Three Ways to Deal with Gender Bias and Sexual Harassment From Clients

 In Women's Issues

Are you perpetually underestimated? Disrespected? Or even harassed?

While working as an intelligence officer at the CIA, I experienced significant challenges as a female working in a man’s world. Internally, there was a lack of diversity in operations and policies that kept men and women on different career paths based only on gender. Externally (in the field), I faced similar issues dealing with Middle East-based terrorism sources who were enamored with me and didn’t see me as a professional with whom they should partner in an intelligence operation. But I expected that, and I dealt with it—quite successfully I might add.

What I didn’t expect is to hear that women are still deal with these kinds of attitudes. Two friends related similar stories to me in one week—one an international business executive, and the other a real estate agent. I shouldn’t have been surprised: A survey of 500 real estate professionals in 2019 by Redfin indicated that 13% of females reported sexism from customers. And since two-thirds of realtors are women, that is a significant number. (

Below are the experiences that were related to me, as well as my suggestions for how to change the dynamics of those uncomfortable moments and try to get these clients back on track.

  • Sarah (not her real name), who is a real estate professional in Florida, continually gets hit on by men who use the excuse of listing properties to try to wine and dine her. Several male clients have made inappropriate comments about her looks, “You’re so beautiful!” or question her repeatedly about her marriage status, “Are you sure you’re married?” Then they harass her by continually asking to meet over coffee, a drink, or a meal, even when she declines. What surprises me the most is that they don’t want to take “no” or “not interested” for an answer. (She’s happily married, by the way–not that this matters.)
  • Paulina (not her real name) is a tech professional based in Europe. She is disrespected by male clients in the Middle East who don’t believe they should be negotiating the terms of a business agreement with her. They see her as inherently incapable of leading these contract negotiations due to her gender. Having operated in that part of the world, I know how entrenched this attitude can be.

The following are three ways to manage inappropriate interactions and turn those disadvantages into your greatest successes.

  1. Your body language matters. I’ve had CIA terrorism sources who were enamored with me stand uncomfortably close and continue to hold my hand after shaking it at the beginning or conclusion of an operational meeting. In these cases, I deliberately pulled my hand out of their grip. If I had not done that, they would stand there with my hand in theirs, for as long as possible. In parts of the Middle East, it is deeply inappropriate to touch a woman, so they try to use the handshake to keep a good thing going.

Then after breaking the grip, I had to take a step back to create space between us. If my interlocutor moved in close again (which they normally did), I took another step back. It was a delicate dance where my terrorist and insurgent sources wanted to see how far they could push the limits of our covert meeting. This physical negotiation was subtle, yet every little movement and counter-movement mattered.

In addition, to counteract the defensive body language of backing away and creating space, I always stood with my shoulders up and out, and my feet squarely facing the person. This stance indicates authority and shows a lack of fear or intimidation. A straight and direct posture also underscores that you are not on the defense and are not retreating (even if you are). You don’t want your body language to reflect any of the discomfort you may be feeling inside. You want to appear confident and in control.

  1. Deflection, deflection, deflection. No matter what, you must stay in control of the direction of the conversation. Your client may try to take the discussion sideways, but you don’t need to take the bait. Stay on topic. Bring the conversation back to the issue at hand. When dealing with a statement that is inappropriate, ignore it and change the topic. Don’t ever feel you have to acknowledge such comments, just focus on getting the conversation where YOU want it. You may need to deflect repeatedly in order to draw a clear line in the sand and communicate what you will and will not tolerate. You are there to discuss business, so do just that.

If all your efforts to deflect still don’t succeed in getting the conversation back on track, remove yourself from the meeting or conversation. (And no apologies are required if you have to do this.)

  1. Focus on your expertise. Display your intelligence prominently. No matter what happens in these interactions, your job is to constantly refer back to your experience, your knowledge, or your successes and how they are valuable to your client. If your client doesn’t know you’re smart, they’ll never figure it out with their heads in the gutter. Therefore, it is your job to clearly demonstrate your intellect and professionalism. In these meetings, you must continually remind the client of who you are and why they need your professional services. The good thing is you have their attention; you just need their attention to be focused on you for the right reasons.

One way Sarah could have handled the recent interaction with a client that kept trying to ask her out on dates, is the following:

Sarah: “I would be happy to discuss your property and the possibility of listing it with my firm.”

Client: “Great! I would love to maybe take you out to lunch or dinner to discuss.”

Sarah: “Thank you, but no, that’s not necessary. Let’s meet at my real estate company’s office, so I can understand more about your property and explain what I can do to get this property listed and sold. That’s how we normally proceed.”

Client: “But I’d really like to take you out.”

Sarah: “Actually, my husband wouldn’t like that, and neither would I. But you should know that I am looking forward to learning the specifics of your property so I can find the most- clever ways to market it. Did you know that in 2020…..(say something smart about the market to display your cutting-edge knowledge).

Client: “Are you sure I can’t talk you into a coffee? You are one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.”

Sarah: “Thank you, but no, I am not interested in that. However, I am ready to get your property sold, so let’s get down to business. Why don’t we schedule a time to meet at my firm’s office? Then I can also introduce you to my broker…..”

Then, if the person continues to harass, Sarah has to make a choice to either bring a colleague with her to meetings to keep things safe and professional or hand the client over to another colleague. Sarah should feel comfortable doing business professionally or not at all. There are plenty of fish (clients) in the sea.

As for Paulina, the most effective way to address the gender roadblock is to acknowledge it. She should refrain from doing this in front of a group, but during a one-on-one conversation with one of her interlocutors—otherwise, it would not be well-received in that specific culture. She could say something like, “I recognize that you are used to dealing with men in contract negotiations and that you probably feel more comfortable doing so, but I assure you (insert something here that shows why you are so amazing at that job/activity).”

She could then say, “I am known to get the best deals for my clients, and companies in country A, country B and country C have raved about how happy they have been with our product/service, and how I was able to get them xxxxx (fill in the blank).”

In other words, you don’t want to focus on gender, but focus on what you are bringing to the table that benefits your client. Basically, you have to diplomatically explain why dealing with you is in their best interest. They clearly don’t know, so you have to tell them. It may feel awkward being so direct and tooting your own horn, but the Middle East welcomes directness when there is a potential problem or disagreement among parties. It is a relational culture, so the more they deal with you, the more comfortable they will become.

Also, the Middle East didn’t just open up to the rest of the world. If they are deeply uncomfortable with you, a woman, you could also suggest they replace their negotiator with someone who does. Because even in the Middle East, that is no longer an acceptable attitude or approach to international business. Some of the most forward-leaning businessmen I’ve met and worked with have been in the Arab World.

Once you’ve turned the tables on your problematic interlocutors, the liability of being different could become your greatest strength.

Because you are unique, then working with you becomes something of a treat. Your professionalism and intellect are unmatched and when they figure that out, then they will be glad they got the chance to work with you and benefit from your commitment to excellence.

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