I’m an unpaid intern at a local newspaper. Sometimes after work a bunch of people, including my editor, will go out to a bar for drinks. The other interns in the office are all guys, and they seem perfectly comfortable getting sloppy with the bigwigs (also all guys) — but I’m not. I feel like I have to be on guard and keep myself together, lest I appear like some air-headed floozy bent on sleeping her way into a paying job. (I also get the distinct impression that my supervisor would be happy to give me the chance to do so.) Do I forgo these after-work drinks and miss out on the networking opportunity? Do I try to just act like one of the guys? Do I just woman up and try to get over my sense of being an outsider?
My Dear Intern,
In the parlance of the newspaper world, it looks from your question that you have a veritable backlog of issues that need addressing; I’ll do the best I can to answer the ones you’ve left on my stoop.
It seems, first and foremost, that you’re having a hard time grappling with your first experience as one of the lone females in a predominantly male working environment. This is a big rite of passage, and not something to be taken lightly! In fact, the most important motivation behind any internship, besides the personal fulfillment found in schlepping salads and photocopying documents, is that you have the opportunity to figure out whether you’d want to make a career out of the industry you’re spying on. Keep that in mind when the stress of the gig is driving you bats: You’re there to learn about that particular office; you’re not married to a workplace kind enough to let you do their grunt work for free.
Moving on to a bigger concern I have from your letter: A bustling, bromantic, fratlike work environment is one thing, but your “distinct impression” that your supervisor wants you to sleep with him is another. I would need to know more about the details of your hunch before counseling you on the matter of whether you should act more like “one of the guys,” at a bar or otherwise. Because while unwanted sexual advances on interns have certainly been known to sell plenty of papers, they shouldn’t be part of anyone’s experience on the side of putting them into print. (Or anybody’s! I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I’m strongly against sexual harassment.)
If your boss is making you feel uncomfortable, or putting you in a quid pro quo situation, meet at once with whoever hired you, or talk to your internship advisor at your school. This is more important than anything else.
Let us now discuss the politics of the bar, and the newspapermen who frequent it.
You’re right in that many of the decisions concerning who rises in a company, and why, are made off-site in social settings like bars, restaurants, baseball games and dinner parties. But just as nobody should ever force you to participate in, say, a workwide health spa retreat, complete with mandatory Bikram yoga and wheat grass enemas, so, too, you needn’t go beyond the frontiers of your comfort level, whether it concerns your physical flexibility, your tolerance for G.I. symptoms, or your propensity for hard liquor. In other words, you don’t need to “get sloppy” at a drinking session with colleagues if you don’t want to. In fact, it’s to your advantage that you do not, and that’s exclusive of your potentially lecherous supervisor.
When it comes to your either-or mental diptych of “get really drunk” or “avoid all social interaction with my co-workers,” I think what makes the most sense for you to do is to create your own gray area (a concept I’m looking into developing as a self-help book, or a hair regrowth kit for the elderly). What if you went out for a drink with the guys from the office and limited yourself to one or two rounds, then spent an extra half-hour sipping Diet Coke and getting to know the people you work with? Keeping your wits about you while, at the same time, remaining social and friendly, is a good skill to learn from a summer spent setting type or fact-checking Op-Eds, or providing lozenges to the people whose job it is to scream “Stop the presses!” — or whatever it is people still do at newspapers these days, besides hire unpaid interns.
But, of course, the above advice is exclusive of a scenario in which you’re being sexually harassed. If you are indeed in an outright unfriendly environment perpetuated by your supervisor, please talk to somebody — even if you’re unsure. Before you raise a glass of whatever spirits or cola, I want to protect you, and all girls everywhere, from ever being dubbed a “portly pepperpot,” however brilliantly, by tabloids who made a mockery out of Bill Clinton’s indiscretions with a girl in his office not much older than his daughter. I look forward to the day when being called “another Monica Lewinsky” refers to the hard work behind a master’s degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics, after spending the first act of one’s life deflecting the shame of a scandal that should have rested on the shoulders of a man old enough to have known better. But until then, keep your head screwed on, and remember: If this isn’t the gig for you, you can bet the Sunday coupon section you’ll find a better fit somewhere else soon.