Work is better with friends, thus many seek companionship from their colleagues. Sometimes friendship can blossom into an office romance, but not everyone is comfortable this. Friendliness mistaken for flirting at work can be an honest mistake. However, frequent misunderstandings can be frustrating for a professional trying to advance their career. This can happen to everyone, but it seems to happen more to women. It’s a subtle gender difference that poses a barrier for women in STEM.
Networking efforts down the drain
Blossoming workplace comradery
During an internship in an engineering team, I was assigned to a full-time engineer. As we got to know each other through work, we began sharing stories and telling jokes. The comradery made work more enjoyable and I felt like I belonged in the team. Furthermore, I was happy to build a mentorship relationship based on a solid friendship. Unbeknownst to me, the engineer had other ideas.
Dropping the date bomb
Halfway through my internship, my colleague asked me out to the movies. Instanteously, my heart dropped and my stomach felt queasy. I thought back to the past few months, wondering how this happened. At work, we shared memes, discussed movies, and told stories. He was my mentor, I hadn’t felt any sort of romantic implications!
I blamed myself for his honest mistake. Was I leading him on? Maybe I shouldn’t have accepted his Facebook friend request. I scolded myself for keeping my personal life private and not bringing up my boyfriend earlier.
I ended up mentioning my boyfriend while rejecting his movie offer. It was an easy way out, but saying “I’m not available” was easier than “I’m not interested”.
The work days after were slightly awkward. He avoided eye contact and would only discuss work related topics.
Fortunately, the tense atmosphere cleared up after a couple of weeks and we were back on normal terms. I was glad that he got over the blunder and moved on.
At the end of my internship, he suggested that we keep in touch. I happily agreed since I was eager to maintain this friendship and professional contact. We continued our conversation on Facebook and all was well, at least for the first month.
While keeping in touch online, he starting becoming increasingly passive aggressive when I didn’t respond fast enough or adequately. He would shoot angry remarks if I didn’t type a long response to his messages. Every time he got mad, I would apologize and divert the conversation. I respected him as my mentor and wanted him to think highly of me as well.
After multiple passive aggressive remarks, I decided to casually mention a story about my boyfriend for good measure.
In response, he flipped out and told me that he didn’t want to be friends anymore. Immediately after, he blocked me from social media. This turn of events left me speechless and hurt.
Again, I blamed myself. Was it because I agreed to catch up over drinks in the future? Call me naive, but doesn’t everyone network over coffee? Wait, did “drinks” mean something else?
As I replayed the situation in my head, fury built up inside me. I talked to other engineers on the team as well. Did he think he was special just because I worked more closely with him?
Looking back, every single work-related memory I have with him has been tainted with a different meaning. Was he only mentoring me because he wanted something more? Did he think I was lying about having a boyfriend the first time? I’ll never know the answers to these questions.
Finding support from friends
Shortly after, I reached out to my friends for their opinions. Many of my guy friends agreed that my co-worker was being inappropriate. What shocked me, was that many of my girl friends had similar experiences.
Like me, my friends thought they were building up a professional network. Realising that the other side was only romantically interested is extremely discouraging for women hoping to advance their career. Especially with how common these incidents are, it truly puts a dent on our self-worth as a professional.
While we recognize that not everybody is like this, some of us have started to take preventative measures. We’ve done so by mentioning our partners in passing at work. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not screaming the fact that we’re taken. Instead, we subtly bring up our partners through weekend recaps or future plans. I’ve started doing this ever since the incident.
Lessons learned: Watch out for courtship from professional networks
Unwanted romantic attention at work can happen to everyone. But in engineering, it seems like women are often on the receiving end. It’s sad that unsolicited courtship is so common that we feel the need to explicitly mention that we’re not interested. It’s even more demeaning when we need to use significant others as an excuse.
I’m not against workplace romance. Long hours spent with colleagues definitely have potential for romantic feelings to develop. However, it’s unsettling when friendly work relationships are thrown out the window when romance is shut down. Moreover, it’s infuriating for women trying to network with industry professionals only to find out that they were only interested in a date.
Someday, I hope unwanted courtship can be less intrusive within professional networks. But until then, I’ll have to watch my back around professional acquaintances.