Article Thumbnail

There’s a Difference Between Networking and Being Creepy

How to know you’re not ‘lunching’ a woman in your field

Have you ever gone into a networking meeting and expected to pick someone’s brain, soft audition for a job, or just get an expert to look at your portfolio — when suddenly the vibe turns sleazy or romantic? Yesterday, writer Mary H. K. Choi proposed the term “getting lunched” to describe this phenomenon, where you meet up with with someone you hope can help you in your career, and get a face full of frisky, or worse.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, that’s likely because you’re a dude. (While we have no hard numbers on how frequently this happens, we know that it happens far more often to women.) We write this piece for men so they understand that networking — a critical component of moving up the ladder — is still a minefield for many women. In the wake of the Weinstein scandal, we’ve heard reports that men in Silicon Valley are increasingly fearful of mentoring or networking with women for fear that their actions could be misconstrued, moving those meetings, Claire Cain Miller writes for The New York Times, “from restaurants to conference rooms,” or worse, refusing to have the meetings with women at all.

In her Twitter thread, Choi notes that the Harvey Weinstein allegations of decades of sexual assault and harassment of women in the film industry — most of which happened behind closed doors in what were, to the women at least, thought to be networking, pitch meetings, or casting calls — have brought up her own history of meetings with men that went similarly off the rails.

“It’s when you start inventorying every dude in power who’s gotten weirdly handsy to all of those HELLA ambiguous drinks invites and lunch date tete-a-tetes where you start feeling a bit sick,” she writes. “Women are lured SO often by vague promises of work or networks and then finding themselves on dates with married dudes and wondering what role they’ve played in winding up there.”

Critically, getting lunched doesn’t happen in a workplace setting, which is why it’s so pernicious. It typically goes down at a bar, restaurant, conference or hotel room — places not protected under workplace harassment law, but where professionalism is expected based on the premise of the meeting.

When this turns into an unwanted romantic situation because the guy on the other side of the table misread your professional enthusiasm for sexual interest, it’s disturbing, embarrassing and confusing. As Choi and others note in the Twitter thread, women tend to place the blame on themselves.

It should be noted this is, at least anecdotally, largely a problem for younger women. Women who need doors opened the most, who ambitiously take every meeting they can, because you never know. There’s a reason Weinstein hit on actresses at the beginning of their careers — the Gwyneth Paltrows and Angelina Jolies he harassed weren’t Hollywood royalty yet. Both were up-and-coming actresses who hadn’t yet made Shakespeare in Love or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Lunching seems so inevitable for many women that they simply see fielding and surviving these professional “dates” as the cost of doing business in any male-dominated industry. Older women whisper stories of the pervy guys and harassment they learned to laugh off as 20-somethings on the up-and-up. Younger women share tales of dubious invitations that could pay off career-wise but sound sketchy enough to avoid: attending a conference to network where an older professor pushes for drinks alone in his hotel room; meeting a work client who relentlessly texts to ask you to drinks outside of work.

Sometimes you don’t get lunched; you get hired. Then, as one woman told me, you take the job and the guy who hired you tells you after you’ve started that he had wanted to sleep with you from the moment he saw you.

So we toughen up and hope it won’t happen again.

If we can find a bright (but still bleak) angle here, it’s that as women age or gain a little more power, they’re less likely to need these networking meetings with men who may or may not even be able to help them anyway. And they are less likely to get lunched.

But that’s little consolation for the countless entry-level women who are eager to prove their bona fides in industries where thousands are knocking at the doors. It’s a double bind for women: If men won’t mentor us because they are afraid of being accused of harassment, then women are left out of the crucial opportunities to schmooze and pitch themselves that creative and competitive fields require. We are the only ones who lose.

When MEL discussed the term “getting lunched,” a male colleague asked, sincerely, how men can know the difference between “lunching” someone, and that thing that happens where you sometimes network with someone and realize, over drinks or coffee, that you’re actually hitting it off and maybe would want to date this person. You have things in common; you’re vibing. After all, don’t many people meet the people they will date and marry at work or in work settings?

Yes, but critically, meeting someone and vibing mutually is distinctly different from anything we’ve outlined above, for one key reason: It’s mutual. There’s typically not a crazy power imbalance at play.

So we can offer this advice: If you’re a man meeting up with a woman to network, assume it’s to network. Acknowledge that you can easily abuse that power and put her in a position where she feels forced to go along with your advances, even if that’s just an inappropriate conversation about your wife’s inadequacies.

Assume her interest is professional unless she tells you otherwise. Don’t put her in the awkward position of having to turn you down for a date when she needs your career advice, or at the very least, your good recommendation. If you’ve found yourself with some romantic feelings on a networking meeting that you’re sure are tight and right, proceed with extreme caution and see if she’s sending out any vibes that tell a different story.

She may change the subject back to something professional if you get too personal. She may mention a significant other. She may be wearing a wedding band (real or fake). And if after all these clues, you still feel certain you should ask her out, don’t. (Should you need a satirical example of what to do when grabbing a professional coffee with an attractive woman, here’s one: Pretend she’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.) If she likes you, maybe she can make the first move?

As Ivan Misner, author of Business Networking and Sex: Not What You Think, told Forbes in a 2013 piece on the phenomenon, you may think a romantic advance is welcome, but on the off chance that is actually true, this meeting is absolutely not the place to test that out.

Instead, do what regular people who work together do when they like someone: Try to get to know them. Wait until you’re completely sure. “When you’ve established a relationship, then taking it to the next step may be more obvious for you,” Misner said.

Whatever you do, don’t lunch her. Use the time to brag about your career highlights and bask in the glory that is a younger person admiring your success and gleaning your unique insight. Buy her a coffee, give her advice, and go back into the night, confident that you are in fact not just another lunch statistic in this woman’s life.