The Hill Life: Cross-Gender Networking

While women have made great strides in the political realm, most of the positions of power on Capitol Hill are still populated by men. And given the Hill’s less than stellar reputation for scandalous sexual dalliances, a young woman who wants to network with her older, more powerful, male colleagues faces an uphill battle.  But where to turn for advice on how to tiptoe through the social minefield? 

Ignore Some of the Advice. I searched the web for tips on cross-gender networking etiquette, but it quickly became obvious that most of this advice is not applicable to life on Capitol Hill or in Washington, D.C. 

The first tip I encountered: Only talk about work. Really?  I can tell you right now that a staffer, lobbyist or politico who goes to a networking happy hour, fundraiser or dinner and only talks about work will not be invited to the next event.  

We all work long hours.  Our days are filled with dry meetings about heavy policy issues.  When we go out to have a cocktail and meet a few new colleagues, we want to mix our work discussions with conversations about other things.  But what topics should be on the table when talking to male colleagues?

Chit-Chat. Don’t be overly interested in his personal life.  A few biographical questions are expected, but don’t go all Nancy Drew on the man.  This isn’t a date, it’s a business event, so stick to the superficial.

Ask where he’s from, where he worked before, where he went to college, etc.  If you know about sports, talk about sports.  Talk about travel, Hill staff and lobbyists are usually traveling on a regular basis, so that’s always safe. Between those topics and the real business at hand, you should be covered.  

If you’re meeting with this person for career advice, make that clear and make a list of prepared questions and then memorize them.  Why?  Because people get very nervous when you take out the notepad.  

No Flirting.  Contrary to what some women will tell you, you should not flirt with the men you work with or work for.  (Yes, there are some women who think a little flirting is both victimless and helpful.)  You may think flirting is harmless, but it’s all fun and games until some guy tries to slide his hand up your dress.

You can be charming without being flirtatious.  Smile.  Laugh at their jokes. Maintain good eye contact. Be genuinely interested in what they have to say.  But never, ever touch the other person in a familiar way.  No hugs, no playful jabs, no pats on the shoulder etc.  Touch is a powerful sensation.  So stick to a firm, businesslike handshake to keep someone from getting the wrong idea.  

Lastly, never ask if he’s married.  As my former professor put it, “Only two kinds of women ask if you’re married: the ones who want to sleep with you and the ones who will sleep with you just to get ahead.”  

You can look for a ring, or you can do what I do, just assume everyone is married or in a committed relationship.  If you always pretend that you’re talking to another women’s husband, it’ll keep you from veering off the path.

Imbibe Wisely.  On Capitol Hill, and in many professional environs, most networking opportunities involve cocktails.  But when you’re out for drinks with male colleagues and superiors, you need to set a limit and stick to it.  A two or three drink maximum is advised.  If you start to get ahead of yourself, say something like, “Gosh, I’m really dehydrated, I should order a water.”  This will help even you out while the others sip their next drink.

When you’re at a networking event with members of the opposite sex, keep your wits about you and your alcohol consumption to a minimum.  For more tips on drinking at work events, click here.

The Buddy System.  Unless you’re an independent contractor, there is absolutely no reason why you should be meeting a man or group of men for work drinks or dinner alone.  Bring a friend, co-worker or colleague with you to the meeting, just make sure that they have a valid reason for being there, and that the person (or people) you’re meeting with knows that you’ll be +1.  

If you can’t give advance notice, use the tried and true, “Jane and I were at the [fill in event name here), so I thought I’d bring her along.”  Unless the topic of the meeting is seriously hush-hush (which it probably isn’t), this will not be a problem.  Plus, if you develop a good tag team with your buddy of choice, maybe she/he will invite you to her/his events as well, thereby doubling your networking opportunities.

Timing is Everything. When scheduling a meeting with a man or group of men, try to schedule it during the daytime hours.  You know, when the sun is out. Lunch meetings and coffee meetings are best, but most of your networking events will occur after working hours.

Try to meet earlier in the evening and make sure that you leave at a reasonable hour.  I would suggest taking your leave around 9:00PM, 10:00PM at the latest.  Just remember, a lady always knows when to leave a party.

Also, if you get to pick the place, avoid bars with bad lighting.  Most bars dim the lights a bit, but anywhere lit for privacy is not a place you want to be.  

If It All Goes Terribly Wrong.  If a man gets fresh with you, don’t make a scene.  Firmly tell him that there has been a misunderstanding and that you are not interested in him, then quickly extricate yourself from the situation.  Don’t hurl insults or freak out, you immediate departure should be clear enough.

However, most men will drop hints (sometimes a lot of hints) before they make a move.  So if he starts to behave in a way that makes you think he’s interested in more than just a business relationship, you need to step back.  Reply to his e-mails and phone calls judiciously.  No one-on-one meetings.  And if the behavior continues, decide whether you need to talk to your supervisor about it or if you can just cut the guy out of your orbit.

When networking with men, balance the work conversation with some lighter chit-chat.  Never flirt or drink too much.  Remember to leave at a reasonable hour, and behave like you would around your Father’s married co-workers and you should be fine.  

P.S. Oh, and this should go without saying, but you should NEVER text message a male work acquaintance, give him your personal phone number or e-mail with him from an address that is not your work account.  And if you must Facebook friend him, make sure he only sees your very limited profile.


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  1. E says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I've not even finished the whole post, but I'm so thrilled that you've decided to tackle this topic. It seems menial and unimportant–but it is! As an aspiring Capitol Hill staffer, I cannot tell you the anxiety I feel when having informational interviews over coffee or drinks with a male 20 or 30 years my senior. So far, I've only met with gentlemen who seem very upstanding and friendly–but, I read the papers and know this city, so I'm cautious. I'm always a tad more relaxed meeting with females who are 20 or 30 years my senior.

    Very topical post, I'm enjoying it thoroughly–along with the rest of the blog. Par for the course! Well done!

    Best, E

    November 30, -0001/Reply
  2. Ellen says:


    I could not agree more. I spent six years as an officer in the military, and I saw too many females either put themselves in bad positions (due to too much alcohol) or ruin their credibility through engaging in inappropriate behavior with their male co-workers. The military is like DC-big enough to look elsewhere for romance. Even if you do not get ahead because of a personal relationship (or sex), why even place that doubt or idea in others' minds? Sadly, perception IS reality.

    August 17, 2011/Reply
  3. CynthiaW says:

    Excellent advice, Belle – especially about the line between being charming and being seen as flirting. I'm a pretty hands-on kind of girl and I had to learn that lesson the hard way in my younger years – men take casual touching as an invitation to touch back. Now, I'm careful not to casually touch men unless I also happen to be related to them.

    August 17, 2011/Reply
  4. hillybilly says:

    Oh my god, only ONCE did I unwittingly give a male professional my text number – I just thought it was fine for “quicker communications” and that turned out to be WRONG decision. After getting several inappropriate texts from the male professional, I never spoke to him again. It's a good thing he and I worked in completely different offices and don't have many instances where we cross paths but when we do, it's very awkward. Ladies, take this cautionary tale and DO NOT EXCHANGE PERSONAL TEXT NUMBERS. Even if your intentions are innocent and practical; his are most likely not and the gesture will be misinterpreted.

    August 17, 2011/Reply
  5. JC says:

    Belle, I so appreciate this post! For the last part of my undergrad studies I followed your fashion advice. Now, I am looking for that upper edge on etiquette as I begin law school next week. As a young woman entering the legal field, I found your tips helpful and insightful especially the part about assuming every man is in a committed relationship. Those boundaries are vitally important!

    August 17, 2011/Reply
  6. KH says:

    Very good post – after spending 3 summers out in DC while I finish law school, I have done my fair share of networking. I would just add that for some reason it is incredibly hard to find girl friends in DC. It might be because of the firms/organizations I have worked for – where it is definitely male dominated, but I have had to brave networking alone and could not take a 'buddy'. I finally had to decide that it was ok to 'go it' alone w/ meeting males, but then I just make sure to be EXTRA careful about my signals.

    August 18, 2011/Reply