Navigating the competitive business world has never been an easy task. Doing so as a professional woman, however, is rife with potential pitfalls. You want to be a strong and respected executive, while at the same time maintaining an approachable demeanour, but balancing everything, without putting your career or professional relationships at risk is tricky.
I recently received an email that stopped me in my tracks and got me thinking. I’ve never considered myself to be thin-skinned or in possession of a delicate manner, but when somebody that I’ve never worked alongside, let alone communicated with before, sent me an email that opened with “Afternoon Sweetheart”, I was flabbergasted. Let me give you a little context.
I’m a 35-year-old woman who has been self-employed for a number of years. As a freelance writer, I’m accustomed to a more informal style of email, especially when dealing with fellow creatives, but this latest email came from a 50+ year old male CEO of a large company that was getting in touch to ask if I was taking on new clients. So what was I to do? Do I swallow my irritation, talk about a project and commit to a relationship where I would always be belittled with cutesy monikers? I wouldn’t enjoy that! Maybe I should chastise the email sender for his overly familiar and informal approach? But then, would I not get the work and be labeled as ‘hard to deal with’, or worse still, as a ‘femi-nazi’ (a term that absolutely grinds my gears)? It’s tough, right? As it happens, I decided to reply that I am not accepting new clients and the issue is done and dusted, but it made me wonder how many other women are dealing with things like this. The really sad part of my mulling was the realisation that it’s 2018 and this is STILL an issue.
I can’t imagine that my potential client would email a male freelance writer and open with “Yo Dude”, though I could be very wrong. Maybe I’m being a touch too sensitive and making something out of nothing when the person in question is simply very informal by nature? I’m not blind to this being a distinct possibility, but it has really made me think about the way women in the professional world have to work doubly hard to be respected, admired and valued as a team member. The more I considered this, the more I realised that every decision that a businesswoman makes can come under scrutiny, not from everyone else necessarily, but themselves.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS COUNT
The Lost Executive recently published an article talking about how a good suit, healthy body and clean shave are the best ways to make a perfect first impression and, given that this is no boy’s club, I wanted to offer a counter argument, for women.
On the one hand, we all consider wearing beautifully tailored suits, but it is hard work finding a good piece of formal wear for the office! High street shops simply don’t cut the mustard and when you have to shell out hundreds of pounds for a piece of clothing that might only fit perfectly for three weeks out of every four (women, you know what I’m saying here), that can be a bitter pill to swallow. Plus, suits make some of us worry that we’re trying too hard. I fall into that bracket and have never felt comfortable in a matching jacket and trousers, so prefer to be a little more eclectic, but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t think this has stopped me progressing in previous roles.
Whereas my smart flared jeans, high-heeled boots and fitted shirt approach looks nice and feels comfortable, I know that the woman wearing a suit will be taken more seriously. And don’t even get me started on maintaining a full head of highlights etc! We all want to look and feel good, but there’s an extra issue that I don’t think men in the workplace worry about…do we seem too self-absorbed if we look after ourselves? I have to wonder if there will ever be a day when a good handshake, comfortable outfit and exceptional business acumen will ever be enough to make that perfect first impression, over and above the fact that we have boobs and pretty hair.
MAINTAINING GOOD RELATIONSHIPS
First impressions aside, there’s a really pertinent issue that women in the business world are facing; being personable without being considered ‘flirty’. Honestly, there are days when I worry that we are plummeting back into the days of Mad Men, with women being thought of as fancy office ornaments and a pleasing distraction from the stresses of the ‘real work’. This is an issue that ties in perfectly with the notion of appropriate email openers.
I’ll openly admit that when I’ve known someone for a while and we’ve built up a good professional relationship, I’m happy to open an email that starts with “Hey You” or even, as is frequently the case, “Whatcha Ames”. I’ll even respond in kind and be silly and informal, because a rapport has been built, and my professional credentials have been confirmed, but I won’t flirt. You’ll never see a ‘winky face’ emoji in an email from me and there won’t be any post 9pm contact, but at least everybody knows where they stand! After all, I’m married (VERY happily) and would never want anyone to even momentarily think that I got a job based on anything other than merit. Plus, today’s standards make me question every bit of communication I send and what impression I’m putting out there! I love a good banter, but a line has to be drawn eventually and that’s such a sticking point for us all.
WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
So, if the media and general business practice is correct, we need to “play the game” a little. We need to be professionals in the boardroom and ‘sweethearts’ in email, but let me suggest something a little different.
How about we simply treat everyone the way we want to be treated and encourage our peers to reciprocate? Let’s take the gender out of professional encounters and just treat everyone equally. Maybe that woman that chooses not to wear a suit is exceptional at her job and wants to be comfortable as she leads a team. That female executive that prefers a formal email opener? Maybe that’s how she gauges the seriousness of potential clients and you need to get onboard, if you genuinely wish to work with her. My parting words of wisdom are these: email and interact as you’d want someone to communicate with you and you’ll be on the right track. Plus, never judge a book by its cover, as not everybody looks good or feels professional in a suit!
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