Turning an informational interview into a date (and then back again...)
July 10, 2018 4:52 PM   Subscribe

I am a 30's woman in STEM and am trying to break into a related sub-field from the one I am in. I recently connected with a man who has a similar background to me and is in the field I am interested in. We discussed meeting up to discuss our backgrounds and the industry in our area. However, from the tone and wording in his subsequent email, he considers this a date. This is a problem for me: I am happily married and I don't want to ruin a networking opportunity.

We met an invite-only meet up where a mutual friend introduced us. I was wearing my wedding ring, although it is non-traditional with no diamond so possibly wouldn't be seen as such. I also did not mention my spouse, but it was an industry-specific event and I didn't think it would be appropriate or professional to bring up my personal life. His email was clearly romantic and I don't know how to politely extricate myself from this situation. He runs an industry-specific group that I would like to be part of, so it is important that I do not alienate him when turning him down.

In short, how can I respond such that:
1. I don't ruin this networking opportunity
2. It doesn't make my relationship with a mutual friend awkward
3. He understands I am not, and never will be, interested in dating
4. But I do want to talk about getting into the field

I don't want a negative reputation in this male-dominated field, and I have completely blanked on how to respond.
posted by Behemoth, in no. 302-bis, with the Browning to Human Relations (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Treat it like a totally innocuous mistake that anyone might make (even though it isn't really). Just say something like "I'm actually married and not interested in dating. I'm still interested in meeting up to discuss our backgrounds and the industry in our area, if you are. If not, no hard feelings."
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:00 PM on July 10, 2018 [14 favorites]

My instinct is that it's in your best interest to separate your networking goal from your goal of reframing your relationship with this person. If you're confident he's currently seeing you as a potential romantic interest, it might be hard to negate that and still proceed without a few more intervening neutral/casual encounters. The short term game now seems more about maintaining a good relationship in the field with minimum awkwardness.

With that said, to try and keep the meeting, could you have the mutual friend tip him off, so it comes from them and not from you and *then* write a very work-focused response? Or could you find a way to interact with him in another group setting where you can refer to being married? (All this, of course, assumes that your meeting is some time away.)
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 5:12 PM on July 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

Oh man. As a woman with 20+ years working in a male dominated field, I have to say, this was very likely not an innocuous mistake, and it is very likely that no matter what you do, even if it was to give him what he wants, you would probably not get a networking opportunity out of him, because he doesn't see you as a colleague.

In fact, think about it, he has very clearly crossed a line with you, and you're worried about alienating him! In this era of #metoo, no less! He should know better.

My experience says that the only way past these gatekeeping guys is around them, not through them. This industry specific group - just because he runs it - is he the only way in? Did every one else in the group make their way in via him? In that case - my guess is there are other, more egalitarian industry specific groups you could try to get into.

If this is the premiere group for what you're trying to do, I would find another way in, if at all possible (my experience tells me it's always possible).

I would not meet up with this person. If his response to you suggests meeting up at a place and time, I would say, friendly and as non-judgementally as possible, that you could not make that time because you have plans with your husband - and not suggest another time. Let him take the hint.

If he likes you less or doesn't want to help you because of that, he's a reeeeeal jerk.

If he realizes his mistake and apologizes and tries to set up a real deal networking meeting with you, I would be skeptical to say the least. You might go for coffee and see how it goes, and I personally would bring a friend, but really, if he skeeves you out at all in any of his responses, or just doesn't reply (the most likely response in my opinion), you can feel free to just not reply. You didn't burn any bridges by simply being honest about your status and desires.

Then set about making other connections. You can do it! And if you run into him in the future, be generally (not overly) friendly and polite but always keep your distance.
posted by pazazygeek at 5:22 PM on July 10, 2018 [90 favorites]

Can I just say, to hell with him/his mistake?! He has put you in a very difficult position. This is WHY women don't get into STEM fields.

The gall of turning a professional networking connection into a potential date????! If I were in your position, first I would get fucking angry! He has put you in a position where YOU have to do all the *ahem* emotional labor of not fucking up your relationship with him, and your relationships with this mutual friend. THEN I would do whatever was easiest for me.

Don't wanna go thru the annoying risk of eggshell-stepping-around "Oh I'm sorry, just to clarify, I'm not interested in dating, but just in being a person in the world with a life and professional interests." Then don't email him back!

If mutual friend asks, say it just wasn't a match in communication styles and that you're pursuing other networking opportunities.

And show up to his industry-specific group if you want to, but to hell with worrying about maintaining a perfect relationship with him for you to be able to show up.

But if I were you, I would pursue other networking opportunities — ones that bring you joy and don't make you get small, tender, careful.

Find other orgs that focus on diversity in STEM; lift other women up; partner with POC in STEM; don't rely on the patriarchy to usher you in the door (easier said than done I KNOW, but maybe with this example, this can be your focus)
posted by Uncle Glendinning at 5:23 PM on July 10, 2018 [41 favorites]

I have been in the same shoes as you in software. I’m in my early 30s now. Unfortunately, in my experience, anyone who expresses obvious interest in you (as a woman) will more often than not take your willingness to still meet with them as a sign that you’re not seriously off the market/continue to flirt with you and make comments or even escalate to touching or tit-for-tat behavior. For me this comes primarily from older men, but my own generation isn’t exempt.

With some people, nicely setting boundaries is seen as an act of playfulness and wanting to be pursued or offering a challenge. I have thoroughly learned my lessons and now just ignore or avoid people who come on to me in a professional setting (including email). If someone wanted to honestly pursue you, and you’re wearing a ring of any kind on your wedding finger, any decent person would ask before advancing - I would say 9 times out of 10. You’re offering a lot of credit where it might not be due.

I once told my pre-husband that it seemed like I needed to appear “available” if I wanted to network successfully and it seriously poisoned the well and put a wedge between us for a while. I eventually realized how fucked up that dynamic was, that I didn’t want to be involved in that kind of culture (the video game industry), and now refuse to put up with any of it/left the industry.

If you need a reality check, try asking your spouse how they feel about it and what an appropriate response would be.
posted by Snacks at 5:31 PM on July 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

Chiming in with pazazygeek that this is not your mistake, it is his attempt to cross a boundary. He is not useful to you after all. Cut your losses.
posted by Peach at 5:36 PM on July 10, 2018 [13 favorites]

The only people he can connect you to in the industry are people who either (1) don't know him well enough to know this is how he operates, or (2) are only minimally in touch with him because they don't endorse this behavior and yet they fear his clout if they vocally disapprove, or (3) know he treats women in industry like this and they're still friendly with him because they're OK with it. You can meet the first and second types some other way, and you're better off not knowing the third type.

The best thing you can do is not respond to the email. Oops, it must have gone to spam.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 5:46 PM on July 10, 2018 [14 favorites]

I think you should tell your friend about this, maybe framing it as "asking for advice" (but with no intention of taking your friend's advice).

This allows you to decline the meeting, preserve your relationship with your friend and also let your friend know their professional contact is a scumbag.

I would not worry too too much about gossip or being blacklisted. I think it's also common to overestimate the immediate importance of a professional connection -- networking is a serendipitous process.

While I do not think women should self-segregate, I would try to contact tech organizations aimed at women. One STEM example is Women Who Code, which operates nationally.

I do think this is a deplorable situation. Men need to do better and this is a good reminder to myself to support women in tech where I live.
posted by JamesBay at 6:01 PM on July 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

If you insist on meeting him, cite scheduling conflicts and make yourself available only for breakfast meetings. Not lunch, not coffee, definitely not dinner, only agree to meet him at breakfast.
If he insists on any other time, cite the nature of your conflicts: Spouse, dinner, prior engagements, work meetings. etc. But work the spouse in there if at all possible.
If he cannot accommodate your schedule, well shucks, I guess you'll see his slime ball ass around other networking meetups in the future.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:02 PM on July 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Don't waste your time with this person. His behavior is predatory and there is no networking opportunity to ruin. You will make other actual networking opportunities.
posted by grouse at 6:45 PM on July 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

Show up with your husband!
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:54 PM on July 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

I like showbiz_liz's response except that I would probably omit the section of "if not, no hard feelings" because honestly, I would have hard feelings.
posted by sm1tten at 7:14 PM on July 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

I just want to validate this is not an opportunity and there is nothing to ruin.
posted by jbenben at 7:34 PM on July 10, 2018 [14 favorites]

This guy has already ruined the opportunity. As others have said, he doesn’t view you as a colleague. If you’ve ever met the man in person and you wear a wedding band, he knows your marital status.

This type of creepy behavior falls into the ‘plausible deniability’ category. He knows what he’s doing but he can say he didn’t realize it wasn’t a date or he didn’t realize you were married or he didn’t realize you’re so uptight, or he didn’t realize you’d read so much into an innocent friendly message, clearly the only women who assume every random business contact is trying to pick them up are themselves on the prowl, so really now you’re inviting an affair and he’ll winder aloud or internally what a shame it would be if someone mentioned to your husband that he’s married to a nascent cheater.

My advice is that you are now so very busy. I strongly advise against breakfast with this jackwad because he would totally be shocked that there was no mid pancake canoodling.

Seriously, this kind of message is the pits because if you call him out on it, you’re going to get painted as desperate and other insulting gendered words, but if you brush his advance under the rug he’ll be able to point to it later when you turn down a more direct or forceful advance from him.

Ugh. I’m so mad for you. Definitely let your mutual acquaintance know about the behavior. Mostly because it will inform you whether to remain in contact with the mutual connection. This person should have the brains to act horrified and to also support however YOU want to handie the failed networker.
posted by bilabial at 8:24 PM on July 10, 2018 [23 favorites]

So much good advice already - I do want to stress that whether or not you are married, or whether he noticed you were married or thought you were single - does not matter at all. Even if you were single, trying to immediately turn a professional connection into a romantic one is completely inappropriate.
posted by muddgirl at 8:42 PM on July 10, 2018 [56 favorites]

A guy who's taken your details from a professional event to email you a personal proposition is probably not going to respond well to a polite refocus on the way you two originally met, and the shared goals you expressed in your first meeting. But ok, call it out obliquely -

Eg Thank you for reaching out to me after our meeting at X event, [insert basic remarks about your conversation and what you want to learn in relation to his sub group expertise] and the offer to discuss this area with you further. We can schedule a meeting at my office for X date at 10am if that works for you?

You offer to meet at a well staffed office, in a meeting room, with a clear set of things to talk about. Brisk, professional, efficient. Don't engage in the romantic premise at all.

If he responds more assiduously in the dating or romantic sense then you can say that you are not available for dates or romance. It's none of his business if you are happily or otherwise married, single or love cats, rum or stringed instruments in this context. How he responds will solidify a position on what is actually available in terms of mentoring.
posted by honey-barbara at 8:54 PM on July 10, 2018 [8 favorites]

"I was wearing my wedding ring, although it is non-traditional with no diamond so possibly wouldn't be seen as such. I also did not mention my spouse, but it was an industry-specific event and I didn't think it would be appropriate or professional to bring up my personal life."

I don't buy for an instant that he didn't notice your wedding ring, or that he saw a ring on your ring-finger and concluded that it definitely wasn't a wedding ring after all and he shouldn't even bother to check with your mutual friend to find out whether you were single or not before sending you romantic emails and trying to turn your networking meeting into a date.

Pretty sure he knows you're not single and he doesn't care.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 9:38 PM on July 10, 2018 [9 favorites]

Nthing that this is not actually a networking opportunity so there is nothing to ruin, that not responding to the email and playing dumb about never having received it, if necessary, is a good idea, and that you should be polite but distant when you encounter him at future events. I'm sorry that this happened to you.
posted by Kwine at 10:34 PM on July 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Having read the other responses, if you were to try to make this networking thing happen, what if you tried the plausible deniability thing back? Choose (or agree to) meeting times and places that are not romantic, prevent him from paying your share, wear clothes that cover up (oh, all the things women are told to do to avoid sexual assault), and be confused, have a blank face, deliberately misinterpret any flirting, or ask "what do you mean?"

I don't think it'll work, though. It's a perfect scenario for a niceguy TM to get angry at you for "leading him on", "taking advantage of his good nature", "trying underhanded behaviour to get a business opportunity that you are too female to deserve".

I'm frustrated with and for you - this is both so typical, and invisible to male colleagues.
posted by b33j at 11:47 PM on July 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Turn up anyway. Ask about business opportunities. Milk him for information and contacts for all it’s worth. Smile at him. Be polite. Then thank him and when he puts you on the spot and asks about whatever date like thing he imagined this to be, act confused and tell him you’ve got to go, you have to meet your husband. He wants to be predatory and take advantage!? Two can do that. Use him for all he’s worth, after all, that’s what he planned to do to you.
posted by Jubey at 2:57 AM on July 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

You are asking how to do a bunch of things that you have no control over. Also, there is nothing to feel awkward about when it comes to your mutual friend. This guy has already ruined the networking opportunity, as others have pointed out. If you want to meet up with the guy, meet up with him. But be direct. “I’m really surprised that you asked me for a date since I’m wearing a wedding ring and I am married. Please don’t do that again.” And don’t be quiet and let him off the hook when he starts to pretend that he had misunderstood or some kind of bullshit like that. Then ask him all of the questions, all of the questions because you will most likely never ever see him again. Please note that assholes do not like being called out. It is entirely possible this guy will shit talk about you to others. So it is possible the best thing for you is to walk away from this non-opportunity as others have suggested, and also to let your mutual friend know what happened. Don’t just tell your mutual friend; forward the fucking email. Sometimes people do not want to believe certain things about people they like. Finally, this guy is not a murderer or someone who kicks dogs necessarily. That does not mean you want to do the emotional labor of attempting to make him feel OK about his stupid move. You don’t have to hate on him, but it is fine to be clear that he was being unprofessional however nicely you want to frame that. If you have not yet read the emotional labor thread, please do. I am on my phone so I can’t find it for you now but PM me if you would like a link. Go around this guy if you possibly can, as recommended above. You are just a trophy to him. You are not a peer. You never will be. Patriarchy sucks.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:22 AM on July 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

Send him a link to this thread, with no comment. Of course it might just further aggrandize his ego to see that so many people have put so much energy into thinking about him and his bullshit.
posted by mareli at 5:03 AM on July 11, 2018

Just ask for a one-week (or shorter) postponement of your meeting, and mention your husband in some minor way in the email, like a schedule conflict involving a family activity.

I was wearing my wedding ring, although it is non-traditional with no diamond
This stuck out of your question. Apologies if I'm massively misunderstanding. I believe that men automatically look for a simple gold band on the left ring finger when meeting a woman, and recognize that as a wedding ring. So he knows.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:14 AM on July 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

Don't waste your time trying to network with this guy if all he wants is sex from you. Seriously do not bother. He won't introduce you to contacts, he's not going to do anything but proposition you for sex over and over again.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:16 AM on July 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

You could reply, saying whatever time/place he suggested doesn't work for you (don't explain why), and suggest an alternate date/time/location along the lines of what honey-barbara suggested.. your office, meeting room, or on-site coffee kiosk during business hours. You stay professional, he gets an opportunity to save face (not that he necessarily deserves it or would even take it).
I agree that none of this should be on you or your responsibility, but I also get that it's hard in STEM to meet the right people. It really sucks to be in this position, and he's terrible for putting you there.

If I had the personal fortitude to pull off Jubey's idea, I would totally do that.
posted by ApathyGirl at 1:15 PM on July 11, 2018

I'm a female in STEM and I see it differently. While I agree he could be a slimeball who is well aware that you're married and doesn't care, I also have male friends who aren't in the habit of looking for wedding rings. And everyone is roasting this guy over the coals for trying to turn a networking meetup into a dating situation, but so what? I'd do the same if I happened to meet an attractive person at a networking event. If a woman wrote an AskMe about romantic possibilities with someone she'd met at a networking event, I don't think she'd receive this angry sort of response.

I agree with those above who mentioned letting him save face. I'd reply and suggest a time and place that are as non-romantic as possible (breakfast or lunch, no booze) and include some details in your reply indicating topics you hope to discuss - to hopefully get this back on a business track. If he still agrees to meet and continues to push the romantic agenda, you can gently say that you were hoping it would be a business meeting rather than a romantic one, as you're already married.
posted by sunflower16 at 3:08 AM on July 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

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