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When women network with men after work are they look upon differently?

For years women have been told to fight for their seat at the table. Lean in. Break the glass ceiling.

That’s easier said than done. Business dinners might seem anodyne, but many professional women find that talking business over dinner with a male boss, mentor or colleague can be all too easily misunderstood by people who think there may something else there. Even in 2013, long past the age of chaperones, a woman and a man dining or drinking together are rarely thought to be business partners.

That locks women out of potential wheeling and dealing after work. Whether it’s dinner or drinks, women find they have to think twice about networking and exploring all the same career advancement opportunities that men are privy to.

“Obviously we women want the same the opportunities as men. If John can have dinner with Mike, why shouldn’t you or I be able to?” asks Carol Roth, a CNBC contributor and author of the book, The Entrepreneur Equation.

Roth recently wrote a blog post for CNBC encouraging women to throw off the shackles of negative perception after both a male client and her husband suggested that her one-on-one dinner meeting with another male client was improper and unusual – merely because they believed a man and a woman out together will always look as if they are on a date.

I went to dinner, as planned. It was great and I’m unaware if anyone looked at us sideways – but if they did, it should be their problem, not mine.

Flirty, or aggressive?

Adding to the issue is that men often misinterpret friendliness from a woman as sexual interest or flirting. Signals are easily misinterpreted. One former Merrill Lynch financial adviser recalls being told to keep his office door open when talking with female clients.

“I have a sarcastic sense of humor, that’s often interpreted as flirty banter. But that’s just how I express myself,” says Roth. “We women have to be hyper aware that we are giving off these unintentional signals.”

However, not all women are as comfortable dismissing public opinion. It seems regressive, but there is a lesson that “many women in male-dominated professions – particularly Wall Street – have long understood: one wrong step, and they suffer far harsher consequences than men in similar positions.” Men rarely face the same scrutiny of their behavior and reputations.

As for the perception of the onlookers and potential effects on the reputation, Roth says: “If a woman wants to take a step back, because she doesn’t want to blemish her reputation, that’s her choice. But we have to take a seat at the table and not let ourselves be relegated to the kids table.”

Yet it’s common, even now, for women to be lectured on how they behave and look. Women’s public images are often considered communal property by companies or business partners. The law firm Clifford Chance recently chided its female partners for allegedly showing cleavage and giggling. In 2011, UBS offered a detailed 44-page memo that asked women to wear “light makeup” and dress in the “female equivalent” of a man’s dark suit, white shirt and red tie. In an interview a few years ago, Billie Williamson, Ernst & Young’s company’s Americas inclusiveness officer, told the Wall Street Journal that men were coached how to provide critical feedback to their female mentees – like telling women to dress more professionally and how to handle crying women.

The issue at the heart of the problem is that many of the networking opportunities are organized around male interests like golfing, sports and male bonding, found a study by Herminia Ibarra, professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD. That kind of networking effectively shuts women out of opportunities to advance their careers.

While men are getting sponsored, women, placed under close scrutiny, are getting “mentored to death”. For men, sponsorship “just happens. Your boss looks out for you, and makes sure to place you,” Ibarra told the Harvard Business Review in 2010.

Whereas for women, that’s a lot trickier, for a whole host of different reasons. Sometimes very subtle and implicit biases in the workplace, sometimes just the lack of chemistry that comes with not being similar to your boss in different ways. They were not getting that sponsorship. They were getting mentoring. They were getting coaching. They were getting developmental advice. But they were not getting fought for and protected, and really put out there.

Women need to be free to network in order to seek appropriate mentors, says Roth – whether it’s in an office or over dinner. “If the appropriate mentors happen to be men, great. If they end up being women, great. If they end up being muppets, great,” she says. But she concedes she has a long way to go before that message catches on.