One of my favorite and rather famous family quotes from my Dad, is “People are funny” [see his epitaph, inset]. It was his catch-all phrase for when someone did or said something odd. The saying was his way of recognizing that we can’t always explain why people do or say what they do, we just have to either learn from them or have compassion for them. Sometimes, though, I want to do more than just learn or have compassion. I want to respond with a “hey, what are you doing?” or “you can’t say that!”. Yesterday was one of those days. When someone said something that I brushed off in my head as “people are funny”, but the next morning it still nags.
“Are you two both work and life partners?”
Because I’m in the wonderful world of entrepreneurship and tech, I have the common experience of working closely with men. A man has been my boss in just about every job I’ve had. Men have been the majority of the employees I have hired and managed and, as I have grown professionally, more often these men are my peers. I travel with these men, go out to coffee, lunch, drinks, and have dinner with these men. Often, I also get to know their wives and have introduced our children. I’ve been to their weddings and have had the honor of staying in their homes when I travel. I have been so fortunate to develop some of the strongest relationships with these men over my career as I have with some of my dearest girlfriends. They’ve been my mentors and confidants and often ask the same of me – which I do with pleasure.
Despite all of this, it seems that no matter what my rank and status or theirs, there is always someone who assumes that my strong rapport with these wonderful men must mean there’s more to our relationship. Good working relationships at work are often like second marriages. We’ve all heard the expression “my work husband” which suggests that this other guy in your life who knows you inside and out is your go-to guy at work, but it’s strictly a professional relationship. These are the guys we have friendly banter with, we share inside jokes and we are able to finish each other’s sentences. We’re BFFs in the best sense of the word. Yet, someone always opens that door that questions how a relationship like this is possible without something more going on. It’s the proverbial “a man and woman can’t possibly JUST be friends“.
Now back to yesterday. While in a meeting that was (ironically) about raising awareness of gender bias in venture capital, I was asked if my male colleague in the meeting with me was both my “work and my life partner”. I do not believe there was anything this man or I said or did that would infer such a thing. We clearly know each other well and had a few occasions of poking fun at each other that demonstrated a good working relationship, but it wasn’t flirty or unprofessional.
So, what provoked this question? Do men and women have to be all business to be taken seriously as professional colleagues? Should my colleague and I be more impersonal in meetings? Can men and women NOT just be friends? When we are striving towards more equal and gender neutral work environments, how do we eliminate the assumptions and biases we have about men and women working together? As a society, we need to hold each other accountable for respecting the strong relationships colleagues develop regardless of their gender. If two guys can be BFFs at work, play golf together and travel together without judgement, shouldn’t male and female colleagues be able to do the same?
…or, are people just funny?