How to be taken seriously as a professional while networking
August 5, 2018 5:29 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to be taken more seriously as a professional while networking as a twenties-something woman? What are some green or red 'flags' I should look for in straight men to differentiate a sincere professional interest from a less-than-platonic one in a networking setting?

I've been having some trouble not taken seriously as a professional by straight men. Usually, the entire conversation from start to finish is mostly professional — including expressing deeper interest in my career — with some polite inquiries about personal background. At this point, I agree to meet up over coffee or drinks, only to be "romantically bombed" (not to be confused with love bombing) with a suggestive gesture or remark at the end. Suggestive gestures/remarks can range from compliments about my perfume and following that up with how I smell nice to abruptly kissing me on the cheek under the defense of "that's how things are done in [his] culture" despite meeting in the States, where such social norms don't exist.

In a minority of cases, I've also had taken men frequently pepper conversations with extraneous details of their love lives, which I'm generally taken back by because I definitely don't think I'm flirting. I've asked my female colleagues and friends, and they more or less agree I'm just being friendly. Then again, I don't run into this problem when networking with women (or queer men, for that matter). For some context on my conversational style, I relate a lot to this Ask MeFi post, except I'm more of an ambivert than an extrovert (e.g. adjust to social energy by being quieter around extroverts but more talkative with introverts), avoid discussing sexuality or any topics that could be misconstrued as suggestive, and reserve verbal playfulness for casual non-professional contexts. I should add that I'm a woman in my late twenties, though it's not uncommon for me to be mistaken for early twenties.

Regardless of broader systematic factors that come into play, I prefer to take the more pragmatic course by focusing on factors within my control. That way, I can minimize or prevent any potential misunderstandings. So far, I've tried being straightforward with my intentions (e.g. wanting to connect on a professional level), lowering my voice, avoid expressing any bubbly or enthusiastic body language, dressing more androgynously (e.g. no skirts or dresses, etc.), sticking to relevant professional topics (only to be criticized for being "too serious," so I've had to pull back on this a bit), being more assertive about my career/professional accomplishments, responding with respect/support for their personal relationships if they choose to reveal such details, and pretty much everything within my power regarding my presentation or the content of my words. However, I feel like I've been twisting myself into a pretzel with very little change in results, so I'm at my wit's ends as to what to do to be taken more seriously as a professional.

TL;DR: While networking with straight men, conversations either end with suggestive gestures/remarks or veer frequently off-topic with extraneous details of their love lives. So far, I've focused on changing factors within my control to manage expectations and prevent any misunderstandings, but none of this seems to get me any closer to being taken seriously as a professional.

My questions:
1. What more can be done on my part to clarify that my interest in networking with them is strictly professional? Additionally, is there anything I can do beforehand or fix my behavior/conversational style/verbal content to ward off any potential misunderstandings?

2. As previously mentioned, I'm always upfront about my intentions being strictly professional, but I find myself having to reiterate them after agreeing to a meet-up and then romantically bombed (happens in that order). What are some more elegant/delicate and less awkward/forced ways of expressing, "I'm happy to meet up with you on a professional basis"?

3. What are some ways I can differentiate between straight men who are sincerely interested in networking with me professionally versus those who use the opportunity to steer the dynamic into something more romantic?

Sorry about the novel, and thank you for reading. I'd appreciate any advice, wisdom, or helpful stories you'd be willing to share with me.
posted by postmortemsalmon to Work & Money (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
A simple piece of advice I have is: meet them for breakfast, never for drinks. This is by no means guaranteed to solve your problems, but it helps. An hour before work forces the time to be focused and gives you a clear exit.

Another thing that helps is doing your professional networking in groups. If you want to do drinks, see about trying to get a group of people in your related profession together (it could be as few as 4 of you). Bring a friend who you trust to keep things in the professional realm.

I realize this isn't exactly answering any of your questions. But you probably aren't doing anything to bring this on yourself, and unfortunately it's hard to tell who is going to pull this until you know them for a while.
posted by ch1x0r at 6:18 PM on August 5, 2018 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Just want to assure you that you're not doing anything wrong- these men are trash. Advice to act more severe or wear body-hiding clothing is useless and victim blaming. Advice to call men out is career damaging.

There's really not much for women to do because the problem is not caused by women. Men just need to become better. The ones who hit on women at work need to become better by cutting that the hell out. The ones who don't hit on women at work need to become better by exerting peer pressure on their gross colleagues who behave inappropriately towards women.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:14 PM on August 5, 2018 [50 favorites]

You are fine. The men you are having problems with are problem men. They are acting inappropriately. If you can’t avoid them, shut them down at the first sign of off-topic conversation. If you feel you can’t do either, suggestions to meet early, in groups, or in a time limited scenario can help.

Tips on how to shut down these assholes politely but firmly will surely be forthcoming from many of us.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:21 PM on August 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Get a fake engagement/wedding ring. Gesture with your left hand while speaking. If they hire you, you can always "have broken up" after a few weeks have passed. Shutting them down while in a workplace you share is currently much, much easier than it has been in the past.
posted by tzikeh at 7:30 PM on August 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

I was in the same situation for years, and I see three factors in it abating:

- Finding a great mentor (male in my case) who helped me navigate networking in a new city.
- Leaning more strongly on female networks. Honestly, I got sick of having to deal with dudes and have found ways to grow my career primarily through female contacts (in a male-dominated space)
- Age. Inappropriate advances eased off considerably as I entered my thirties.

Good luck out there, I know it sucks. I want to second what pseudostrabismus said: this is the system, it's not you.
posted by third word on a random page at 7:35 PM on August 5, 2018 [6 favorites]

You don't need to fix anything. (FWIW, a friend started getting hit on more after she started wearing her engagement ring, fashion is not going to fix this.)

As far as signs, are these guys talking about their careers as well, or just asking you questions about yours? Not having relevant stuff to share about their careers is a bad sign.

Are there networking events near you with a code of conduct? Is there a group that organizes such events that might be interested in creating one? Are there woman-centric networking events that apply to your field? (Pyladies is the sort of thing I'm thinking of.)

People made fun of the "Pence rule," but I generally avoid being alone with professional colleagues after work hours because of stuff like this. Groups, yes. Lunch, okay. Evening alone together, no.
posted by momus_window at 7:37 PM on August 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Sorry you're dealing with this. Unfortunately, it is fairly common, in my experience. What are your goals with networking? If it's possible to speak with people only at a larger networking event, and ask follow-up questions over email rather than meeting in person, it might help slightly. But I'm not sure there's a foolproof way to know in advance what might happen at a one-on-one meeting. I agree with the advice to lean more on female networks.
posted by pinochiette at 7:37 PM on August 5, 2018

Best answer: At this point, I agree to meet up over coffee or drinks

sorry if I'm reading more into your phrasing than you mean to convey, but are you usually agreeing? as in, saying yes to their invitations, not issuing your own?

everybody is of course right that you aren't the problem, men are, but just because you shouldn't disassociate yourself from your own body to such an extent that you see yourself and dress yourself through sexually objectifying male eyes -- and of course you shouldn't and of course it won't help -- that doesn't mean there's nothing at all you can do. the reason I ask the question above is because the kind of guy who sees a woman first as a sexual pastime and second, if at all, as a peer, is sometimes the kind of guy who can be thrown off his terrible game by being robbed of his comfortable role as the initiator and the pusher. that is the position from which terrible men feel most comfortable edging over into the frankly inappropriate.

so while it's fine to let things happen organically and naturally with everyone except straight men, with them, you might be a little more assertive and intentional. do not let it get to the point where you're waiting to see if they invite you to something or ask you for something. Be the asker; be the inviter. as soon as you decide this guy seems interesting, useful to know, worth following up with, initiate plans with him. be the one setting the terms. do not wait for the conversation to die down and look to see if he has any follow-up in mind. do not even get to the point where you have to redirect and say Well I'm not free for cocktails but how about coffee? because that is not shutting him down, that is entering into negotiations. in the mind of a creep, I mean. creeps love that kind of negotiation; your attempt to keep it professional is their fun game of wearing you down. don't bargain him down to something more professional; be the one proposing the professional idea in the first place.

the worst conversational position to be in with a strange man is a passive one, where he's the one making offers and proposals and all you can do is say Yes and No. this applies, I want to stress, in non-sexual professional contexts. it applies there, extremely. it is one of the dynamics that men try to engineer, when they want to rewrite a nonsexual encounter into a presexual one; it's a setup. men who treat you as a sexual prospect also, in general, sexualize what they read as passivity and receptivity. the kind of manner that regular people read as common politeness, which is one reason it's so hard to keep men from reading it in you. you should not have to be vigilant about this, and you don't have to be, but you can be.

if you already do this, maybe there is nothing to be done except start showing a lot more surprise and displeased confusion when things get weird and trust to the women you know to support you if your career is hampered by standing up for yourself.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:05 PM on August 5, 2018 [17 favorites]

Best answer: On the one hand, I agree with QOB's analysis; but, on the other, there are other men who will take your inviting them even to coffee as a signal you are immediately DTF.

Basically, this is a patriarchy problem, and it's not solvable because it's designed not to be solvable. There is no way to opt out of men's sexual interest at work; for men, that is a feature, not a bug. A fake wedding ring will help with some, but not the worst of them. Nor can you readily distinguish amongst those who are interested in networking and those who are using it as a stalking horse. Again, feature, not bug. I think invitations to one-on-one drinks are the most likely to lead in the wrong direction. I would generally avoid alcohol as much as possible in this context. Booze-free and daytime are least risky. But, most of all, I agree with many people above: stop blaming yourself.

(What was that old Barenaked Ladies song? "Jane, desired by the people at her school and work/Jane is tired 'cause every man becomes a lovesick jerk...")
posted by praemunire at 8:44 PM on August 5, 2018 [6 favorites]

Don't meet people you are not good friends with outside an office setting? I'm in my 40s and I've NEVER done this, unless it was a pretty good friend or me and some co-worker(s) were heading offsite to gossip or scheme. If a guy ever asked me to meet him for dinner so we could talk about my career my reply would and always has been a raised eyebrow and "uh, no" or "lol, no". Because that's pretty much a date in his mind already. You can meet in an empty conference room or the cafeteria. Similarly I'd never ask a mentee to meet me at a restaurant. This has not harmed my career at all btw.

In a minority of cases, I've also had taken men frequently pepper conversations with extraneous details of their love lives, which I'm generally taken back by because I definitely don't think I'm flirting.

This isn't necessarily romantic interest, men just tend to think that all women are interested in them and want to hear about their lives and will give good advice or something stupid like that. Don't engage, look bored or uncomfortable and don't answer beyond "I don't really know anything about that". With men I actually know I just say something like "O-kay! I'm still not a marriage counselor" and we move on. But most men really are relentless and shameless in trying to get your help or sympathy or have you take them on as a project. They seem to need a certain amount of time spent talking at women each day or they wither and die. Think how many movies involve a plot where a man finds a sympathetic woman to help him with his problems? Fucking all of them, that's how many.
posted by fshgrl at 9:39 PM on August 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

It is a little confusing to talk about networking because there are a couple of distinct things people mean when they say networking and they have very different rates of return.

The most valuable kind of networking is keeping in touch with people you've worked with in the past. This is a relatively small amount of time required to keep you in the minds of people who you have already vetted as reliable and have done the same for you, and can recommend you for things they know of as they come up. The value here increases over time - as you get more senior, you know people who are also more senior and have better connections.

The next most valuable kind of networking is keeping up with politics and trends and rumors at your current workplace. This is a fair amount of time required unless you're very disciplined, but occasionally it pays off very well, and as you get more senior in your company it becomes more and more important.

The next most valuable kind of networking is keeping up with politics/trends/rumors in your industry at large (or the industry you want to break into). It's useful to hit some minimum bar here so you can talk to other people in the industry, but for most careers the rate of return diminishes dramatically. Note that in most industries the most efficient way to do this kind of "networking" is reading blogs or twitter feeds or whatever, not talking to people.

Finally, the least valuable kind of networking is cold-call interactions with strangers, and it seems like this is what you're focusing on, at least in this question. For activities of this kind, that have a very low success rate and the payoff can be highly variable, it's usually best to maximize the number of interactions you do and minimize the time spent on each, and have a couple levels of filtering, putting in more time at each level.

So as an example, if you're networking to try to find a job, don't have a 1:1 meeting with anyone who hasn't said they have a specific job they want to talk to you about (vs just wanting to "hear about your background" or "get an idea of what you're looking for" or "tell you about some opportunities"). The hour or two you spend talking to them would be better spent doing things that have a higher rate of return: sending out job applications, looking at career sites, polishing your cover letter, etc. Similarly, if you're trying to get a feel for an industry, don't have a personal meeting with anyone unless you are pretty sure it's a better use of your time than the alternatives: reading blogs, perhaps, or going to a talk (which might be the same amount of time as a coffee meeting but is easier to skip out on if it's not panning out, and tends to contain more useful information since it doesn't have to go through the social platitudes).

To figure out who is useful to you for this kind of stuff you are going to have to be a little aggressive, like queenofbithnya says, and drive the conversations to what they can do for you. You can't be 100% business, of course, but if your conversational partners are spending any notable time talking about their spouses you need to either cut the entire conversation short or push them back to what they were talking about before. (And usually if they do have actual information they want to give you, they're not going to spend time talking about something else - it's not like they're thinking "I'm looking for a grant writer, but I only want one who can make the right responses when I talk about my wife first.")

Disclaimer at the end here is you don't say anything about what job you have or why you're networking, and there are some careers where cold-call networking is a huge part of the game, but for most people and most careers it is almost valueless and time should be allocated to do it appropriately.
posted by inkyz at 9:43 PM on August 5, 2018 [11 favorites]

Lot's of good advice about the men above. Don't forget to seek out women at these events and in a few years time, when you are the more senior person keep on looking for younger women to interact with too.
posted by roolya_boolya at 9:44 PM on August 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Based on personal experience and the great answers above, I'll suggest the obvious: avoid networking with straight men, if you can.
posted by Tiny Bungalow at 9:50 PM on August 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: It's not a misunderstanding, nor your fault.

It would be nice for others to change but in the meantime people like you and I need to thrive as best we can. I see this as code-switching. I may not opt in to these approaches all the time, but I want them in my toolbox. Focusing on what's in our power:

1. Creating the environment where things are more likely to stay on track:

- No alcohol
- Coffee, phone, your-office-or-mine, or breakfast meetings; I usually only get coffee regardless of time of day
- Take up as much space as you can, including gestures as you speak
- When you schedule, make a show about getting out your calendar and describing the other work commitments have surrounding this new meeting; make it clear this meeting is just like those other commitments
- State and restate the purpose like a broken record; be specific about the goals of the meeting and what will be discussed; assign homework, like, "Can you bring x and y files so we can align our strategy?"
- Become unable to hear insinuation; when it comes, calmly restate the professional purpose of the interaction. Pretend they said something appropriate. Ex: "You smell so good." Response: Wait out the statement impressively, then: "I look forward to trading ideas for the upcoming project." Act like it's beneath you and beneath him; some men will straighten up when they see there's little "fun" to be had.
- Some may get a charge out of a "chase" and "spunk" and "sassiness" so I try not to support that push/pull dynamic. I just totally ignore and go to a different topic.

2. When things go off track:

- Direct response: "That's irrelevant since we're professional colleagues." "That's inappropriate." Say it in a boring way and move on. There's no room for argument.
- Remove the option of engaging further: "It appears there's been a misunderstanding. Perhaps we should both save ourselves the time and cancel." [He protests...] "I only have time for purely professional meetings and based on your comment it's clear we aren't on the same page." [Walk away like "Nbd"; if he tries to redeem the opportunity, you have the choice of how to reply] Note: I use "misunderstanding" here so he can save face; we both know that's not what it really is.
- It feels so much better to reframe from attempts at persuasion to simply stating and following your priorities. Less "Could you please..." and more "Here's what will and won't work for me." Practically, some men will opt to behave better so they at least get to meet with you.

3. Spotting creepers: You can't really know till they make the weird comment. Sorry. But maybe read "The Gift of Fear" just in case there'd be ways to inform your intuition. And ask around in your network. I will usually hesitate to make a close connection with an extremely friendly, loud, rambunctious man. I don't blacklist, just hold back to observe further

Other things to consider:
- Decide how much of this you are willing to tolerate in order to reach a position where you can impact those bigger systemic issues; it's okay to pick your battles
- Try not to concern yourself with whether they're feeling the correct things toward you, but whether you're getting what you need from the interaction. We have enough to handle without including men's inner thought lives
- Find allies

I'm sorry the world isn't a better place for you (and me) in this regard.
posted by ramenopres at 10:54 PM on August 5, 2018 [12 favorites]

On the one hand, I agree with QOB's analysis; but, on the other, there are other men who will take your inviting them even to coffee as a signal you are immediately DTF.

true but I am assuming this would not be an open-ended "let's get together to talk more" which could certainly be read as a personal overture from any direction. more of a "could we talk more about these specific things over coffee on your lunch break so that I could find out more about this thing you mentioned, which I am interested in for the following specific professional reasons."

not knowing the OP's industry I have no idea what this kind of frequent networking even means, but am taking it on faith that this is a thing people do & that it has some practical purpose. I have had casual informational-interview sorts of things with people in jobs I'd like to have, and they did involve meeting for coffee and me asking them questions. they were all with other women and they were all suggested or set up by a third party who knew both of us. none of them were particularly useful but none of them got weird. I do think if there is no specific goal in mind for a one-on-one meeting, it's not worth proposing one; "networking" just for the sake of getting to know people is best done in small groups.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:46 AM on August 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

I agree with trusting OP's knowledge about how networking happens in her industry and not assuming she's got it wrong.

As a data point, people in my industry frequently meet and build relationships over coffee. Sometimes lunch, sometimes breakfast, rarely drinks. I've done three in the past month. We meet up in all gender configurations and it's often 1:1. And, yes, there must be a goal. I would be aghast if someone tried what these men are, and it would hurt their reputation if other people found out. That, in turn, would translate as fewer meeting opportunities for them.

Thought of a recent example. Someone I network with texted a link to a romantic, emotional song. I texted back, "Thanks for the song. Does this have a particular message for me behind it or do you simply like the song?" He said it was the latter. Whatever, guy! This gave him the onus of being straightforward and also understanding his action was outside the norm. This was the gentle response that let him work out how he wanted to engage with me. If he had said it carried a message I could have responded appropriately (maybe "We don't have this kind of relationship, please don't send me things like this again"). So in this case, we're still networking buddies because he opted for the professional route.
posted by ramenopres at 5:37 AM on August 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

These men are roadblocks. Your best path is to route around them, not negotiate for your safe passage through. Network with literally anyone else.
posted by melissasaurus at 6:55 AM on August 6, 2018 [7 favorites]

My go-to "networking" plan is to meet someone--regardless of age/gender/etc.--at a chain coffee shop near my workplace that tends to always be crowded. I feel comfortable there, there are plenty of people nearby, and there's no opportunity to get comfy-cozy in a way that would make any party feel weird. And it's never open-ended. It's always a meeting with a goal in mind--how can we collaborate on this project, could you recommend one potential intern over another, that kind of thing. Go quickly, be friendly and brisk, ask and answer the questions on your agendas, and take the rest to email.
posted by witchen at 9:15 AM on August 6, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks for sharing your thoughts and advice, everyone. To clarify: I'm transitioning into a fairly male-dominated field, but either way (whether I complete the transition or not), networking in general is more or less unavoidable. Opting out of that process would cost me opportunities, but I do hear the successful workarounds and alternative suggestions. I've highlighted some of the common themes I'm seeing:

a) Trying to get around the systematic nature of the problem is a misguided approach, because doing so falsely assumes there are ways for women to "opt out of men's sexual interest at work" and "for men, that is a feature, not a bug," as pramunire put it.
b) YMMV, but decide whether going down this route is worth your time and energy; if not, consider rerouting via female networks or attend networking events with a code of conduct. Presumably, a code of conduct will at least provide some sort of protection and/or leverage.
c) Avoid strategies and tactics that put the burden of change on women. Instead, choose methods that firewall or circumvent the underlying power dynamic: verbally enforce boundaries that are crossed, actionably enforce boundaries by sticking to a neutral time (e.g. mornings) or setting (e.g. no alcohol), bring in reinforcements (i.e. herd safety), take the lead without feeding men who get a thrill out of a "good" chase, etc.
d) Never head into a networking meetup without a goal in mind and make sure beforehand that there is synergy between my goal and his.

And last but not least, to answer your questions:

are these guys talking about their careers as well, or just asking you questions about yours?
It's been a mixed bag from one end of the spectrum — talking primarily about their own career with little to no curiosity about mine — to the other end, where some men expressed effusive interest in my potential or career. Neither extreme has proved helpful, probably because both approaches have the same destination in mind but different execution.

sorry if I'm reading more into your phrasing than you mean to convey, but are you usually agreeing? as in, saying yes to their invitations, not issuing your own?
I generally don't have a problem taking the initiative in any kind of social situation, but I have been slower to initiate with men in a professional context due to my own reservations and initial cynical expectations. In the past, I haven't found much success networking with straight men because their core interest in me more often than not has either been apathy (harmless) or romantic/sexual (frustrating), so I've learned not to expect much in the first place. But this is a self-defeating strategy from which I should (and am trying) to move on.
posted by postmortemsalmon at 5:29 PM on August 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

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