of us would ever actually read it. Well, I read it! And as a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about gender and the workplace.

I work in what you might call a male-dominated field, where it’s only recently that people are becoming sensitive to gender imbalances and making efforts to have more women at the table and things like that. And on a micro level, for my own part, Sheryl Sandberg has really inspired me to take control and to ask for the things I want – both at work and outside the office.

But I’ve also been thinking a lot about weird gender dynamics when it comes to my professional life. I recognize that in a lot of ways I am at a systematic disadvantage. It was just pointed out to me last week that someone very high up at my workplace has been observed to be routinely sexist when it comes to his female employees, and that this has been the case for many years.

However, on a smaller and more personal scale, I’ve found myself a little freaked out by the fact that being a woman seems to be able to help in a male-dominated workplace – in ways that, frankly, I find a little disturbing, because they have nothing to do with merit.

Here’s a list.

(A disclaimer before I begin: by NO MEANS AT ALL am I saying that this is a good thing. BY NO MEANS am I happy that it’s possible to put together this list. Not one bit. Am I benefitting from these weird gender dynamics? Probably. Is it more than offset by years, nay, decades of women having to work twice as hard to prove they can do the same work men can? Almost definitely. And that’s not even taking into account the yawning pay gap that, having only been in the workforce a few years, I haven’t really started to experience yet (it only starts to really affect women the higher they get in company hierarchies). 

No, I’m not arguing that some sort of reverse sexism exists that gives women an advantage, nor am I condoning the possibility that women could derive some advantage from these factors. Ultimately, they don’t, because these things all take place under the glass ceiling that still very much exists. This is  just a list of more trivial observations that have nothing to do with the larger social dynamics at work.)

My list after the jump:

1. Plain ol’ affirmative action. I mean, diversity hiring. It’s just a thing. Particularly in large corporate settings, hirers want to hire a number of women. So they do. I reserve judgment on this one, but it’s obviously the most clear-cut example of gender affecting your fate in the workplace.

2. “It’s nice to see so many bright young women in this field!” I get this one a lot. This is blurrier than #1 because it’s not that you were hired for being a woman or anything, but there is definitely positive reinforcement when a producer can book a female commentator on TV, when an intern coordinator can get an equal gender ratio, things like that.

Given the reason that this dynamic exists – you know, the near-systematic exclusion of women from the workplace and public life for most of history – I frankly can’t bring myself to have a problem with  these types of efforts to compensate for that. But I could see how you might.

3. Getting the meeting. I think that being a young, cute girl asking questions, or wanting career advice over coffee, or whatever does help. Not (always) in a creepy way. Sometimes it’s an extension of #2 – a guy who is sensitive to gender imbalances is pleasantly surprised that a young woman is interested in his career and he responds positively. More often, I suspect it’s a much more subtle male ego thing that I don’t really feel qualified to comment on. But I do think that sometimes I get an ‘in’ to talk to male mentor-types about things because I’m a woman – although on the other hand, I bet a lot of those same men might talk much more openly with a male ‘mentee’ and be more likely to treat him as an equal.

Note: This is by no means a good thing. I hope you can feel the potential for semi-creepy sexist condescension dripping off the page here. I’m not going to lie, I definitely get the feeling sometimes that I benefit from playing the “I’m just a naive inexperienced girl looking for guidance on how to make it, a totally non-threatening way!” card. And in the long run that is probably not a good thing.

4. I hate them blurred lines: This is probably where Meredith Fineman’s seminal “Are We Networking, Or Is This a Date? applies most directly. Note that this comes below “”getting the meeting” because it’s not really verifiable that your gender/looks/perfectly mascara’ed eyelashes got you the meeting and there are no attached expectations, but sometimes when you go to the meeting and it IS a date, things can get cagey.

Case in point that illustrates all of this: I recently mustered up the courage to ask someone to get together with me to talk about work stuff. I genuinely admire this person’s work and was encouraged by my boss to pursue the meeting. Oh, and I happen to have a little bit of a crush on this person. Is it relevant? I don’t know. Anyway, I asked to grab lunch or coffee and was warmly received with a suggestion to get together at lunch or after work. I totally read into it and assumed he was trying to push it off into post-work drinks territory and I started planning our wedding.

Then I Facebook stalked him and found out he has a girlfriend. The kid probably just can’t get out other than lunch hour. Duh.

(WAIT MID BLOG NEWSFLASH WOA WOA. LITERALLY AS I WAS WRITING THIS POST I got an email from a former classmate whom I met at a party a month ago I was genuinely interested in the grad work he was doing, and asked him if he wanted to chat about career stuff. As soon as I hit send, I realized that it totally could have come off as me asking him out. And now, he’s following up  of his own accord, wanting to hang out on a weekend.  Hmm. Life imitates blog.)

5. The hookup with professional implications. This one has been on my mind quite a bit. I’m not necessarily proud of this, but more than once, I’ve developed a bond with someone that started off because we had similar professional interests or connections, and that bond has become romantic. We hooked up once or twice and that was the end of it. Then, the relationship sort of melts into a more platonic professional colleague/mentor+mentee thing. We’ll occasionally email or Gchat about work related stuff, he’s there if I ask questions or need advice, etc. But am I only getting that attention and professional guidance from him because we’ve been naked in bed together?

It’s not like this is leading to my being appointed Supreme Court justice or something. It’s just occasional batting around of ideas and maybe an introduction somewhere down the line. But still, it’s a professional benefit. What’s tricky here is 1) I can’t pass the professional benefit off as being totally coincidental, because it was our mutual interests in our field that got us talking in the first place, and 2) I always feel like there’s a layer of “I hit it and quit it” guilt on the part of these guys, i.e. they’re only helping because they feel like they owe me something.

That might be true. It might well not be. But if it is, is that worse than guys helping you for the opposite reason – i.e. they haven’t already gotten into your pants, but they’re trying to?

I have no idea.

6. Sleeping your way to the top. Aaaandnd then there’s this. The most blatant blurring of the lines, they’re not even really blurred at all. What can I say? I haven’t done it, but it’s a thing.

I want to reiterate one more time because it is so important: this is not me arguing that women are at an advantage in the workplace because they are women. I think you’d have to be crazy to argue that. I think that in the long run, all 6 of the things on this list are problematic for women because they lead to weird dynamics where women and men are afraid of what something might “look like” or women lose confidence in their own abilities because they sense the weird gender dynamics at work and so forth.

But this is simply a list of things I’ve noticed, to get us thinking about the weird ways that gender can permeate everyday interactions at the office, at the Starbucks where you have meetings, and the like.

Ladies, have you had similar experiences? Share them in the comments!

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2 Responses to “Are We Networking, Or…?”

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