You don’t need a coach to tell you that taking a partner or client to lunch is a good idea. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a success strategies or business development book that doesn’t recommend lunch as a great way to forge and further business relationships.
But a recent—and for me, jaw-dropping—conversation with some women associates got me thinking there may be some not-so-obvious obstacles to following this age-old advice. 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.
I assumed he’d been joking, but the other women in the practice group confirmed her story: The head of the practice group 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. In fact, he even declines to lunch with a party of several women.
No doubt, many male partners can identify with his concerns. Even those most committed to women’s advancement have confided to me their concerns about the potential liability of meeting with a woman associate in their office behind closed doors. Some admit having to reassure suspicious spouses, too. This is the first time I’ve heard of anyone going to this extreme, but where there’s one, there could be more. Who knows?
Although their trepidations may be understandable, my guess is these male partners have not considered the repercussions of their decision to demure. Even in a purported meritocracy, the way to the top is through relationships. We all know that good work is never enough. Under the best of circumstances, male associates have greater access to important internal and external relationships simply because people feel most comfortable with those who are most like themselves.
Conversations over lunch invariably provide the opportunity to share insights about the firm, cases, advancement strategies and client contacts. These informal meetings allow the exchange of the small stuff of which big careers are made. Lunch is a way to connect, learn about your companion’s values and what you share in common. Sitting across from each other, people can smooth ruffled feathers and clarify communication differences.
The conclusion is obvious: Lunching with the boys and not the girls creates unequal opportunities. I doubt this is the intention of the practice group leader in this example, but, nevertheless, that is the outcome.
Avoiding Grist for the Rumor Mill: Advice for Senior Attorneys
Cross-gender relations in the workplace are, indeed, complicated. When strong professional bonds form between opposite-sex colleagues, particularly of differing seniority, people will talk. What, then, is a senior attorney to do if he wishes to maintain marital harmony and avoid accusations of harassment, while at the same time abstaining from committing those micro-aggressions that create an unequal playing field?
First, ask yourself whether your alleged reasons are really what are keeping you from extending or accepting invitations. It’s easy to rationalize discomfort by exaggerating the probability of unlikely risks. Then consider these options.
- The usual advice is to spend social time in public places and before dark. This may not soothe very jealous spouses, but it reduces some risks.
- Have both male and female attorneys present at the dining table.
- Include another partner whom your spouse trusts.
- Invite women associates to your home for dinner so your worried spouse can witness the professionalism of the relationships.
What If You’re the Snubbed Woman Associate?
Don’t take “no” for an answer. Micro-inequities are subtle and difficult to challenge, so do what’s hard. Empathize with the partner’s concerns but point out the uneven playing field this creates. Invite the partner to think with you about alternatives that will provide you with the same opportunities afforded to his male lunch companions. Perhaps the two of you will be able to generate some solutions. Maybe he’ll realize the consequences of his choices and revise his decision. Regardless, you’ll feel empowered by refusing to accept unfair treatment.
Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., CMC, is the founding principal of Lawyers Life Coach LLC, a firm specializing in leadership, career, business development and work/life integration coaching for attorneys and consultation to legal employers. Since 1998, Ellen has been known for her work helping women attorneys overcome barriers to advancement and coaching all lawyers to achieve career success without compromising the quality of their lives.
Illustration @ ImageZoo.