Will the pandemic kill sexist schmoozing?

Under the lockdown, winning business is more about competence and less about charm, says Bevel CEO Jessica Schaefer.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Almost nothing we do can be fully attributed to merit. If you wanted to go to a top university, you had to work hard, perform better than your peers and receive close to perfect SAT scores. But even then, the process wasn't fully merit based.

But since COVID-19 happened, there's no question that social distancing has changed the rules for deal making.

Over the past two months, I've closed more deals at a faster pace than ever before. At Bevel, our services, including reputation management, investor and employee communications, crisis communications and brand building through earned media, are needed more now than ever. The only difference is what it takes to close a deal.

Before COVID-19, I travelled several times a month to meet with founders in-person over coffee or drinks, racking up airline miles and hotel charges like nobody's business.

Today, I'll have one Zoom call, send a strategic proposal and sign a contract via DocuSign, all within one week. Prospects are finally asking for what they can expect if they engage with us: what will the first 60 days look like? What are the real results, real ideas and set KPIs.

To be honest, we never sent so much of our actual work product before social distancing set in.

I think many of these changes will stick. You don't have to board a plane to Hong Kong to close new business. You don't have to eat dinner with eight male fintech founders and be the only female at the table (awkward)!

You don't have to explain to your boyfriend why you'll be home late — again — because you have a happy hour, followed by a client dinner. And you won't be saying "Oh sorry babe. It's for work!" four nights a week just to grow your company.

Ever since entering the workforce in 2008 at the beginning of the Great Recession, there have been an entire host of reasons why I've been successful in my career.

I'd say about 25% of it was based on merit and 75% on social behaviors. Did I say the right things during a business dinner? Was I wearing something appropriate? Did I manage to charm the decision-maker? Did I bring the right date to a gala or event?

I'm not unaware of the sad reality that my looks led to a lot of first meetings, and, coincidentally a lot of wasted time. Being a female founder created room for gray social interactions: a board member asking me out for drinks, another founder asking to talk about his business idea over dinner. And too many men claiming they wanted to pick my brain when in reality, they just want some female company.

At the end of it all, you find yourself exhausted and your personal life empty while your company is thriving. I was beginning to think this was just reality — a world driven by male CEOs that I needed to spend time with, outside of normal working hours, just to close a deal.

I'd never be able to have a family and have a company, I thought. At least, not how I wanted. Our pre-pandemic society was not leaving the door open for a motivated, career-oriented female who wanted time for herself and a future family.

It feels refreshing to be considered for something because of merit. Not all the changes and newly-formed habits from COVID-19 will stick. But I do think we'll start to see a societal shift towards new business norms that will leave all of our calendars a little lighter and our hearts a bit fuller.

Jessica Schaefer is founder and chief executive officer of Bevel, a public relations consultancy driving quantifiable results for clients in tech, venture capital and more.

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