My friend has been defying the odds her whole professional career.
As a fellow single female professional, she and I can empathize with each other on the realities of working among a sea of male colleagues. Despite our similarities, I look up to her in many ways; she lives in Washington D.C. and works harder than most to hold her place there.
To me, my friend is the real-life Leslie Knope I merely strive to be. Therefore, you can imagine my surprise at seeing her post the following question on Facebook:
“Is it wrong to go to dinner with a married male colleague if you are discussing work? It is clearly professional, but I have to make a decision ASAP. Being a single woman in politics is hard. Quick responses appreciated.”
I paused and wondered if she was possibly joking. However, if the question was a surprise, that was nothing to my shock at the replies:
“Yes. Highly inappropriate.”
“You should always have someone else there! Bring a co-worker.”
“Don’t go! Reputations can be ruined by something like this!”
“Maybe you can invite his wife?”
It wasn’t just the number of discouraging comments that floored me; it was that they were all from women.
Sheryl Sandberg knows a thing or two about being a woman in the male-dominated workforce. Before joining Facebook as Chief Operating Officer, she was the Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google. In her bestselling book, “Lean In,” Sandberg talks candidly to women about what is really keeping them out of top business positions: themselves.
“In addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”
A major theme in Sandberg’s book is how women should feel empowered to “take a seat at the table” and allow themselves to be part of conversations in business, even if they are the only woman there.
That simple question my friend asked spoke volumes as to how far we have to go toward equality. Not just we as a society, but we as women! Seeing other women discourage my friend from taking her deserved place at the table was disheartening.
While women bemoan that male corporate America is holding them back, they’re discouraging and even shaming their colleagues from taking their place. The kind of relaxed business environment my friend was describing is exactly where the majority of ideas and projects get started.
Outside of the office people tend to be more open to new, creative approaches. They are also more willing to make suggestions, not feeling the pressure to have a perfectly laid out plan (much less a PowerPoint). By missing these casual outings, women significantly limit themselves. What’s worse, we miss them for an antiquated perception that any male/female interaction must be sexually charged.
“A senior man and a junior man at a bar is seen as mentoring,” says Sandberg. “A senior man and a junior woman at a bar can also be mentoring … but it looks like dating. This interpretation holds women back and creates a double bind. If women try to cultivate a close relationship with a male sponsor, they risk being the target of workplace gossip. If women try to get to the top without a sponsor’s help, their careers often stall.”
My corporate career began when a senior male reached out to mentor me. However, his willingness to give me a seat at the table would only have benefitted me if I'd taken it. And I did.
Through that first mentor who took me under his wing, I was able to meet others. My next greatly influential mentor was also male, but due to the lack of female presence around me, I didn't have my first female mentor for several years.
“A study published by the Center for Work-Life Policy and the Harvard Business Review reported that 64 percent of men at the level of vice president and above are hesitant to have a one-on-one meeting with a more junior woman. For their part, half of the junior women avoided close contact with the senior men,” continues Sandberg. “This evasiveness must end. Personal connections lead to assignments and promotions, so it needs to be OK for men and women to spend informal time together the same way men can.”
Upon seeing these women discourage my friend, I silently wondered if they would discourage a young, single man from going? I ventured to guess no.
If my friend went to a business dinner with another woman, that would also likely get general approval. “We cannot assume that interactions between men and women have a sexual component,” emphasizes Sandberg.
The reality of our current society cannot be ignored. As women breaking the mold, we will be taking risks. We do take the chance of workplace gossip, but we must take it in stride. In the same 100 years where we went from horse-drawn carriages to next-day delivery, women have only progressed from not being welcome in the office to it being socially acceptable to be there (though, we still feel the need to ask them who is raising their children).
“When the suffragettes marched in the streets, they envisioned a world where men and women would truly be equal. A century later, we are still squinting, trying to bring that vision into focus,” said Sandberg.
I contributed some of these thoughts to the Facebook thread and received several replies. One of the most poignant read, “Is putting yourself in those situations worth climbing the ladder? Situations that may not reflect who you are?”
The implications of these questions are not only dangerous but outrageous.
First, this is not merely about “climbing the ladder.” Plenty of women have no desire to hold high-level positions and should not feel pressured to do so. This is about women not just being seen as equally competent, but women knowing they are. As for those who want to be at the helm of a corporation, they are being held back due to both societal and personal beliefs that they do not belong in those roles.
The second implication is that a woman’s worth to a company, or indeed her worth at all, is linked to her virtue. Women are being told that the very appearance otherwise could have detrimental effects on not just her professional career, but personal future. After all, however will she land a beau with such a scandalous reputation?
This, as we all know, is an age-old double standard, and one woman ought to put more effort into eradicating. Otherwise, we are passing these stereotypes on to our daughters, as well as theirs.
On this, Sandberg says, “We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives — the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We [as women] lower our own expectations of what we can achieve.” She continues with the following story:
“The night before Leymah Gbowee won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to lead the women’s protests that toppled Liberia’s dictator, she was at a book party at my home,” says Sandberg. “We were celebrating the publication of her autobiography, “Mighty Be Our Powers,” but it was a somber night. A guest asked her how American women could help those who experienced the horrors and mass rapes of war in places like Liberia. Her response was four simple words, ‘More women in power.’… Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.”
The call of equality goes far beyond what the typical American woman may imagine. While we examine the social ramifications of going to a business dinner as a single woman, the majority of women worldwide are often without choice. Their voices are stifled, and they suffer in silence while we choose not to speak up for fear of being perceived as “ambitious” or “aggressive.”
“No, [going out to a business dinner] isn’t inappropriate,” read my favorite comment on the thread. “I had to go to dinner with married people all the time when I was single. I even had to travel with them. It wasn’t my fault that they were married and I wasn’t. It was business, and we remained professional and did our work.”
It’s not only time for women to stop being afraid of success, but time for women who don’t have political or business ambition to support those that do. We deserve a seat at the table and to have our voices heard, but we can only have those things by actively taking advantage of and creating the opportunities to do so.
If you want to go to the business dinner, go to the business dinner. For all of us.