Recently, I wrote about how men in power are reluctant to sponsor young women because of the sexual innuendos that might arise. In particular, I wrote about their squeamishness about having a business meal with a female subordinate outside of the office. I was incredulous that men could be so uptight.
Well, readers, I got a slew of mail taking me to task. One in-house counsel writes:
The reason we (older male management lawyers) don’t want to have lunch or dinner with younger, lower-ranked females is because we been lectured to, sometimes yearly, about the evils of sexual harassment. And it has been made VERY clear to us that all it takes is an allegation to really start trouble. One little misunderstanding, and the career is in ruins. . . . And once an allegation of sexual harassment is made, it is in your file forever.
Worse, it isn't just perception. There's the very real possibility that all that togetherness will lead to temptation. "You spend time with a young woman who looks up to you, and you feel flattered, and before you know it, one thing leads to another," says a partner at a New York firm. "Things happen."
Indeed, illicit relationships happen all the time. "In our survey, 34 percent of executive women say they know people who have had affairs with their bosses," says economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett. "We're talking about illicit romance."
Moreover, Hewlett's study, which is summarized in Harvard Business Review, finds that 15 percent of women in senior corporate positions had affairs themselves. "They also perceive that these liaisons sometimes yield a payoff: of those who know of an illicit affair, 37 percent claim that the woman involved received a career boost as a consequence."
Yikes. This is not much better than the shenanigans in Mad Men. No wonder everyone is uptight.
Is there any way to make it "safe" for a sponsor and his female protégé to get together? For starters, Hewlett says it's key that employers make clear that sexual relationships between boss and subordinates will not be tolerated. Hewlett also advocates institutionalizing sponsorship; she cites American Express as an example of a organization that's created a "culture of sponsorship." To make it work, she advocates transparency—literally. Pick restaurants that are "surrounded by glass. So you can have an evening meeting without gossip."
Legal consultant Karen Kaplowitz thinks one way for women to nip gossip in the bud is to adopt a "personal policy of not dating people with whom you work, and let people know about it." And for male sponsors, she suggests that they send out a clear signal that they are "off-limits for personal relationships by treating women lawyers very professionally." Kaplowitz also advises that men avoid commenting on women's attire or appearance. (She also tells women not to dress provocatively.)
None of this sounds terribly jolly. And it doesn't seem women will ever enjoy the kind of fun "buddy" relationship that exists between senior men and male associates.
It's a pity that there aren't enough gay male partners to go around.
Prior post: It's Just Dinner. Really.
Photo: AMC's Mad Men
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