I am an attractive young woman. Evaluations of my level of attractiveness and the relativity of my youth will vary from person to person (not to mention day-to-day), but generically speaking, this is a fair statement. I am also a professional in an industry populated mpstly by men. As such, I am largely at a disadvantage, but retain one *unique* advantage based on my personal presentation, if I choose to cultivate it.
This is a song familiar to a lot of you.
My office wear is carefully calculated to appear appropriate in the service of my own physical and mental comfort. Any aspect that could be challenged as “alluring” or “radical” is studiously balanced out. If my pants or skirt are form-fitting, my sweater or blouse is loose or non-confrontational. If my shirt is vee-necked and tight, my trousers are wide-legged and paired with a blazer. My hair, which is highlighted red and blonde, is subject to much comment by male colleagues (usually that it is too red and they prefer me blonder). I take it into consideration, but still wear silver-hooped earrings every day, because I like them, and their size and shape belies how much my ears stick out (I hate my ears). Every day, I wear an extremely high-quality, fake silver Rolex and a tasteful silver ring I bought on the street in Barcelona. I take pride in the fact that people who have worked with me for years are surprised to find out I have a tongue stud, because I chose a subtle one ten years ago.
Pantsuits and pearls are for client meetings, with discreet pearl-drop earrings and straightened hair. I have one gray suit and one black pinstriped suit. I wear them with shined, heeled black boots for external meetings, or burgundy Franco Sarto heels for meetings in the office. I bought both suits half-priced in a sale for $300, and then spent $100 in alterations. I don’t own a skirtsuit because I haven’t found one that fits me well enough to merit alterations, although I have a gorgeous turquoise shift that my mother bought me from M&S when she visited me last year, which is very professional without looking matronly. I keep it in the coat closet at work with a spare set of pantyhose, in case of an emergency client meeting.
Having been compared to a librarian, a schoolgirl, and a flight attendant at the office, I am careful to ensure I don’t look too costumey. I once wore a tight black sweater over a crisp white shirt, with a black skirt and buckled leather boots and realized, mirthfully, that I looked like a Pilgrim, but no one noticed. I wore that outfit again for Thanksgiving, for my own private tribute, because I am an American in the UK.
I reserve my suits for clients, mostly because I only have two and I find it uncomfortable to wear a suit jacket under a winter coat. Also, something about wearing Catholic and Episcopalian school uniforms for eight years has instilled a lifelong stubbornness and intractability in me; suits are drag to be dusted off for performances only. That I get to choose my own daily uniform, bound as I am by professionalism, makes it fairly easy. Maybe I would do better dressing like an executive every day, but I am only willing to bend so far in the service of image before it infringes of my comfort.
My company had a difficult but extremely influential client from Paris, prominent not only in France but also in West Africa, a critical region for our work. I initially identified him and carried out all correspondence before passing him over to senior management, so had spoken and emailed with him already. When he came to London, none of our executive team was available to meet with him, so I agreed to take him out for drinks on a Saturday. Fortunately, I had an engagement party to attend that same evening, so it was convenient to meet him for a couple of glasses of wine to represent the company and then bid a reasonable farewell. We met in Covent Garden, and I found myself in a familiar place – it was more date-like than I would be ideally comfortable with, but I was determined to keep it on a professional level. As such, I had dressed for a party, but understated.
Arnaud was arrogant, but not without charm, in keeping with his reputation. After roving Covent Garden for 15 minutes searching for a venue, we settled into an acceptably (by his standards) European bar for drinks. I sat down first in the cushiony alcove in which we found a table, carefully angling him away from the amorous couple nearby. Arnaud was 40, successful, and highly-regarded, and I was at pains to impress him with my organization’s capabilities. He was also not unattractive and, judging by his lightly placed fingertips as we navigated Covent Garden and ordered drinks, had decided I was accessible.
Once sat, I started off with a litany of the company’s capabilities, and apologized that I was the only representative on hand. Our two executive team members with whom he had also been dealing were out of the country, and as such, we thought he was important enough that we wanted to ensure at least one of our people could meet with him face-to-face. The situation was very tricky. I was only peripherally involved in the project we were managing in relation to him and while I could comfortably speak in generalities, I was not equipped with enough knowledge to answer detailed questions. As such, I had to keep it light and social, which became increasingly difficult as he gazed into my eyes and insisted on paying for our next round of drinks. And then he very intentionally brushed his hand over my leg and moved onto the sofa next to me.
We had discussed West African politics already to the limits of my comprehension, and so I made a deliberate, though clumsy, switch to the personal. I was aware he had a son and was engaged, so asked him about the engagement. My friendly interest would surely knock things back on course.
“Engagement? Buuuuf.” He made a sweeping and dismissive gesture. “This is very much over.”
Oh, fantastic, I thought, as his eyes swept over me and I hooked my hands over my knee and subtly tugged down my skirt. A rich, successful, handsome, and blatantly amorous Frenchman was not, in fact, what I needed at the moment. I had a poor, handsome, kind, and amorous Scotsman at home, and was unafraid to gaily relate to Arnaud the situation. In a professional manner, of course, seeing as how we were getting to know each other, professionally.
Arnaud was unmoved. Actually, it was insulting how unimpressed he was, looking at me indulgently and stroking a lock of hair from my face as I regaled him with tales of my and The Boy’s courtship. It was becoming more and more clear that my attempted professionalism and polite socializing were a complete failure. Now, I had met with two other Frenchmen on this same project, and had none of these difficulties – they were, in fact, extremely comfortable and friendly meetings. This was not my fault, I decided, but a matter of unfortunate circumstance (Saturday night drinks) and personality (Arnaud, not me).
Coming up for 9:00, I had the oasis of the engagement party to attend, and extricated myself. To be polite, I invited Arnaud along, but made it clear my partner would be in attendance, although he was more than welcome (I had cleared it with my friends beforehand, just in case I needed to do some more client entertainment). Not surprisingly, he decided to return to his hotel room, but not before offering me a job.
This is where things turned more interesting. It was not a job working for Arnaud, but for a friend and business associate of his, who was looking for a Country Manager for their Nigerian operations. While I immediately decided I was only minimally qualified, Arnaud was encouraging and swift to point out where my experience matched the requirements of the potential role. Astutely, as a Westerner with extensive African experience himself, he also pointed out the shitload of money to be made, tax-free, from working in Nigeria.
And I paused. Spending the next three years working in Nigeria would be more than enough to buy me a house, after all. It’s hardship pay for a reason, and my inner explorer thrilled to the sense of adventure. I thought the matter would be forgotten, but Arnaud was true to his word and emailed me a day or two later with a job description, encouraging me to contact the company.
I didn’t follow through on it, out of some misguided loyalty to my own company, coupled with the abject fear of not only changing organizations after many years, but joining one in West Africa. It could be a great opportunity missed.
But Arnaud’s interest in me apparently hasn’t swayed in the last few months. I just received another email from him that he will be in London in the next couple weeks, and would like to meet for drinks or dinner. My company’s professional relationship with Arnaud has ended, so this would be very much on my terms, and I’m curious about what he might be able to offer me. He is a very good contact to have… I just wonder how I should play it?
So this is the compromise, and the knife’s edge to be walked, for a woman in a professional situation. Just as I have to choose my clothing, I have to choose my approach. I want to know what this extremely successful guy can do for me, and I want him to do it because he respects my abilities, not because he’s trying to shag me. And yet, I have to take into account that, yes, he is seemingly trying to shag me. How can I make it clear to him that, while I am not sexually available, I am a hot ticket, so to speak, in terms of what I can do?
I will figure out how to walk that tightrope. Because I am a professional.