How to Overcome Five Impossible Workplace Hurdles

Workplace HurdlesBy Julie Steinberg

Every organization has a set of unwritten rules. Which executives to butter up, how late to stay at night, or whether it's OK hit on your co-workers. While such quandaries apply to men and women equally, there a few situations women face that underscore their "otherness."

These rules differ from institution to institution, said Laura Sabattini, director of research at Catalyst, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in business. Mentors and sponsors help with these issues, but suppose you haven't established that rapport yet?

We spoke to industry experts, current and former professionals and career coaches to help you navigate five challenging scenarios women sometimes face in the workplace.

1. What if you aren't a big drinker?

You've just finished a deal and the team wants celebrate. A senior executive buys a round of tequila shots and you're wondering what to do with your still-full shot glass.

"Socializing outside the workplace is an important way to further your career," said Lois Frankel, career coach and author of the forthcoming 'See Jane Lead: 99 Ways for Women to Take Charge at Work.' "With that said, it doesn't mean you have to close down the bar."

In fact, as a woman, it's best not to drink as much as your male cohorts, simply because most women can't tolerate as much liquor. The ideal situation is for you to show you're willing to have fun while remaining as close to sober as possible. Don't call attention to the fact that you don't want to join in the merry-making. Simply order a drink that looks clear and if people ask, say it's a gin and tonic. Or, if you're sharing a bottle of wine, sip one glass -- no one will notice that you haven't refilled it.

One female analyst said she struck up a rapport with the bartender. While surreptitiously slipping him a generous tip, she asked him quietly to only use a third of the alcohol he would normally put in her drink every time the team came to the bar that night.

However, if one of your superiors offers to get you a drink, don't turn it down. "You wouldn't be seen as a team player if you didn't accept," said Nina Godiwalla, a former Morgan Stanley investment banking analyst and the author of 'Suits: Women on Wall Street.'

2. What if you're a vegetarian or vegan?

Going meatless isn't as much of a cultural oddity as it was several years ago, but steakhouses still reign supreme when it comes to business dinners. According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, of all adults in the United States who are vegetarian, slightly more than half are female.

"Being a vegetarian is seen as being more effeminate," said an associate at a hedge fund who did not want to be named. A recent lawsuit highlights that point: Ryan Pacifico, a former currency trader at Calyon in the Americas, a subsidiary of Credit Agricole, filed a discrimination claim against the firm for allegedly firing him for being a vegetarian. According to Pacifico, his boss called him names and questioned his masculinity when the subject of Pacifico's vegetarianism arose.

So how to manage uncomfortable glances when you order a plate of vegetables? It's all about composure.

"If you don't make it an issue, it's not an issue," said Jodi Glickman, a former investment banker at Goldman Sachs and author of the forthcoming 'Great on the Job.' Glickman recommends ordering an entree-sized salad and a bowl of soup so you're eating an appetizer at the same time as everyone else.

Above all, avoid proselytizing. "If your client is ordering a steak, the last thing you want to do is get in an ideological conversation about whether it's fine to eat meat," Glickman said.

3. How do you handle a conversation about the strip club?

As awareness of sexual harassment has spread, it's rare these days for women to be invited to a strip club with clients. But sometimes there's no way around the conversation if you're out with a group of mostly men.

If the guys are talking about moving on to the club after dinner, firstly, don't go with them. It could put you in an unnecessarily uncomfortable situation, Frankel said.

Even if you manage to get face-time with the client at the club, chances are they're not going to be focusing on you and your brilliant ideas.

"You could be missing a good business opportunity, but I don't think they're sober, talking shop in the strip club," Glickman said. Instead, she suggests saying, "See you in the morning," or "Let's get drinks before you go."

Frankel cautions against openly criticizing your colleagues. "If you choose to work in a culture that's clubby and masculine, you can try to change the culture, but in doing so you may damage your career," she said.

This conundrum is one of the tougher ones because it forces you to ignore behavior you may find distasteful. Ultimately, you have to let your values dictate how you act in this situation -- but keep in mind the consequences.

4. How do you score an invite to the golf club/tennis court/squash court/basketball game?

Senior male executives may assume women don't want to come to a sports activity, even though it's a great way to bond with the team as well as customers and clients. How do you get invited?

First, before you ask for a golf invitation, make sure you can actually hit the ball. Consider investing in some golf lessons. When Glickman was an MBA student at Cornell, she got the school to pay for golf lessons for female MBA students who wanted to learn the game.

Once you've taken some lessons, ask casually to be included if you hear someone mention a foursome going on the following weekend. Asking someone their handicap also implies that you play and know something about the game.

Keep in mind who's actually going. "If your whole senior team is going with a client, and you're on a lower level, it doesn't make sense for you to push your way in," said Godiwalla. "But if your colleagues are going, then you can definitely ask to be included."

If golfing's not your game, think of another way to make the client happy, like scoring tickets to a sold-out Bon Jovi concert. It doesn't matter where as long as you manage to build a relationship outside the office. Making that connection will enable you to hear about things you otherwise may not have been privy to, especially since people tend to relax in an environment outside the conference room.

It's also not a bad idea to pluck the morning sports scores off the Bloomberg terminal so you can impress your boss. Tossing a key game stat into conversation can earn you more credibility than five perfect presentations.

5. What do you do if you think you're getting paid less because you're a woman?

Arguably the most serious dilemma on the list, the compensation issue needs to be handled tactfully yet forcefully. It's up to you to make sure you are reaping the pay package you have earned -- no one else will look out for your financial welfare.

If you think you're underpaid, you've got to have data, Frankel said. That means finding out what your peers earn. It can be awkward conversation to have, especially since your colleagues may not be willing to share, but you need that information to build your case.

When talking to HR or your manager, point out that your measurable performance is better than your peers, assuming that's true. Frankel advises against using the word "deserve" in these conversations. Don't bring up comparisons with specific individuals; it's tacky and won't earn you any friends.

Be careful whom you approach. If you go straight to human resources without first going to your management team, it looks like you went behind their back, Godiwalla said.

Have the conversation several months before you get paid, Glickman said. If you get paid in January and your performance review is in November, arrange a time to chat over the summer.

Remember that there's strength in numbers. If you know that other women are earning less than the men, go in a group to HR. "You don't want to be singled out as the malcontent," Frankel said.

Finally, consider your position in the industry. Playing the gender card is always a risky thing to do. "You can create a more even playing field by playing wisely than by playing the gender card," Frankel said. "Is it harder? Does it take more energy than a guy would have to expend? Yes. But if you don't like it, find a different playing field."

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