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Don’t Touch This!

What does a young woman do when you’re thinking about business, but men are thinking about…?

I’m sitting in a hotel lobby, discussing business with two men. One is a family friend in town for a finance conference. I’m there on a Friday night to mingle and network, hoping to connect with businesses that need help with their written content. We’re talking strategy and technology and WriteLessBad (my business) and my blog, and while I speak to one, the other, the said family friend, is unabashedly pointing his iPhone at my crossed legs.

“What are you doing?” I ask, shocked. “I’m sending the guys a picture so they’ll meet up,” he replies assuredly. As if nothing is wrong with that. As if I’m nothing more than bait. I’m a woman who has two degrees, written four books, runs her own business, and has traveled the world. Does he believe I have nothing else but my tan legs to offer fellow entrepreneurs? Does he think he’s being flattering? Is he not thinking at all?
I take stock of my neutral reaction. Almost trying to keep my tone and demeanor playful, as if telling him what I really think–that photographing my legs upsets me and reduces my worth to a physical body void of intellect and personality–is inappropriate. But I hold those comments and feelings inward at first.
I wonder if I set a definitive boundary — that he is not allowed to use me as bait to lure men in so he can land deals — will hurt my chances of making deals myself.
I let him send the picture, while saying, hesitantly, “Don’t do that, that’s creepy,” because I don’t want to put him off. I want him in my corner. I want him to introduce me as a talented writer who could help these men’s businesses.
But, what I should’ve done, with humor, is turn that camera around. Asked him to raise his pant legs, show off those hairy calves, flex them a bit, put them in good lighting. “Here,” I should’ve said, “now send these to all the men–some of them may find you sexy!”
This is what I will do next time. Keep the atmosphere light, use the opportunity for a bit of a laugh, because nothing is more powerful than humor to make someone see a situation from another angle without having one’s guard up.
Minutes later, after he sent the photo of my legs, I take a metaphorical step back and consider why I reacted so neutrally. I feel a surge of shame. My parents taught me to be strong and confident. My 97-year-old grandmother still runs the books for the family business. You don’t want Mary to call you and demand you pay your invoice. She’s tough. I want to be that tough.
But I’ve played this game before. I’m not 97. When I’m too tough, like I can be when dating, I don’t “get the guy.” The deal goes sour. So I’ve learned to hold back. I’ve learned I have to be okay with a man making a couple of inappropriate comments about my looks in hopes I remain in the game.
This is something almost all female entrepreneurs encounter. It’s an understood dynamic that separates us from our male counterparts. You can’t be too forward. You can’t be too opinionated. You can’t be too tough. You have to balance those entrepreneurial urges with a feminine touch. A bit softer, a bit passive, in hopes you come off likeable.
So, in wanting to remain in the game, what if we learn how to turn the tables and use our wit and smarts to draw attention, without being too harsh and coming off angrily, to behavior that really doesn’t belong in the world of business?
How much locker room talk will we put up with to get our foot in the door? How far will we let a man cross the line so we can strike the deal? How hungry are we? How low will we go?
It’s up to us as entrepreneurial women to set those boundaries, and it’s up to us to do so with grace and tact so we still get the deal while setting a standard that, no, creepy behavior is not okay with us. We’re your equals.