The live band blared on in the dark bar as my client and I sat chatting and nursing drinks. I had just finished telling him that the last song had been worn out by too much radio play when things took a turn.
"You're such a bitch," he sneered.
The words hurled out of his mouth like he was spitting out something vile.
My immediate reaction was one of outrage, but knowing my audience, I quickly culled through a catalog of responses in my mind, none of which seemed appropriate to spring upon a business client. I was about to open my mouth to stammer out something, when he started laughing. I simply squinted at him and did my best to keep a poker face.
As a 30-something single woman in a male-dominated IT consulting industry, I shouldn't have been surprised. It's not the first time someone has said that to me. Yet, he was one of the nice ones; someone I thought I could trust to act professionally regardless of the situation. All of his behavior leading up to this moment had given me little warning that I should expect it.
At this point, I think my face betrayed my conflicted emotions. The slow realization came over his drunk, slackened face that I did not share in his delight.
"Come on, I'm just joking!" he cajoled.
On this particular business trip, I was the only woman with a mix of five male colleagues and clients. At the onset, I loved the idea of being the only woman on the trip. I would bring a unique perspective packaged in a J.Crew dress and blazer that would be valued and respected. Sometimes it was true. By day, the cadence of my heels announced my arrival and my seemingly genteel colleagues opened and held doors for me. In meetings, my professional opinion mattered and was the dominant one at times.
In the evenings, however, the rules of civility seemed to no longer apply. In my office, going on a business trip was also code for "being away from the office means we can get wildly drunk and act inappropriately."
Normally, I don't mind the vibe. I'm by no means a wallflower and usually enjoy going toe to toe on whatever topic d'jour. But that night, it was hard to know what there was more of, beer or testosterone.
Mere minutes after I was "jokingly" called a bitch, the client leaned over and positioned his mouth right against my ear. He mumbled something about how if he wasn't married, he would definitely try to date me.
I leaned back, shook my head, and jokingly rolled my eyes with a smile as I tried to brush off his comment as innocuous, but internally I seethed. This was a reoccurring statement from several married men I worked with throughout the years. Ironically, every time some variation of the statement was made, I knew it was intended as a compliment, but it always left me feeling vulnerable and defenseless. Something about the casual way men said this to me, always with a sly Cheshire cat smile and a glint in their eyes, suggested I was something to be hunted. The implication that while we might be equals in the professional world, in another time and place I could be their mistress.
Not willing to wait around and see what the next insult would be, I quickly finished my drink and excused myself for the evening.
On the way back to my hotel room, I found myself trying to evaluate what the correct emotional reaction is when your client insults you and hits on you in the time it takes to dial into a teleconference. I was plagued by thoughts that maybe I was being too sensitive about the whole thing. It's not like he caused any real harm. Yet if the exchange had been with some random guy in a bar, I would have given him a (big!) piece of my mind. In this case, however, I felt trapped by the confines of professionalism: this man was my client, and I cared more about preserving the relationship for my company than I did about standing up for myself.
As a lifelong vocal feminist, reflecting on my reaction tore me up inside.
The gender imbalance and implication in power dynamics in my workplace are certainly not things I think about on a regular basis. Maybe it's because I've developed a thick skin, but it's more likely because it's usually not as overt as it was that night. But the one-two punch made it clear that I was concurrently treated as both the Madonna and the whore. Was this dichotomy something that had always existed and I had just never put the pieces together?
If it's true, then I'm in trouble. Contrary to other feminists, I don't want to own the word "bitch." I don't want to be a #girlboss, I don't want to lean in, and I don't want anyone to ask whether I have resting bitch face or not. Conversely, I don't want to have to flirt to get what I want, I don't want to have to question if I would be treated differently if my professional wardrobe included more pants and fewer dresses, or if being married would preclude men from confessing their fantasies about me to my face. I want to be valued for moving the discussion forward, how I leverage technology in constrained environments, and how I build partnerships.
What is the price to my career if I have to strategically think about how every email, meeting, and interaction I have with male colleagues creates a subtle wake that might be misconstrued as too bitchy or too suggestive?
The entire exchange has made me rethink how I view what I bring to the professional table. I never thought I'd be someone who lets such egregious comments slide, but I also never thought two seemingly drunken comments would bother me so much. What I have intuited from my client's sloppy, drunken behavior and my reaction is there is no right way to navigate the personal and professional boundaries of being true to who you are.
My client never apologized for his drunken declarations, and I never reported him to HR.