Monday, October 20, 2014

Gender in the Contracting World

Everyone in the contracting world knows that a large portion of business is done outside of the office. Whether it is on the golf course, in a bar over drinks, at dinner, or one of countless other ways, a lot of getting and keeping big clients is about forging personal relationships. People are more likely to hire somebody they feel like they know and trust than some random stranger. So when two men go out for drinks or dinner, it is just good business. But when a young single woman goes out with a man for drinks or dinner... What exactly is that?

The first few times a client asked me if I wanted to go out for dinner and drinks just the two of us, I made up excuses not to go. I didn't want to end up accidentally on a date, and something about going out with a strange (sometimes married) man seemed like I would be targeted as a girl who was "asking for it" even if I had completely genuine intentions. I considered asking my management or HR for advice, but I felt like it made me sound presumptuous and I was too embarrassed to ask. Plus everyone in management and HR was male, so would they really understand? Instead, I just avoided the situations all together. But as time went on (and after many lengthy philosophical discussions with my friends in similar industries), I realized I was screwing myself out of opportunities by discriminating against myself because of my own gender.

I began to ask myself, "Would this be inappropriate if I was a man?" and unless the question involved the men's bathroom, if it was appropriate for a man I decided it was appropriate for me. So I started to accept offers for business dinners, drinks, and other outings, even if it was just me and a guy (although if I knew he was married, I usually casually suggested bringing his wife). I was careful to draw a line for myself by reverse engineering all the typical signs that "she is totally into you" to make sure that my intentions were always extremely clear: no physical contact at all, don't touch my hair, don't talk about my relationships, use a napkin instead of absent-mindedly licking my lips (especially if we were out getting wings and beer), keep your distance from him where possible, and be careful about how you tease them. Even when walking on eggshells, there was still always the chance that something I did would be taken the wrong way.

I realize that it's kind of ridiculous that I went to these great lengths when in a perfect world I should have just been able to be myself. And I realize that if my list of requirements for a woman's behavior at a business dinner was handed out that a lot of people would be all over how anti-feminist it was. But the truth is that if things got weird, I'm the one who would suffer the most. If things got weird my clients would be more likely to drop my contracting firm, which in turn would make it look like I wasn't doing a good job. On their end, they could just fill my place with one many other contractors, and there would be essentially no change. Maybe that's not how it should be, but that is how it was.

Even when I was very careful, sometimes I would find myself slipping into situations where I felt out of control. Like the time a client asked me if I wanted to spend the weekend at his cabin. Or the time a different client invited me to stay over to his house at 10 pm when I was in a nearby hotel. Or the time a client was insisting that he come hang out in my hotel late on a weeknight. If the line wasn't at dinner and drinks, than where was the line? On one hand it still murkily passed the "would this be weird if I was man" test (they might really just want to hang out). But in the context of the specific relationship those still just sounded like trouble and I would decline or figure out a way to bring another coworker or client along. 

Even if there is nothing but a completely professional relationship where both of you are extremely clear on the boundaries, there is always the question of "what does everyone else think"? Once I had forged strong professional relationships with clients, my bosses and coworkers used to note that it was odd that many of my clients would call me directly regarding projects that weren't even mine. My coworkers were especially vocal about teasing me for ridiculous reasons why they hadn't been called first like:

"Joe just wants to talk to you because he wants to hear the voice of a woman."  No, he just knows me and trusts that I will solve the problem. 

"Joe and Vanessa went out on a romantic dinner last night, he's just calling to follow up." No, we grabbed burgers after working a 14 hour day. 

"Joe's totally in love with Vanessa." No. No. No. No. No. 

On one hand, there was no real measurable impact of these comments and jokes. My clients loved me (but weren't in love with me), and my coworkers didn't control the business I got. On the other hand, I felt like comments about me winning business because by being a femme fatale (which was ridiculous) instead of an engineer who happened to be awesome at networking would slowly chip away at my reputation. As my friend Ruby has pointed out to me, people only make jokes that they believe are true on some level. And can you imagine these comments being made to a man in my position? 

My point is that for women (especially single women) in a heavily male dominated contracting world, you are kind of damned if you do and damned if you don't. Our business relationships are often tainted with some level of weirdness, whether it is perceived by us or outsiders, that doesn't impact single gender relationships. It's treated as a weirder occurrence than married guys going to a strip club on their lunch breaks. It seems the only way to try to avoid the weirdness is by installing a glass ceiling above your own head as a barrier, and even that doesn't always work. It's one of the reasons I left contracting, and have moved to the other side of the table where there is no way I can be accused of whoring myself out for engineering work.

While I am much happier on this side of the table, I still wonder if there is any way to fix the Catch-22 situation where female contractors are currently stuck. And I know most engineers have never even considered it, or realize how bad it can be. 

What are your thoughts? Have any of the male readers ever felt the same weirdness as contractors?



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