Last month I attended a professional networking event held by a Melbourne think tank. Eager to get my schmooze on and charm potential employers (or people who could help me get in touch with potential employers), I brushed up on my ‘conversation topics’ flash cards and set out to get as many business cards from old white men as I could.
By the end of the evening, I had collected a handful of business cards and felt a sense of accomplishment. I had done everything right – wore modest, professional clothing, had engaging conversations about business and current affairs, and successfully prevented my voice from getting too breathy and high-pitched, maintaining a professional, business-woman octave. Having done all this and having the good fortune of being born with the grace of southern charm, I was confident that I’d left a good impression on those I’d met. This confidence solidified when one of my new contacts, an independent solicitor in his mid-60s, invited me out to lunch the following week. We ate at a nice restaurant on Chapel Street, and I was ready to dazzle with my business acumen and solid career pitch. However, our conversation didn’t stay for too long on careers, or career-related topics. Halfway through our lunch, I got a sinking feeling that maybe this ‘professional’ lunch wasn’t that at all. After he quizzed me on whether or not I wanted to start a family and how many kids I might want, the sinking feeling was affirmed when my ‘date’ invited me to stay at his beach house on Phillip Island sometime.
“It’s got four rooms,” he said.
For professional women, this story is unlikely to elicit much surprise. When I recounted the event to a friend of mine, she shared a similar experience. Near the end of a networking event, a senior solicitor in his late 40s offered to walk her home. Although she declined, he insisted, and walked her to her front door. Once there, he made a pass and attempted to kiss her. She dodged his advance just in time, wished him a very awkward good night, and barricaded herself in the safety of her home.
As law students on the bottom of the professional ladder, making connections in our field is vital and can open up a world of opportunities. But especially for younger women, it can be tricky to network with older men without getting into questionable situations. When faced with the choice of keeping a contact or moving on, knowing what exactly what you want from the relationship and how much awkwardness you are willing to put up with to reach your goal, is useful. For me, my threshold for foolishness was reached upon the invitation to the beach house.
Sometimes it may be possible to maintain a professional relationship simply by consistently sticking to business topics at and, or adjusting your posture and tone. A reasonable man with any sense whatsoever would probably get the hint. In a career like law, reputation is worth its weight in gold, and if someone compromises this by hitting on you, they clearly do not take you seriously and won’t be any worth to you. So, if the unwanted attention continues or you feel too uncomfortable, cut your losses and move on.