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It's Just Dinner. Honest.

The Careerist, a Blog
By Vivia Chen
February 15, 2012

What year is this? 1965? Judging by what I'm hearing about how uptight senior men are about their female subordinates, I'd say we're barely out of the Mad Men era.

As you know, one reason women are stagnating in law and other professions is that they lack a "sponsor"—a powerful (male) ally at the firm or company who will go to bat for them to advance their career.

You can probably think of dozens of reasons why women might lack a sponsor, but this one shocked me: Men are afraid of the sexual innuendo that might arise if they take an active interest in a woman's career—especially if they're seen together dining in a restaurant.

No kidding. As author Sylvia Ann Hewlett reminds me, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd "got shot down when he had dinner alone with a young female contractor." Though Hurd seemed to have taken more than a business interest in the young woman (she complained about his behavior), Hewlett says the takeaway is that it's just too risky to be closely associated with a younger woman.

In her study, which she describes in Harvard Business Review, Hewlett says 64 percent of senior men said that they would not sponsor a woman because it would entail spending one-on-one time together, which would likely stir rumors of an inappropriate relationship. "They didn’t care about the details of what went on in the HP situation, but the lesson was that they should never, ever have dinner alone with a female employee," says Hewlett.

But the problem is not just dinner after hours, but lunch too, says career coach Ellen Ostrow. In Attorney at Work, Ostrow writes:

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.

Ostrow adds that this practice group head "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."

It sounds to me that these guys (and maybe their wives) have a serious hang-up. But until the dinosaurs come home, what can you do? Ostrow suggests that the sponsor and the junior person grab a meal during the day, include others if it's a dinner, or first arrange a meal where significant others are invited to allay suspicion.

That's rather complicated, if you ask me. I mean, all you want is a simple, occasional dinner to discuss your career—not a conference with friends and family.

But Ostrow says the main point is that the junior person not give up. "Don’t take 'no' for an answer. . . . Empathize with the partner’s concerns but point out the uneven playing field this creates. Invite the partner to think with you about alternatives."

Frankly, I've always thought having an after-work drink was better for bonding than a formal dinner. So what about a round of cocktails? "Oh, I don't think they're ready for drinks," says Ostrow.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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