"I would never hide the fact that I'm married, but it has affected my sales," says Emma Peak.
When Starbucks recently issued a new dress policy that essentially banned wedding and engagement rings, the response was swift. Employees and their partners started a 'Boycott Starbucks' hashtag on Twitter. Although it was later revealed that the policy actually bans all jewellery with stones (semi-precious hot beds of bacteria) for hygiene reasons, it touched a nerve among many women (especially in hospitality and client-facing industries) for whom an appearance of 'availability' is an unofficial job requirement.
Emma Peak is a marketing executive at an international wine merchant. She specialises in high value accounts and much of her work involves socialising with clients. When Emma told some of her male clients she was getting married, she noticed a distinct cooling in their attitude toward her.
"While they were [initially] happy for me, I noticed their emails and work dinners with me became less frequent. It was more obvious during gatherings or wine tastings, when they now preferred to speak to my other female colleagues rather than me."
It appears that in some quarters, when a woman is perceived as unavailable sexually, that can make her invisible professionally. Not only were Emma's clients less interested in doing business with her, but there was a subtle judgement about her being there in the first place.
"It's frustrating because socialising is a huge part of my job. But after my wedding, whenever I bumped into various male clients and commented on them having disappeared, they'd jokingly reply 'You're just too busy with your husband!' or 'You should drink less now, or your hubby won't be impressed.' I would never hide the fact that I'm married, but it has affected my sales."
And employers themselves aren't always above using employees' sexual availability to their advantage.
Jen Tober experienced this during the two years she worked in hospitality within the member's area of a racecourse. "I'll never forget my first night when my [female] boss took me around introducing me to all the VIPs. Everyone had been drinking, but when we got to one of the wealthier clients, she indicated that I should do a little twirl for him and I saw him smile at my boss approvingly. I can't believe I actually did it, but I was young and it didn't occur to me that I could say no. But I'll never forget that feeling of being 'offered up' by my boss, like 'look what we got for you'."
Similarly to Emma, Jen was later surprised when that client 'broke up with her' when he realised she was in a relationship.
"I regularly hosted functions for him and his colleagues, and though we often chatted I never considered it some kind of 'flirtation' – and he had a wife and kids. But then one day my fiancé met me at work for lunch, and when I introduced them, [the client] suddenly became really cold – like I'd broken some rule of our relationship. After that he stopped booking me for events, and whenever I did see him he looked away.
"On one hand I was annoyed – he'd assigned me a role I hadn't agreed to, and I was losing work because of his ego. But it also made me second-guess myself in other jobs; for a long time I was very conscious of everything I said or did and how it could be interpreted."
Consulting psychologist Dr. Geraldine Lockley specialises in workplace counselling. She says that when women perceive their success at work to be linked to romantic availability, it can have a detrimental effect on confidence and performance.
"It comes down to the woman's sense of herself; the idea of how stable you feel in your own identity. Ideally, you would be able to have what we call a 'self-concept' that remains consistent whatever your environment. But when pressure to appear single is linked to performance ('If I'm perceived as available, it's somehow beneficial, and if I'm not perceived as available it's going to negatively affect my career'), it's not hard to see how … you might change your behaviour to suit the perceived needs of your workplace."
Although Emma experienced a drop in sales after her engagement, she was never tempted to lie about her marital status. However, it is a trend she's noticed in friends overseas.
"Many do take off their rings and never mention their marital status to customers. I believe it happens a lot in Hong Kong, especially to those women who works for luxury brands and deal with high flyers and extremely wealthy customers."
For Jen, the stress of trying to be all things to all people became too much and she re-thought her approach. "The experiences I had in hospitality ultimately taught me that not only can I not please everybody, but that shedding a certain kind of client is better for my mental health. Yes, it's a blow to lose work, but I think the sense of strength I have now in myself means I now attract a different kind of client.
"Playing the 'available' role falls beyond the kind of emotional stress I'm willing to put up with for my job."