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It's Just Dinner. Honest.

Vivia Chen

February 15, 2012

MadMen-©AMC Networks

What year is this? 1965? Judging by what I'm hearing about how uptight senior men are about their female subordinates, I'd say we're barely out of the Mad Men era.

As you know, one reason women are stagnating in law and other professions is that they lack a "sponsor"—a powerful (male) ally at the firm or company who will go to bat for them to advance their career.

You can probably think of dozens of reasons why women might lack a sponsor, but this one shocked me: Men are afraid of the sexual innuendo that might arise if they take an active interest in a woman's career—especially if they're seen together dining in a restaurant.

No kidding. As author Sylvia Ann Hewlett reminds me, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd "got shot down when he had dinner alone with a young female contractor." Though Hurd seemed to have taken more than a business interest in the young woman (she complained about his behavior), Hewlett says the takeaway is that it's just too risky to be closely associated with a younger woman.

In her study, which she describes in Harvard Business Review, Hewlett says 64 percent of senior men said that they would not sponsor a woman because it would entail spending one-on-one time together, which would likely stir rumors of an inappropriate relationship. "They didn’t care about the details of what went on in the HP situation, but the lesson was that they should never, ever have dinner alone with a female employee," says Hewlett.

But the problem is not just dinner after hours, but lunch too, says career coach Ellen Ostrow. In Attorney at Work, Ostrow writes:

One ambitious and intrepid young woman extended to the male head of her practice group what she assumed was an innocent invitation to lunch. She was immediately rebuffed with his assertion that he never joins women associates for lunch (or any other “social” activity). Why? Because his wife objects.

Ostrow adds that this practice group head "routinely goes to lunch with the male associates in the group but eschews all mingling with young women attorneys to avoid even a hint of impropriety."

It sounds to me that these guys (and maybe their wives) have a serious hang-up. But until the dinosaurs come home, what can you do? Ostrow suggests that the sponsor and the junior person grab a meal during the day, include others if it's a dinner, or first arrange a meal where significant others are invited to allay suspicion.

That's rather complicated, if you ask me. I mean, all you want is a simple, occasional dinner to discuss your career—not a conference with friends and family.

But Ostrow says the main point is that the junior person not give up. "Don’t take 'no' for an answer. . . . Empathize with the partner’s concerns but point out the uneven playing field this creates. Invite the partner to think with you about alternatives."

Frankly, I've always thought having an after-work drink was better for bonding than a formal dinner. So what about a round of cocktails? "Oh, I don't think they're ready for drinks," says Ostrow.

Photo: AMC's Mad Men

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I am a woman litigator and have virtually always worked closely with male partners. I frequently have lunch with the partner I work most with now and have even traveled with other male partners. I am happily married, and no one's spouse has ever needed to worry. Nothing inappropriate has ever happened nor been said. If people would simply exercise self control and keep it professional around their co-workers, this would be a non-issue. I blame the morons who get involved with co-workers, and especially with married co-workers, for causing the problem.

I think it is unfortunate that older male bosses can't control themselves enough to go out to a restaurant with a young female subordinate. It puts the female subordinate at a huge disadvantage in her career compared to her male counterparts. There is no substitute for the "bonding" that goes on between male bosses and their male subordinates. It carries over to the office because it leads to the male boss giving the male subordinate more assignments and more career advice because they have developed such a close relationship outside the office. It is truly disgusting.

Can't we all grow up? Women can make more than babies and dinner, we can make companies thrive.

Like it or not office romance is a serious issue: 40% of people dated co-worker, and 30% of daters end up marrying the co-worker. The downside of office romance does not have to be explained to anyone on this website, so it is natural that workers avoid having a working relationship perceived as a romantic relationship.

And yes, unfortunately there are plenty of middle-aged male lawyers who don't think with their brain, who think that they can beat the rap because they know the sexual harassement law, and consider a junior female a prey.

One advise to females that I would give that was not stressed in this article, was to seek out older male attorneys. Admitedly this is a generality, but if bonding and friendships are to develop, while younger male lawyers will tend to think of the young female as potential GF or mistress material, older males are more likely to think of young women as daughters or nieces.

Can't we give any credit to men who are thinking about their marriages?

The real problem that I see is that older, more "powerful" women always seem to turn a jaundiced eye towards younger business associates. Until we start sticking together, instead of constantly stabbing each other in the back, we will always be behind the men who stick together.

@ DirkJohanson

"virtually inevitalbe sexual harassment suits and threats that come from one-on-one meetings with junior female attorneys." Wow. Just wow. I don't think "virtually inevitalbe" [sic] means what you think it means.

Sad but true. Our society still views single women as trouble - potential husband thieves or lawsuit filers. I work in a small field where collaboration is crucial, and I struggled with finding a mentor at work before I got married. My initiations for collaboration often fell through, and my invitations for lunch or happy hour meetings were often rebuffed.

The minute I was "off the market," I had no problem finding mentors of both genders, and it was clear the male executives of my company were far more comfortable hanging out with me. Now I have much closer work relationships with older men at my office, in ways that are extremely beneficial for my career, and no one bats an eye. Had I known this, I would have started talking about my fiance (who lived with me for three years before we got married) much sooner.

My first thought also was to include others in the meal, but I would include work colleagues (other partners and senior associates), not significant others or family members. Also,I believe in including male partners in mentoring circles, which can lead to sponsoring relationships. That way there is an opportunity for developing more than one "sponsor," and the more, the better. Remember that the "inclusiveness" part of diversity and inclusiveness is even more important.

Working Mom writes: "the type of conduct necessary to actually prevail on a claim for sexual harassment is pretty outrageous."

Maybe so, but the type of conduct necessary to find yourself a defendant in such a case - and merely finding oneself a defendant could spell the end of a career- is 10 well-intentioned moments alone with and mentoring a junior female associate.

Work is for work. Those you work with are known for being just that, "working" with you.

Vivia said it best when she mentioned that, "after-work drink was better for bonding than a formal dinner."

If someone is looking to bond--do what you got to do to bond.

But, if someone is looking to do work... keep it at work.

Just think how complicated it is for both male partners and female partners contemplating such a career building meeting if either has recently become estranged or divorced from their significant other!! All the more reason to follow Ellen Ostrow's very good advice. I'd also advise no makeup and a boring tie and stilted suit on the day of networking!

This reminds me of an Ally McBeal episode that I saw when I was in law school. One of the female associates gets removed from her caseload, because the senior partner's wife does not want him working with a young, attractive female. In the TV sitcom, the senior partner agreed to settle this gender discrimnation issue for 250K. The discrimination seemed unbelieveble at the time, making it good topic for sitcom humor. Here we are about 15 years later, and its not so funny anymore given that it really happens. As a employment defense lawyer, the "peceived" threat of a sexual harassment claim is a ridiculous excuse, because the type of conduct necessary to actually prevail on a claim for sexual harassment is pretty outrageous.

Every serious professional, especially in these times of de-equitizations and "managed headcount" is going to do a quick cost/benefit analysis. The downside is big, and real, whereas the upside is hard to measure.

This isn't a hang-up. It's a routine consideration men should have. It's not really that unusual for a wife to be at least at little uncomfortable with their husband dining with other women alone, whatever she might say about it (especially younger women, whom the man is in some position of authority over.) And yes, it will be viewed in an uncharitable fashion by at least some others in the office. And unfortunately there's a perfectly legitimate reason for this; it's not just the appearance of a improper relationship men have to be concerned about, it's also actually ending up in one (on accident or otherwise.)

I think lunch alone with a younger associate (and this goes for women and younger male associates as well) is okay, as long as it's a rarity. Dinner is regarded more as a social activity, so that doesn't look as good. And there's always the alternative of a short meeting in the office.

i'm actually surprised to hear that men don't welcome the "innuendo" that they're popular with the young ladies. i honestly think it's more likely that they don't trust themself or can't focus on anything but their sexual chances when they're alone with a woman- and heaven forbid she's actually smart AND pretty. maybe those few women that actually make it through should take it upon themselves to be uber-mentors and work diligently to further the careers of the women beneath them. some authors have suggested, however, that because of the slim pickings of the spots left for women- they become hyper competitive with each other because they know, for example, that only one woman is allowed... in any case, until the playing field is leveled and/or women start realizing their strength in numbers, this will continue to be one disadvantage among others that they face.

I've had this happen to me. It's really unfair, not to mention insulting.

This is a shock to you? You obviously have never been wrongly accused of having an inappropriate relationship. Serious hangups or no, many men simply do not want to be the subject of embarassing and untrue gossip, so they opt out - - and they are not trying to harm anybody's careers; they are trying to protect their own.

Their serious hang-up is the virtually inevitalbe sexual harassment suits and threats that come from one-on-one meetings with junior female attorneys.

Of course, its not a hang-up - its a legitimate concern. One lunch and you can end up being sued for millions: not a good idea.

Group activities and social networks can and often will help to smooth the path and allay fears, concerns...

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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