Sexism and the Client

sexism and client.indexedWe got a fascinating reader email from an eighth year attorney on the partnership track…

I am actively trying to build my client base, including going to lunches with local CEOs of start-up companies, etc. Today I went on a lunch with a 50ish CEO that I met at a seminar my firm hosted. During this lunch meeting at a local restaurant, he proceeded to make a comment about how attractive I was five different times during an hour long conversation. Whenever he would do it, I would just quickly move on to another topic and not acknowledge the statement. By the time I got back to the office, I was livid. I can’t imagine any of my male colleagues having to experience a situation even remotely similar to this. Here, I am trying to build a client base for myself and my firm and in doing so, I’m reminded that I’m looked at as an attractive women first and a lawyer second. Any thoughts/comments on how I can deal with this issue in the future? Thanks in advance!

Eeeeesh. We’ll say it again: eeesh.  We’re curious to hear what the readers are going to have to say about this one.  (Pictured:  probably what your would-be client is hoping you’ll say…) First, we would say that you have two goals at these kinds of meetings. The first goal: get the guy as a client. The second goal: not ruin your relationship with whoever introduced you to this guy. And it’s okay if you decide halfway through lunch that you do not WANT to work with this guy, and just want to get out of there without dropkicking him.  After all, the kind of politeness and interest you might show to a potential client will not be the same you show to “business acquaintance of a friend.” For example, after about the third time he mentioned that you were attractive, we might say something very calm such as, “let’s stick to the topic, please.” If he still persisted, we’d lean back and start to show disinterest, or use a break in the conversation to perhaps say something like, “Oh, this reminds me of the time __” and rattle off a few of your professional accomplishments.  After about the fifth time, we might invent an emergency (preferably one showing how desperately you’re needed at the office by another client) to get the heck out of there.  You have to know your own tolerance for these kinds of jerks, and how much aggravation you’re willing to put up with for a potential client.

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That said, you should be very mindful of your body language and other triggers that might send someone the wrong idea that it’s a date. For example, be very clear with him at the start of it about why you’re at lunch.  Second, there can be overlap between “I’m a professional who’s interested” body language and “I’m a woman who’s interested” body language, such as leaning forward to show interest. For women who are interested in flirting, there are a number of other things to do to convey interest — touching your hair and body, mimicking his behavior (to suggest that you’re on the same wavelength), turning your body towards his, exposing your wrists — try to gauge yourself for how many of these things you’re doing unconsciously, because you could be sending out “I’m flirting” signals without even realizing it.

Readers, what are your tips for dealing with this kind of situation?

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  1. He’s not a client yet, right? So where you saw a lunch leading to a potential business relationship, he saw lunch leading to a different kind of relationship. I doubt he’s interested in your professional services, so I’d send him a professional thank you email, and leave it at that. If he’s interested in retaining you as counsel, let him pursue you instead of the other way around. And if he continues to hit on you, just ignore him and he’ll take a hint.

  2. Jacquelyn :

    I am anxious to see what advice readers can provide! Being a young woman in a male-dominated field brings a lot of sticky situations. A few months ago, when I was feeling out my lateral options, I started a conversation with a hiring partner at a networking event. I thought things were going well, until he asked me out to a Broadway show and dinner! While I really wanted a job, the implication that the outing would be a date made me uncomfortable enough that I declined, but I still wonder whether I made the right decision. Do men ever ask other men out to a Broadway show and dinner?
    I know that many other women out there have been hit on by their colleagues and/or potential bosses. How do you politely turn someone down for a date, or sidestep an inappropriate “compliment,” then slide in at the end with a “but I would love a job!”?
    One comment that I get a lot (and I note every time that it happens because I cannot overstate how much I hate this comment) is that I’m “too pretty to be working,” which usually segues into a question about my relationship status. How in the world do you answer this kind of comment?

    • I get these comments too.

      Hoping other corporettes will help us!

      • Anonymous :

        I get comments like this, or other inappropriate comments that generally fall into the same category, and I usually try to make light of it while still conveying just enough edge to get them to stop. Possible retorts (depending on who the offending male is and the situation), include:

        “Give me a break. That sounds like something my grandfather would have said.” (said with a smile and somewhat joking tone).

        “That’s kind of you to say, but I do in fact work very hard and . . . [steer back to substantive conversation]” (this is the most polite of my options and would be used for client-types).

        “Can we please stay focused here?” (said with smile but with serious overtones).

        Or if I’m really pissed and don’t care whether I offend or embarrass the other person, I just glare at him, and then, in my most serious voice, say something like “let’s move on please.”

        Just some ideas . . .

        • I think saying “that is something my grandfather would say,” is going to be perceived as highly insulting. No one wants to think he is perceived as elderly. Use that only when you are certain that you want to permanently alienate that fellow.

          As to your second suggestion, to be used for a potential client, that seems an excellent approach.

          • Anonymous :

            I see your point (I was the one who posted that) and agree somewhat, but I tend to use that line for men who are not, in fact, old and who are close to me in age (late 30s). In my mind, many times it’s less about sex and more about power. For me, the best way to wrestle power back is by sending back a strong volley — he tries to assert dominance by pulling out the sex card, I volley back by making a quip that labels him as cliche and old fashioned, and at the same time, show that I’m not intimidated by his nonsense.

            I agree that this line would not work for someone much older than you.

          • I like the grandfather line, even if it is someone that you don’t want to alienate. If the person is close to your age, and you say it in a joking manner, it calls him out as being old-fashioned and out of touch and is just embarrassing enough. If the person is much older than you, and you say it in a nice, almost nostalgic manner (as though you miss dear old grandpa) it reminds the person that he is way too old to be flirting with a young woman and redirects the conversation. Either way, I do think that most of us are too concerned with being polite–as long as your response is said in a fairly light manner, then it will make the man realize he’s being inappropriate and hopefully he’ll move on to the topic at hand.

        • Been there :

          It may just be me, but the grandfather line sounds flirtatious to me. I would be afraid it would be read as an invitation to revise the compliment. I think the other lines (keeping it simple and quickly moving back to work) send a more clear message.

    • It’s really irritating to go to networking functions wanting a job and getting hit on instead.

      Re-reading this sentence, it sounds snarky, but fellow Corpettes, I am deadly serious.

      Ok, ‘fess up. Who else has this happened to?

      • Had this happen recently at a tax conference… at first I was flattered (first time I’ve been hit on post-fat… which is to say, pretty much first time) — by time 3 I was annoyed… looking forward to some tips b/c I’m not about to lock myself in a hotel room and give up on networking!

      • I don’t think you sounded snarky at all! I am appalled to read this stuff…thank heavens I’ve escaped so far but I think Asian men (generalising here) are much less likely to hit on women in this way atleast.

        When i was starting my career at 22, I got the “old uncles” who would say “you’re young enough to be my daughter”. I’d just say “ha ha, am sure you wouldn’t like me calling you Dad!” and try to steer back to work topics.

        While better than being hit on, it wasn’t appreciated either!!

    • i have no advice, but I am utterly shocked that anyone would ever say that to you. the feminist in me is screaming “What, so I should just find a nice husband and sit at home rather than work? Is that what you’re saying?” Ugh. I’m not sure I could politely respond to that one. It’d be something snarky about how pretty women like career success, too.

      • I’ve heard the response, “Well, unless someone is interested in paying me to be pretty, y’all will just have to put up with looking at me”

        • I was thinking of something along the lines of “Well, you’re too stupid to be talking, but yet you still are.” Not that I recommend actually saying something like that. Grrr.

        • Funny! Although I think I’d shy away from making it seem like I’m only working for the money. If the guy is looking to be my sugar daddy, I don’t want to give him any ideas!

      • What about, “if only my landlord/bank/grocery stores/etc. agreed with you?” :)

      • Yes. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they’re saying.

    • Sadly, I had a SITTING FEDERAL COURT SENIOR JUDGE tell me once that I was too pretty to be practicing law.

      He was 80-something. I was 28.


      • I think we know the same judge…ick is right.

      • Yes, I usually get this (and other inappropriateness) from wayyyy older men as well. Can we deduct from our informal empirical analysis this is a generational thing? If so, then what?

      • I had a jury-waived murder trial in federal court. I got a visiting federal judge. (It was a federal case because it occurred on a military base — client killed her husband and tried to commit suicide.) My client was acquitted, as she should have been.

        Two hours later the judge called me at my office and asked me out to dinner at a dark, expensive, exclusive restaurant. He was very flattering about my performance in court and about my body. I wasn’t even angry: I was hurt and offended. I declined.

        Over the years, the same federal judge has come to our jurisdiction and studiously ignored me. He’s about twenty years older than me.

        Another instance was when I was co-counsel in a big drug case. The other attorney was from a famed San Francisco law firm. Again, I got lucky and won the case. The counsel claimed to be impressed. He offered me an extremely well-paying job, and then asked me out for a date. I declined. Offer withdrawn.

        Third example: at the end of another murder case, the jury broke for lunch. I asked the judge where the jury was going to eat because I didn’t want to run in to them. Prosecutor went berserk. He claimed I wanted to go to their restaurant so I could flirt with the jurors (8 women, 4 men.)

        The list goes on, but those are the most egregious examples that I can recall. Men are dogs, and I mean that in the kindest, Animal Planet kind of way.

    • Chicagoist :

      “I know you are but what am I?”

      I mean, that may be the maturity level we’re dealing with…

    • This is such a hard thing. The comment is inappropriate and ideally you want the person who said it to know it, but how do you do it without pissing them off (too much)?

      If they are older and have a daughter: “Aw that’s so sweet. I know your daughter’s very pretty too, but I doubt she likes hearing these kinds of comments.” (or something along those lines)

      Otherwise: “Aw thank you, I bet everyone told you the same thing back in the day!”

      (okay that one’s kind of mean)

      “Thanks, I love being thought of as just a pretty face!”

      (hmm still too snarky)

      “Thank you, but can I request something? In the future I really would appreciate being treated like a colleague.”

      • Chicagoist :

        I second the last suggestion. For many of us, I think the heavy emphasis on politesse suggests that we as women are often way too concerned about not pissing anyone off. If you’re uncomfortable with something, say so. Be assertive, not aggressive, and stand the F up for yourself!

        • Bostonian :

          That’s what I keep thinking after reading these posts! Anyone I don’t know who comments on my body or makes lewd suggestions is being rude. Why shouldn’t I let them know how rude they’re being?

          When I get these comments, usually along the line of what a young pretty girl like me is doing a) at the conference b) in this serious profession, etc., I say that I am pursuing my career in a professional manner. End of conversation. Clients hitting on me? I flat out say that I am a qualified attorney, as evidenced by x, y and z, and ask if they are able to work with me without putting sex in the way.

          By the way, these reactions have gotten me more job interviews, clients, promotions, and respect than anything else I’ve tried.

    • Anonymous :

      “How do you politely turn someone down for a date, or sidestep an inappropriate “compliment,” then slide in at the end with a “but I would love a job!”?”

      This has been my problem as well, and a job turned up a few months later at a place where I declined nightly “drinks” with the would-be boss. I reached out and got an interview, but have no clue how it’ll work out!

    • In response to “you’re too pretty to be working” I would say, with a smile, “well, I’m also too smart not to,” and then change the subject. Sometimes coming back with a witty response will (a) earn you some respect and (b) change the dynamic between you from being “powerful man and pretty girl” to more of a conversation between equals.

      • That’s a nice response!

        • Anonymous :

          I love that! What a great response that rebuts the statement yet appeases our feminine desire to not insult anyone.

          • I agree.

            Bragging about your smarts in response to a comment about your appearance is push back without insult.

    • Am I a terrible person that I giggled when I read the line “I was feeling out my lateral options”?

  3. This is such a great question. I am also trying to build a network/client base, but it seems that men (my field is ALL men) are only ever interested in a social date with me. I’ve sought the advise of my fiance, who has had a lot of success in developing his own clients. He assures me that it is not my behavior or dress (and has even watched me up close and from afar at some of these events in order to evaluate me).

    I once arranged to meet a potential client for lunch, only to have him greet me with a kiss on the cheek! I was speechless! When I perservered and kept the conversation to business, he was clearly irritated. That day entirely changed the nature of our relationship (we serve on a non-profit board together).

    • You probably learned this lesson the hard way from your potential-client lunch, but I will always, ALWAYS extend my hand for a handshake as soon as I’m within “shaking distance” – it keeps people from thinking that a hug, a kiss on the cheek, etc. is appropriate.

      Obviously what is appropriate in business settings can vary from country to country and culture to culture. Where I live, a kiss on the cheek is NOT business.

      • Yesterday I extended my hand for a shake to a male colleague, he left me hanging ans said he doesn’t shake women’s hands for religious reasons.. i ended up slightly shaking his upper wrist just to lower the awkwardness…

        • LexCaritas :

          I have more than one client who cannot touch any part of me for religious reasons (hand, wrist, etc). It is hard to train yourself not to put the hand out there to shake, but if you do and are left hanging, you need to just take the awkwardness, don’t shake the wrist – he can’t touch or be touched by you period. I know it sounds strange, but at least some observant jews (who will be white and may be wearing ‘normal’ clothes) will have this requirement.

    • Was your client non-white? I say it because this would not phase me as much since I’m Hispanic and a kiss on the cheek is merely “hello” (among Hispanic business people as well as socially). I think French, Germans, Spanish are the same as I’m sure some other cultures.

      • Young Irish guy. Lol.

        And my hand was extended…he took it, pulled me in and planted one!

    • For some reason, business people here do the kiss cheek thing (think European style). I am in a Northeast city too! It always throws me off and I can’t do it classy. Think, senior partner meets you at awards reception, shakes hand while simultaneously kissing cheek. They ALL do it here.

      • I lived in France for many years and it is absolutely a cultural norm there. Not in the States, though, and I won’t put up with it – I will absolutely dodge away with my hand still outstretched and say that I prefer handshakes.

      • It’s cultural, in my country you kiss twice (once in each cheek) I kiss everybody from my boss, to my assistant to the General manager (male by the way).
        But when I am in the US I just say hello!

    • If he was European, Latino, or just from a part of the country where they do that type of thing, he wasn’t trying to get fresh, it was just a greeting. You’re entitled not to like it, but all over the world, that’s how people say hello. Food for thought :)

      • This is a great point, and I was lucky to work abroad where this was routine. But in my midwest city, by a thirty-something ex-frat guy….just NO.

  4. Exposing your wrists??? Can someone please explain this? How is this flirtatious body language?

    • I think it is if you’re Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    • I’m baffled by this as well. What does it even mean? How is it flirtatious and how does one do it? By rolling up one’s sleeves? Is it the top of the wrist or the bottom? Please explain . . .

      • It is the bottom of the wrist. It is scandalous because it is showing bare skin (similar to showing an ankle). Theunderneath of your wrist is shown as easily as the top. You have to go out of your way to show, which shows “interest”.

    • i don’t really get it either, but i remember reading it in “how to flirt” advice guides in years past. something about showing you’re vulnerable.

      • It is an erogenous zone–if you read “Memoirs of a Geisha” showing your wrist as you poured tea was a seduction tactic.

      • BS. Sorry Kat, just BS.

        If exposing your wrist is a come-on, then we should all wear abayas/burqas (no offense to Muslim readers). I grew up in India and realised (the hard way) that even when you’re fully covered up in a sari/tunic+trousers, there will be an a** hole who will try to hit on you.

        • I am muslim (not offended at all btw AN ) and seriously we have sexual lharrassment all over the place, you could be wearing a tent the guys will still whistle and make rude comments regardless of your age or your body shape!

          • This said, I never had someone hit at me while doing business, and I am an avid follower of the skirt, shell and 3/4 sleeve cardigan combo

          • haha just trying to picture me wearing a tent…

        • Fully covered Muslim Corporette here, absolutely in agreement with AN. Gotta appreciate the “you’re so exotic” comments, yawn.

    • Ha ha. I have read about this in the past, and it sounds shocking, but isn’t meant to be. The wrist is a narrow/vulnerable part of your body and body language in which your wrists are open and exposed/pointed towards the person indicates that you are open to interaction with that person (possibly flirtatious) or showing them your vulnerable side. Something like that.
      It isn’t just “not covering up your wrist with extra long sleeves”, but actively ‘facing’ your wrists towards that person. Its a body language thing, just like leaning towards, or maintaining eye contact.
      Not necessarily flirtatious, but certainly interactive, ‘tuned in’.
      Again, not that one needs to consciously avoid it, but there’s a thin line as C pointed out between ‘professional interest’ (eye contact, leaning in) and flirtatious interest (eye contact, coquettishness) and ‘wrist exposing’ behavior could fall in either.

  5. Well, it helps when you are married and flashing that wedding ring! But sometimes I suspect even that is not deterrent enough?

    Also, exposing your wrist has something to do with how you use your hands for gestures rather than being about how much you are covered up.

  6. I hope this guy wasn’t married… If single, not so surprising. 50-ish singles are so desparate, they (men and women) are always hoping for romance. And 50-ish men always think single women are looking for romance and nothing else. We’ve done it to ourselves to some degree–isn’t that what Sex & the City is about?

    What about taking a colleague with you when you intend it strictly business. That makes the purpose of lunch clear. And if you take an associate, you are mentoring the associate to show how to meet potential clients, and not losing the new client to someone higher in the food chain.

    • I can see dangers of inviting an associate. For instance, if the associate is a guy, even if he is an associate, a potential client may treat him as the lead lawyer. If the associate is a woman, the potential client has twice as many flirtation targets. How about inviting several people from the potential client? Then it’s clear this is a business lunch.

      • Very good points. Thanks for posting.

      • Very good points. But how about just saying (multiple times): let’s meet to discuss business opportunities or how my firm can help you.

    • 50s singles are ‘so desperate’? That’s depressing.

      • I’m a 50 y/o single, but certainly don’t think I’m desparate.

        • It’s just the men who are desperate. ALL men are desperate to…”spread their seed,” or at least see for themselves how many women they think might be game, to stoke their dumb male egos. Dogs, indeed.

  7. I really enjoy Corporette for the pragmatic and wonderful advice it provides for professional women. However, I feel compelled to leave a comment regarding the final paragraph of this post. The paragraph left me with a really angry, disappointed feeling. Here’s why: it implies that the eight year attorney did something to deserve the unwanted, aggressive comments about her appearance. That attitude reinforces the sexism that so many of us fight against every single day.

    While I recognize that some people certainly flirt unwittingly and could use advice on avoiding sending the wrong signals, that sort of advice seems inappropriate and offensive in light of the eighth year attorney’s prompted question. Nothing in her question mentions any of her behaviors or circumstances that suggest this was anything but a business lunch. In any case, body language a person uses to develop rapport with another person certainly need not be construed as sexual interest when the two people are of opposite sexes. Indeed, that kind of silly assumption is why sexist clients like this get away with this kind of thing all the time. If a male attorney had leaned in to the client to show him he is “on the same wave length” I doubt the client would make 5 unwanted, aggressive comments about the male attorney’s physical appearance.

    • Sorry for all my posts, but…I so agree with you. When I get dressed in the morning, I want to look good, yet it seems that femininity is a no-no. Which I wouldn’t mind, but…how many male executives do we see in well cut suits, expensive shoes, and oozing masculinity, ala Mr. Big? Men can be men but women cannot be women–it’s like I have to wear a boxy unflattering suit in order to be taken seriously.

      • Biglaw Refugee :

        I agree it is frustrating that in our society, sex appeal and business appropriate overlap for men, but not for women. Dress aside, I feel I need to have one personality for the office and another for outside the office – serious and assertive in the office, “nice,” fun and witty outside the office. Don’t psychologists say that being able to be “authentic” in all aspects of one’s life is important for happiness? Not sure what anyone can do about it, though.

        I did date a guy who found smart women in business attire sexier than women in conventionally sexy clothes. I wish there were more like him.

    • This was my first reaction too; however, I think Kat’s response was intended not toward the 8th Year alone but to all readers. I don’t think it hurts to do a quick check as to whether you inadvertently gave off signals, not that the 8th Year seems to have done so, and not that the potential client’s behavior was acceptable even if she had. If the goal is to avoid this type of behavior, I think it’s legitimate for a part of the discussion to include considering our own actions – understanding that some men are going to hit on attractive women even if NO signals are given off.

      • That’s fair – I love Kat’s writing, and have no doubt that she had the best of intentions.

        That does not change that by bring that advice up the way she did, she reinforces the sexism instead of standing up against it. Encouraging women to not expose their wrists is hardly a legitimate attempt at “considering our own actions” – it blames women for sexism rather than focuses on solving the actual problem. It reminds me of discussing the short skirt a sexual assault surviver wore, or how much she drank at that party – that kind of discussion plainly takes the focus away from the real issues, and suggests that women be compliant in the sexist world we live in.

        • I see your point. We would certainly not ask a rape victim to examine whether she was asking for it, and it’s a slippery slope (I hate that phrase, but it seems appropriate here).

    • I agree, Laurel. Flirty behavior might (emphasis on might, because it would depend on the situation) excuse one comment about physical appearance or might explain why a man you meet in a business setting would ask you if you wanted to meet in a social setting later. But, that would only apply if he asked you once and dropped it when you politely changed the subject/declined. The fact that the OP kept changing the subject should have been a much more obvious signal than any other small, “flirty” behaviors she exhibited.

      • This isn’t so much advice as something that’s relevant and interesting (to me anyway). Way back in a psych course I took in college I remember discussing that men are “programmed” (for lack of a better word) to misinterpret general polite friendliness from women as flirting. It mentioned a situation that arose when a supermarket instituted a policy that required cashiers to smile and make eye contact with each customer as they reached the front of the line. The policy had to be dropped after the female cashiers reported since the policy had been implemented male customers had begun putting the moves on the cashiers on a regular basis and the women were sick of having to fend off the advances of some clueless man several times each shift.

        Not sure exactly what that means in terms of the OP’s problem. While, yes, it does sort of explain the situation (maybe), men also have brains and are or should be capable of controlling themselves. I would also think (hope) that after a lifetime of misreading women’s signals, they would start to pick up on the fact that it was happening and adjust their behavior and expectations accordingly.

        • This is how I interpreted Kat’s tone. Not that the OP was inviting flirtation, but that unbeknownst to her the weirdo sitting across from her thought that she was flirting, while the behaviors she exhibited were entirely inadvertant. I am floored by some of the behaviors men interpret as flirtatious – Kat’s suggestions are a good reminder of how men might interpret totally unconscious behaviors.

          • I’m with you dd. I think Kat was just saying you might be sending signals unknowingly–this is NOTHING like asking a rape victim if she was “asking for it.” After all, from the guy’s perspective–how is he supposed to know when it IS appropriate for him to ask out a professional woman (after all this is how many of professional couples come together)–certainly, she’s not going to throw herself at him, so he’d have to pick up on more subtle clues. It’s fair to double check that you’re not sending them.

    • Exactly, very true. I felt the same way after reading.

      While some women are flirtatious, once they’ve made it through 8 years and onto the partner track, they’re usually either fully aware of and embracing any advantages that their flirtatious behaviors give them. OR – and that what it sounds like this person is doing – they have tried to play the game just like the boys. Since she’s trying to bring in her own book of clients (just like the guys), and meeting one-on-one (just like the guys), its only fair that she be held to those standards. One comment might be the result of flirtatious behavior (although still inappropriate). But five is deliberate undermining of everything professional that she brings to the table. Not okay.

    • thank you Laurel! I was thinking the same thing.

  8. Interrobang :

    No amount of polite “I’m sorry, perhaps you misunderstood me…” or references to one’s significant other throughout the conversation is likely to dissuade a man who wants to interpret professional advances as romantic overtures. No matter how gracefully delivered, “Pardon me, I thought this was a networking event, not a speed dating happy hour” is not going to earn you this man’s professional respect and interest. For all the good it would do, you might as well throw your drink in his face.

    My advice, dear, is to remember the law is not indentured servitude. Of course your book of business is your job security and, in large part, your paycheck. But at no point in the attorney-client relationship, or even leading up to the relationship, should you stop assessing whether this is a client *worth* working for. There are many good reasons to say “No” to a client, even a potential client. Never be afraid to say it.

    Rub some dirt on it and keep on swinging, I say.

    • Amen sister.

      And while I am sure the corporette in Kat’s post did NOT do this, nor would any other self-respecting corporette do it, there ARE women who apparently believe that the primary/exclusive way to succeed in this business is to *flirt* (with supervisors, with judges, with outside/opposing/local counsel, with experts…you name it). This ruins it for all of us, because the Mr. Bigs of the world can’t help themselves but to play to it, and the cycle perpetuates.

      • Please, lets never ever again use the phrase “can’t help themselves” in reference to any man we know. If he’s an adult and he’s not mentally challenged, he can help himself.

        If men want to control the world, they’re going to have to learn to control themselves first.

        • They do control the world, and in regard to controlling themselves – Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton, need I go on?

          I agree with you that they can and should, but the fact is they don’t and sometimes they are encouraged by the *flirts* masquerading as professionals – which is really inappropriate and downright shameful.

          • And sometimes I am encouraged to have an affair by flirts masquerading as professionals … and I turn it down. I hold men to the same “high” (or embarrassingly average, actually) standard. Everything men choose to do is a choice, its their choice, and its made under far less pressure and coercion than female professionals deal with regularly in the course of daily business. I see no reason to cut them any more slack than I would give to a fellow female cohort.

  9. Another Perspective :

    You may be dismayed to hear that I – a female attorney over the age of 60 – still receive this kind of attention. And I react just as the original commenter did – politely change the subject – and frequently I am just not able to hear the comments I don’t want to hear. I don’t think that it makes sense to antagonize the person, even if you long to do so. He could become a valuable client once you train him that your interest in him does not extend to your personal life, and it is possible, at least some of the time, to achieve that training.

    And, unfortunately, as some of the comments suggest, consider your behavior and dress. If your dress includes low-cut blouses, very short skirts, and shoes made for dancing, you are suggesting a different kind of relationship than what you had in mind.

    • 30-yo here. No one has ever hit on me at work. Am I doing something wrong? ;)

    • Wow! I don’t know if that is a good or bad thing? :-)
      Unwanted is still unwanted, even though you must look fab at 60.

      I’ve found that the unwanted attention has mostly stopped once I hit 40. Must say it came as a relief after a good many years of it and even downright and more blatant sexual harassment in my 20s.

  10. I’ve found a definite disconnect in regional business styles – I am a Midwestern lawyer, and ALWAYS feel uncomfortable dealing with male clients from Los Angeles because they ALWAYS seem to be aggressively flirting. Some Southern men seem more concerned with my marital status than my business proposition (although this has been more isolated). I’ve had the easiest business dealings with Midwestern men, and haven’t dealt very much with East Coast or Southwest folk. Anyone else experienced this?

    • There are definite cultural differences. Some men tend more toward the “honey” moniker for all women and a generally flirtatious manner. For me, personally, I don’t have a problem unless there is a specific come on directed toward me that is repeated after I express my lack of interest in some way. I have, however, had unfortunate experiences of opposing counsel derisively calling me “honey” and trying to explain that it was a “Southern” thing. Um, no. It’s a jacka$$ thing.

      • You’re completely right. I’m from the deep South and if he’s calling you “honey,” he’s being dismissive.

        • Call him “honey” or “sweetheart” right back in exactly the same snotty tone he used when he addressed you.

          • I finally told him, during a deposition, “My name is not ‘honey.’ You may call me Ms. R, R, or counselor, but stop calling me honey.” At that point, he told me that it was a “Southern thing” and I was taking it the wrong way. I pointed out that he was from Cleveland and told him that I would terminate the deposition if he could not be professional. (There was a LOT more than calling me honey.) Long story short, he stopped. That was a different case though, because I didn’t care about offending him. He was a hateful man who had a problem with women and with my client, and the judge very clearly knew it.

          • I’d love to read that deposition. And rock on, RR, for calling him on his bullsh*t.

      • I once had opposing counsel (about my own age) call me “sweetie” during a telephone call. Actually a pretty nice guy most of the time. I responded by calling him “snookums” – which resulted in an apology once he finished sputtering.

        With regard to the original point – everyone has to decide for themselves how how much they are willing to put up with. To some extent a client who wants to flirt is going to flirt and any attempt to shut him down is going to result in him finding another lawyer – either a woman who will put up with it or a many who will accompany him to bars and strip clubs.

        • HAHAHAHA….okay, the snookums retort is terrific. I’m not sure I’d EVER have the guts to use that one, but it is seriously great. So bravo to you. :)

        • That is AWESOME.

  11. I would probably try to make a joke, then transition out. I’m thinking:

    Thank you, but trust me, a pretty face won’t get you very far. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had such great mentorship from the brilliant attorneys at my firm, and that people like [our mutual contact] believe in my abilities as a litigator.

    • I actually like this, generally, as a way to transition, but I would not go on to discuss how fortunate I have been to have others help me. When you are trying to land a client is not the time to “lead off” with others. Talk about your own brains, hard work, and accomplishments, and end with your supporting network (to show there is backup). Giving credit to others first thing, unfortunately, undermines your own skills and abilities.

  12. associate :

    I was recently at a bar lunch with my boyfriend (also an attorney) and an older attorney (IMO really old) said to me: “I know you’re an attorney and all, but my goodness, you are beautiful.” I just said thank you.

    I like to think we won’t be experiencing such comments for much longer. I can’t imagine one of my male peers saying something like that. So, because I don’t have the energy to try and change the world, I’ll let the old guys do their thing and target my marketing toward women and younger men.

    • Ex-3L Sarah :

      I would do the same thing. Granted, getting hit on at a conference/interview doesn’t happen to me, and if it does, I don’t realize it and go happily on my merry way of conversation. But it seems rude when someone pays you a compliment like that not to acknowledge it. I don’t mean saying “Well, thank you very much, you kind, thoughtful, generous man.” But saying “Thank you,” and then continuing to talk about what you were talking about before.

      Some of my clients have said I was beautiful/pretty, but they usually say it a little softly and in the context of something else. So maybe I’m more intimidating? Meh?

    • I’ve had much older men say something like that to me, and it actually doesn’t bother me as much as a younger guy. But it depends completely on the tone, I felt it was more grandfatherly than pervy, and it was not in a professional setting which would bother me even if grandfatherly.

  13. To be honest, I think some men are kind of predisposed to think women are constantly coming on to them. Some kind of self-flattery, I think. Not saying that’s what happened here; this is kind of a tangential thought.

    I have a good male friend who is constantly telling me so-and-so female classmate (once even a prof) just made eyes at him, or touched her hair and was clearly hitting on him, used some kind of flirtatious voice intonation, etc. I’m sitting there thinking, ok you’re not a bad looking guy, but seriously nothing that would make a woman stop dead in her tracks and try to seduce you! Not to mention, I sometimes touch my hair and it’s just a mindless bad habit — I am most certainly not beaming romantic thoughts at you or anyone else, mister! So I tend to think a lot of it is in his head, but he does always reference some physical movement the woman made to “cue him in,” which makes me think that some men are just really tuned into body language, and they’re going to interpret it in the way they want, regardless of the actual message (if any). And I don’t really know what we can do about that – if a person is going to create a fiction in his head without your knowledge, how can you disabuse him of it?

    • Just to make sure I explained myself clearly – my point is *not* that women unconsciously make flirtatious signals. My point is that I really think most women do not make signals, but there are just some guys out there who are going to read things that are not there. Hope this makes sense. I agree with Laurel, above.

    • Agree. My closest male friend is the same way. I’m constantly baffled, especially because I have often witnessed the events that he interprets as women hitting on him… and they are literally nothing. I can never figure out how to let him down easy (he actually has pretty low self esteem, so it’s not just the cocky guys who are imagining these things); I’ve told him that I didn’t notice anything unusual, but he always emphatically disagrees and says that I need to pay better attention because so-and-so was definitely flirting. Um, sorry, no.

      • It’s exactly the same thing with my friend! He exudes confidence but he actually has a very fragile ego and so I don’t want to say anything to hurt his feelings either! I pretty much respond exactly the same way and am also usually told I just didn’t see/understand. How funny.

        • Indeed. Best example: my now husband told me that he thought a senior (and decidedly lesbian) prof in my dept. was flirting with him because she signed her emails ‘love.’ I had to explain that she was senior enough and famous enough that she could do that with everyone. And that she lived with a woman.

          Men (human, natch) see what they want to see, and can see flirting even when it’s not there. In the case of the senior prof, I would say signing her emails ‘love’ was a power play on *her* part – just to prove that she had earned the right to do whatever she wanted.

        • It’s natural not to want to hurt someone’s feelings. However, I wouldn’t worry too much about that since a misguided person could offend a lot of people if his perceptions are left uncorrected.

  14. Little Lurker :

    I had a tangential but equally shady experience two summers ago (an in-between-college-years-internship). I was at the bottom of the interning ladder at a huge arts organization in a major city. With the exception of one girl, EVERYONE else was at least 5 years older than me (if not 15) and very few people paid attention to me at all, let alone smile at the lowly intern.

    While the work experience was invaluable, I didn’t realize how profoundly lonely I was until one of the guys in a neighboring department befriended me. I say “befriended” because that’s what I thought it was at the time, but when I look back on it now, his actions seem shadier and shadier.

    He was at least 12+ years my senior, single, and not going anywhere (read: higher up) within the organization anytime soon. His abilities were definitely underappreciated, but his position required very little skill or intellect, and he had been there for a few years.

    We had lunch together several times (he never paid — I was naive, but I was a naive feminist!), talked about life the universe and everything. On the days he was off or on duty somewhere else, I felt pretty isolated from everything. He occasionally complimented my clothing, which embarrassed me, mostly because I had no idea (and still don’t, really) how to accept compliments from men. We never met up after work or anything, but he did spend an awful lot of time in my office area on the job. And one day ::gulp:: when I was stressed about a tough assignment, he gave me a neck massage.

    Because we were an arts organization, most of the guys around were gay. He was friendly with other women (mostly the ones lower on the ladder). How was I supposed to know??? Sigh.

    I’m older and wiser now and very very grateful that he was nerdy enough not to pursue anything, because I would not have realized it would have been a date at the time and definitely would have gone. And yes, I’m 90% sure if I had shown any hint of awareness/interest, he would have jumped at the chance.

    Oy. I’d forgotten about him until recently, thank God. I won’t put myself in a position like that again, but — any tips on warding away inappropriate interest from colleagues?

    [[Thanks for listening in advance, Corporettse. I think I knew deep down something was off — I’ve hardly told anyone about my friendship with him, and this is probably why.]]

    • A similar situation happened to me. Only he did ask me out and I did go. Ended badly, of course.

      I had just gotten back from a clerkship abroad, and it was right in the middle of the economic downturn. I couldn’t find a job and ended up temping to make ends meet. I was a receptionist in a small 8 member law firm. All the lawyers (all partners) made a point to stop by, say hello and ask me about my experience abroad. One male partner, 40, who I believed to be married with 2 kids stopped by on my first day and said he didn’t have time to chat then but would love to hear about my experience over lunch. We went to lunch that day and I treated it as a networking opportunity hoping this was the elusive temp job of urban legend stories where a one week placement turns into a permanent job (as an associate).

      I stayed at the firm as the receptionist for about a month. The lawyer, we’ll call him Ted, often took the paralegals out to lunch. He claimed he liked to keep in touch with the younger crowd. He still periodically took me out to lunch. On about the third lunch he said something about his soon-to-be ex-wife. I was uncomfortable and re-thinking all the interactions. About the sixth lunch he started telling personal stories about his weekend life (where he went shopping, concerts, etc). I stopped going to lunch with him.

      On my last day of work at his firm he asked me to get a drink. He then told me he wanted to date me at the bar. We ended up dating for about 8 months, until I found out he had also been dating a paralegal from his firm for over a year. Neither of us knew each other and he was dating both under the guise of an exclusive relationship. We had both met his kids, gone on trips together, etc (separately and during the same time period). He was living a double-life, and extremely creative to pull it off.

      In the end, Ted told me he was after me from my first day at his firm. I’m now super weary of any interaction with any male at my new firm.

  15. Little Lurker :

    to clarify: colleagues as opposed to clients being the distinction here.

    the OP can choose not to build a business relationship with the Creeper, but my Inappropriate Man worked next door and I wouldn’t have been able to get away from him if I’d tried. And no one listens to interns about anything, unfortunately.

    • Very true. Interns who complained about the creeper at my last firm (the hiring partner, unfortunately) were summarily dismissed for being “absolutely stupid as a stump.” I believed him until he came after me – survived it for a year. Finally left after the requisite year was on my resume – still losing the stress weight and dealing with the stress-related health problems on this job.

      It’s harder when you have a graduate degree (and student loans) under your belt, I think, because there’s more of a sunk cost in each job and a much bigger incentive to make it work. When I was a receptionist in high school, these guys were so easy to shut down. Now, I’m terrified to upset anyone because I actually need contacts and networking to build my career.

  16. I had the same concerns re blaming the victim but also recognize that we do indeed live in a sexist society. Not an easy conundrum.

    I probably would have been as flummoxed as the question-writer, but if I was in the zone, I’m also likely, once it became apparent that he wanted something I wouldn’t consider giving, to say exactly that in flirtatiously aggressive tone: yep, amazing that I got it all, isn’t it? I’d love to work with your firm as an attorney, but we’ve got to be clear about what’s on the table. X, y, or z are what I have to offer. You let me know which of those you and your colleagues are interested in. If you can get it out smoothly and supremely confidently his hard on will keep him from protesting. When he tries again you can say uh-uh, remember what we’re here for? It’s a tricky balance but if you didn’t have enough warning to invite multple people from his side, it’s the best I can think of.

    • I like the idea of responding with “Yep, I got it all.” I might add, “Yep I got it all – beauty, brains, and a forward-moving career path (or book of business, etc). I’m here to talk about the career.”

  17. I am afraid we are not much closer to avoiding these issues in the workplace. I am a ninth-year attorney and have experienced overt sexual advances at work (including my breasts getting a job offer from one attorney at the end of my summer associate clerkship), getting the once-over eye nearly daily from supervising attorneys, having my practice group leader jokingly suggest I share an office with the newly-hired senior attorney (who is known in the industry as a skirt-chaser) and being routinely talked about and classifed as the “female” or “woman” litigator of the bunch as I am the only female attorney in our group.

    I am attractive, but I am married with two kids. I am in no way on the market. I do not dress provocatively. I do not flirt – ever. I am uber-professional, timely, responsible, and do not break down in tears at work – ever.

    This is still a male-dominated profession. It depresses me endlessly, but it is a fact of my working life.

  18. Tough line to walk, but ideally, you tease and josh back with the flirter, but keep coming back to: “this is about BUSINESS.” Takes confidence, but I have seen it done… and done well.

  19. Maybe I missed this, but I think we are missing a crucial piece of information: did OP invite the CEO to lunch? Or did he invite her? I think this matters — it certainly sets the stage for what the purpose of the lunch was.

    • Catherine :

      What? I do not think it makes any difference who invited whom? If a potential client asks an attorney to lunch it usually is because that potential client wants to network or is screening attorneys to hire. Same think if an attorney invites a client. It is to network or to get hired as an attorney.

      • Agreed. It is a lunch during a weekday, not 11pm drinks on a Saturday night.

      • Really? I think it makes a big difference into whether this guy was thinking of this lunch as a date. I am a midlevel associate and if a CEO asks me to lunch I am going to assume 100% of the time he is asking me on a date, unless he says something pretty explicit about developing a professional relationship. If I invited him to lunch I think it would be more clear that it is a business lunch. Not only would the OP have had the chance to set the tone (“I would love to take you to lunch to explore the representation needs of your company…”), but the guy would be more likely to guess that it is a professional lunch. We don’t know the age of the OP, but let’s guess and say she’s in her 30s. How often do women 20 years younger pursue a man in his 50s? Unless this guy is Robert Redford, younger women are not chasing him down. But if he asked her, and she says yes without any qualifying statements, I’d think she should be prepared to fend off a few advances. That being said, he should have picked it up before the fifth comment!

        I think this what Kat is getting at — all these little things matter. The OP is welcome to be outraged, but should at least consider the context of the lunch.

  20. Sexism and the client, sexism and the colleague, sexism and the boss….

    I wish we could stop having discussions about what we, as women, need to do to respond to this, since the problem is how MEN behave. Unfortunately, there are usually zero repurcussions for men’s sexist behavior.

    If only a man’s career could be as badly hurt for making a sexist remark as a woman’s career is hurt if she shows up in a too-short skirt. Ha!