Bullish Q&A: What About Dudes Who Skeeze on You at Conferences?

what about dudes who skeeze on you at conferences-

I’ve read a bunch of our advice on being professional with dismissive sexists in the workplace, and it’s been really helpful. What about disgusting slimeballs in your wider professional sphere?

I’m in the media industry and I work in marketing. This means that I attend a lot of conferences, some huge with “booth babes” wandering around, others small and more techie, all heavily populated by men and where a lot of the networking goes on at the late night parties.

It’s depressing, being part of the 3% of women in attendance and overlooked because guys can’t tell a businesswoman from a booth babe, but whatever. My question is what to do with guys who are above and beyond the eye roll/brush off stage.

Like what happened today, where a sales guy from the company that was hosting the event came over to hit on me. Now, this is a guy who groped me in front of my boss last year–I just froze, couldn’t even figure out what to do. Today he introduced me to another guy in his department, then propositioned me. I brushed him off; when he left, the other guy came back to hit on me.

I thought about reporting them to their boss–if our head of sales found out our sales guys were making women uncomfortable at a conference, he’d at least get them in line. But when I looked the company up–slimeball #1 is the VP of sales. And this is the company that runs the conference. So there’s really no one to complain to without burning at least some bridges.

So–what do I do? How do I network bullishly when the event is quasi-social and I’m the only woman under 40 and it seems like every young startup frat boy confuses work conversation with flirting? How do I talk about our company with someone who pretends to be interested until he puts his hands on my body? How do I not burn bridges when I want to just say “get off me, you creep?” This is really disheartening and gross.

 

This is so fucking disgusting and, while I certainly hope to be of some help to you, I hope even more that A BUNCH OF DUDES read your letter – both the “nice guys” who think this isn’t happening or “couldn’t be that bad”, and the less-evil of the men you’re talking about here, the ones who think, “I see a hot woman I’d like to be talking to, I’m not harassing anyone, what’s wrong with talking?” (The total slimeballs, of course, are irredeemable.)

As a piece of general guidance for this second type of man:

The problem with “just talking” is that gender-based behavior itself is inappropriate in the workplace, AND that such talking is done with no regard for the benefit or interests of the woman you’re talking to. There is an opportunity cost to “just talking.” If a woman is here to network or sell (just like you, bro!) and you take up her time with flirting, you are a selfish asshole. You are harming someone’s career because you like female attention. So STFU. If you can’t treat women as people, I guess just try, as a stopgap solution, to imagine them as men. Would you pretend to be interested in a dude’s product just to feel out information about his personal life? Then don’t do that to women. And then go work on yourself, because you shouldn’t have to imagine women as men to act professional. You are unprofessional. You are the problem.

Okay, so back to your question — I hope you enjoyed this small lecture to the assorted bros who are sliming you.

First, you certainly can petition conferences — via anonymous letter, even! — to ban sexualized marketing. The Collision Conference has done this. I was just there, in New Orleans, and received a code of conduct in my welcome packet that explained that sexualized marketing of any kind was unacceptable. The conference was overwhelmingly male and the speakers even more so, but there were no booth babes or awkwardly sexualized slogans (Check out our curves … in our product development cycle!) And there was a lactation room. Probably not a coincidence. I mean, it would have been nice to have like 20 times more women speakers. But it’s something.

That’s a long-term effort, though. In the meantime, well … I’m sure you already have your own clothing strategy. I have heard women in tech say they dress “like a dude,” or “as desexualized as possible” to cut down on the problem. I personally like to dress in large quantities of loose, brightly colored silk when possible, which I think sends the message, “Yes, I am unabashedly female, but not here for you, and you will speak to me the way Captain Picard spoke to Guinan on Star Trek.”

NOT THAT YOU SHOULD HAVE TO THINK ABOUT THAT, BECAUSE LORD KNOWS DUDES DON’T.

As for the dude who groped you in front of your boss, here’s an article of interest: Men Respond to Stress With ‘Fight or Flight’ While Women ‘Tend and Befriend,” Say Scientists. There’s a reason most of us don’t instinctively punch a motherfucker.

If there’s something you can do to counteract the tendency to freeze up, it’s probably to have one specific response that you train yourself to execute. Whether it’s a dude at a conference or a harasser in the subway, it’s too much to have to think of a response and then also execute it in a few seconds of shock.

What’s a phrase that’s relatively all purpose? Maybe “Whoa, dude” or “Hey there” or just “No touching!” And then you take one giant step sideways, for instance. Can you do those two things in order (or simultaneously), and can you practice it? (AGAIN, NOT THAT YOU SHOULD HAVE TO, but that kind of applies to almost everything I write – here’s a thing you can try, NOT THAT YOU SHOULD FUCKING HAVE TO.) Perhaps you have someone who can help you practice this. That sounds like an upsetting half-hour, doesn’t it? (NOT THAT YOU SHOULD FUCKING HAVE TO.)

Scripts are helpful in life. Maybe “I’m so sorry for your loss” is not the most profound and comforting possible thing to say at a funeral, but most people are not good at coming up with profound and comforting things to say at funerals. We have scripts for a reason. You’re always welcome to do better than the script, but the script exists so we’re not at a total loss. Street harassment? Try “That’s not appropriate.” If you know in advance what you’re going to say, you’re more likely to say something.

You don’t have to kick yourself for not reacting in the moment. Just use that experience to develop a script for next time. A script that will work whether your boss is there or not. I can say “Whoa dude” in a joking-not-joking way, or in an everybody-else-on-the-subway-take-this-creep’s-picture-please way. But having a script means it’s going to come out one way or the other.

Or you could just take krav maga lessons.

As for “every young startup frat boy” who “confuses work conversation with flirting,” I do have some ideas. You said you’re trying to network, you’re in marketing, you have some connection to sales, right? I suggest aggressively responding to all inquiries with direct prequalifying questions. Ask someone in sales if you need more direct sales language. In marketing, sometimes the goal is more about spreading the word to everyone, whereas in sales, you only spend time on the right prospects – maybe you can move a bit more in that direction. Here’s what I mean:

Bro: “Are you enjoying the conference?”

You: “Yes, I’m from Widget Development, we’ve just announced our new enterprise-level Widget Platform.”

Bro: “Are you here with your boyfriend?”

You: “Does your company have at least 1000 users on a Widget Server running WidgetXL?”

Bro: {something dumb}

You: {aggressively repeat the question until you get an answer}

 

If you get a no, you can easily say, “It looks like we can’t help you, enjoy the conference,” and walk away. If you get a yes, great! You can keep aggressively asking prequalifying questions, or drag the guy over to meet a colleague from your company.

I mean, there are other types of networking you can do at a conference besides directly selling your company’s product, but you probably can’t do those types of networking with someone who is flirting with you anyway. You probably don’t want someone who’s trying to have sex with you to try to recruit you to come work where he works. When someone’s being skeezy, you either want nothing from them, or you just want them to buy something and then have their account handled by someone else (while you get credit for bringing in business).

Finally, I’ll add that AN END TO THIS SHIT IS A HUGE FUCKING PLUS ABOUT AGING. (Try this: Mid-Life Woman Loves Being Invisible to Men.) Seriously, I’m supposed to feel bad that men are increasingly less likely to randomly hit on me? I DO NOT FEEL BAD ABOUT THIS. Last year I got some hate mail about how I’m not as attractive as I used to be, and I was like, Of course not, who is? Am I supposed to be embarrassed about this? I am not. This is actually a feminist issue I am more than happy to discuss. Seriously, read the Storify about it here: Read My Hate Mail About Declining Female Beauty.

I mean, sexism doesn’t go away when you get older (and then there’s ageism!) But there’s a very important difference between the sexism you get as a “sexy” twentysomething and the sexism you get when you’re “invisible” or “just a mom” or “Oh, her? Can’t I talk to someone serious?”

The sexism you get as a “sexy” twentysomething wastes much more of your time. It involves being invited to meetings that are really meant to be dates. It involves people taking up all your time at networking events.  It involves investors who show interest in your startup when you’re desperate for funding, and then they invite you to discuss it in on their couch while they massage your shoulders because you “seem tense.”

Those other kinds of sexism are not nearly as time-consuming. People who want to comment that women are bad at technology or that a woman-led company probably can’t get the job done or that women with children are slackers generally do not schedule additional meetings to make their point to you repeatedly. They reveal themselves for what they are, and you can respond or disengage accordingly.

Cope as best you can, contribute as much as you can to systemic change, and wait this one out a bit. Become an awesome older woman who fires men who act like this.