The Day a Client Asked Me to Sit In as Secretary

It is one of the most frustrating things a woman entrepreneur will deal with.  If you’ve been in business for even six months, you’ve probably experienced chauvinism in some form.  Being talked down to, talked over, passed over, even being called emotional, are all things that you may someday experience.

A year ago, I had a fabulous first meeting with the Founder and Manager of a boutique engineering firm.  They wanted SEO work on their website but, after the first five minutes, I could tell they weren’t even sure what to ask for.  I explained what Search Engine Optimization entailed and what my team would do, made some solid recommendations, and by the end of the meeting they were asking for a contract.  I love it when meetings slam dunk like that.

The 180

The next morning, before I even had the chance to send over the draft of our contract, I received an email from the Manager stating they had a big client coming in that day, and would I be willing to act as their secretary during their four hour visit.  I was appalled and disappointed.

First off, we live in the 21st century.  I would have been sure that I had misread the email if I hadn’t experienced similarly odd interactions with male clients.  This, however, was by far the most blatant act of chauvinism I have, to date, experienced.

Mostly, I was disappointed.  Disappointed in their behavior, and disappointed that I would have to pass up this business opportunity.  This is not the way to start a business relationship, and continuing with them after this request would have left me on less than equal footing.  Unfortunately, I had to think about my business’ reputation, and felt I couldn’t call them out on their actions.

How I Handled Chauvinism

The first thing I did was forward the email to an unemployed friend.  They had offered a small cash stipend for the four hours, and my friend would have appreciated it.  I then responded to their email that I was unable to do so and that I had passed on the opportunity to an unemployed friend.  I chose not to tell them how wrong they were because I didn’t want to risk the reputation of my company – a rock and a hard place – but I was sure the word ‘unemployed’ preempted referencing my friend so they had a better feel that their request was out of place.  Whether or not it got through I can’t say.

Secondly, I contacted a male colleague in the SEO / Website industry and asked if he had room for a new project.  With him willing to take on the client, I then emailed the client in a separate thread and explained that I did not have room in my portfolio to take them on, and referred them to my colleague.  Again, I refrained from pointing out their strange request in the interest of my company and also the likelihood that they would not be receptive to a ‘schooling’ anyway.

The odd part is, the Founder responded wondering why I wouldn’t work with them and requesting I reconsider.  This gave me the impression that the Manager had not communicated with the Founder about our communique.  I thought it not my place to cause a rift, and maintained my story that I simply couldn’t take them on at that time.

Two Years Later

This week I received a cold call email from this client, offering their engineering services for local inventors.  I don’t know how I got on the list, as the consultation we did with them was for website development, but it was a lengthy sales email.

At first I had to laugh.  What was this email doing in my inbox?  Then I thought — do I want to respond?  I almost didn’t hesitate.  I sent three sentences, and feel like it was the right thing to do.

“Hi ____.  We did a consultation for your website and SEO a couple years ago. Glad to see you doing well. Happy New Year.”

It was a strange way to start the new year, but it’s a good reminder that you never know what is coming around the corner.

Have you experienced chauvinism in your work?  Please share your story.

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