Excerpt from A MERGER OF EQUALS

This is an excerpt from Jane's section of Chapter 3 of A Merger of Equals. The chapter is entitled "Significant Others."

By the middle of my second year with the Firm, it had become obvious that I needed a reliable and highly presentable male friend to show up with at corporate social functions.

There are two kinds of corporate social events: the all office people variety and the all heterosexual couples variety. There’s no in-between. If you’re a man in his 20s, you can bring a different babe to every couples event without raising eyebrows (except in envy), but if you’re a woman, you need someone appropriate and consistent.

You can’t have people thinking you’re promiscuous or unstable. You can’t have your colleagues’ wives worried that you’re looking to replace them and, accordingly, telling their husbands nasty little things to discredit you. You also can’t have people thinking you’re gay if you’re not. (It’s probably not the best career move even if you are.)

And, unfortunately for people who work essentially all the time, you absolutely cannot date someone from work – not if you want your colleagues to keep thinking of you as a colleague instead of as a woman/potential date/sex object.

During my first year at the Firm, this wasn’t a problem. There weren’t that many command social performances, and the ones there were usually didn’t include spouses or dates. The only social functions rookies really had to attend were work-related events, like golf outings and closing dinners. These were social events in name only. They never included spouses. In essence, they were business meetings held at golf clubs or restaurants instead of in conference rooms.

Golf clubs did present some awkwardness, since many of them had only recently (and no doubt reluctantly) opened their doors to women. Even if we could get past the front door, they never had decent facilities for us. Worse, the people in the clubs – members and staff – always looked truly horrified to see women in their midst. (I wondered more than once exactly what it was they were so afraid of. Distraction? Higher-pitched voices? Tampon wrappers in the garbage?)

Similarly, closing dinners often presented the awkwardness of being the only woman present. If it hadn’t been so dispiriting, it would have been funny to watch the men as they separated into their two camps: the ones who scrambled to sit next to you versus the ones who appeared to think you had a particularly nasty infectious disease. Closing dinners also offered the incomparable cigar presentation dilemma – that moment watched by everyone when the poor cigar steward dithered over whether it would be worse to offer you a cigar as if you were a man or to skip you as if you weren’t.

I was always able to neutralize the golf club and restaurant situations. It was only marginally more difficult than the day-to-day challenges of making my gender a non-issue. Defusing this kind of social awkwardness never required anything more than being a gracious good sport and smoking the occasional cigar. Smoking cigars was not actually as bad an experience as I’d feared. I much preferred it to smiling politely at sexist pigs while I labored to put them at ease.

Being a single woman at a couples event, however, triggered awkwardness of the sort that was impossible to defuse. It threw off table seating arrangements. It created great discomfiture all around when dancing was involved. (Some of these ghastly events were dinner dances, actually called “proms,” as if the Firm really were a fraternity or even a high school instead of an investment banking outfit.) And it prompted way too much questioning – some catty, some pitying, some predatory – about one’s lack of a suitable social life.

In short, attending couples events “stag” was out of the question. Of course, there was no one to tell young women about this in advance, so the only way to learn it was to live through the nightmarish experience of showing up alone at the first such event and quickly ascertaining that it would have been far less awkward to have shown up naked.

To preserve your “professional colleague” status, you absolutely had to stay below the social radar and avoid being labeled “woman.” In the social context, “woman” could only mean spinster or slut, both of which were labels very detrimental to your continuing ability to be seen by your colleagues as a peer. The only effective strategy (and it was by no means foolproof) was to have a spouse or its functional equivalent. “Wife” was a demeaning label, too, but at least it put you out of range of all but the most odious wolves.

That’s how corporate life works – as before, not unlike that frat party it always reminds me of. On the surface, we pretend everyone’s life should be – and is – wholesome and upright and clean-living in a Norman Rockwell painting sort of way. We slavishly maintain this pretense even though, in fact, we all know X is sleeping with his secretary and Y prefers handsome young men to his wife and Z’s wife has gotten drunk and propositioned one or more of her husband’s better-looking colleagues at each of the last few events.

Like the frat party, the substance of corporate life doesn’t really matter all that much. What’s important is that we all act like we admire the form. And of course the form we’re all supposed to admire is the conservative, traditional, heterosexual white male template. It’s disgusting, but it’s how the game is played.

As I mentally reviewed the candidates for “Jane’s usual corporate date,” I had to admit I didn’t really have any very good ones. My male friends were all people from work or people who lived in other states, so none of them would do. I needed a man whose company I could stand, which narrowed the candidate list considerably, and who was also a non-scary outsider from the Firm’s standpoint. Jazz musicians and blue-collar workers need not apply (not that I knew any).

Even though I was not at all inclined to reopen the potential Pandora’s Box he represented, I decided the best option was Tyler, my college boyfriend.

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