A few nights ago in cubicle-land, I overheard one of my co-workers on the phone politely declining a date. When she got off the phone, she grunted and vented to a few of us that it was a business partner on the other end of the line. The gentleman on the phone was not at all impolite in his request, it's just that it was awkward, unwanted and inappropriate in the workplace.
While I've written about sexism and harassment in this blog previously, I have focused on the scandals in DC and not the sexism working women experience daily.
In the 90s there was a PSA in which a boss was asking his female subordinate to dress sexier. His final plea was "We're talking about your job here", to which the woman who had been literally shrinking under her boss' pleas grew back to normal size and replied, "No, we're talking about sexual harassment and I don't have to take it." To my middle school aged friends, the commercial was so melodramatic that it inspired countless re-enactments and ad-libs.
Fortunately, my peers and I have never experienced anything in which our jobs were put into question but we have all unfortunately received some sort of reportable unwanted attention that we neglected to report not for fear of losing our jobs but for fear of not being taken seriously afterwards.
The situations fall into the following categories:
- The Compliment - There's the general "you look great today" which can be awkward but is benign. Then the compliment moves into awkward/offensive territory, "With a face/body/legs/etc. like yours..." Ew. This format insinuates you have been studying me for awhile and correlate my looks to my success in business or wherever the ellipses lead. Most women I know give a brief stern look and then redirect the conversation.
- The Insinuation - This format tends to follow the compliment and quickly goes into creeper territory. This usually follows an appearance based compliment but can also follow mentioning any activity or interest too. Because the the looks based insinuation is obvious, I will provide a different example: Me: I have to head out a little early tonight, going to a concert. Creeper: If I wasn't stuck with a wife and kids, I would love to take you out. My favorite(?) part about this one is the assumption that if the creeper didn't have a wife and kids that I would be falling over myself to go to a concert with him. I will admit that there have been several times that the insinuation has been more about longing for a return to carefree bachelor life than asking out female colleagues, but generally it is about the latter and not the former. In these situations, I do my best to interrupt the sentence but when I fail to do that, I go for the stare and eye roll.
- The Career-Creeper - Finally, there is the go for broke approach used by Career-Creepers. I am often willing to give The Complimenter and The Insinuator some slack if it is a first time offense. Career-Creepers are tricky because their cowardice makes them slyest idiot in the room. For example, I recently attended a conference and was approached by a Career-Creeper during the reception. Unfortunately, I wasn't on alert because we spoke about business and he mentioned a wife and kids back home. Imagine my surprise when I was greeted by an email from his work address to my work address that contained language from The Complimenter, The Insinuator and a few other graphic details of his own. A meeting with my so-called Brain Trust which included two friends, my mom and a trusted female colleague led to the decision to ignore. And while I sometimes regret doing ignoring, I know that it is better than getting into an email battle with a Career-Creeper. Unfortunately, this is what makes the cowardly Career-Creeper deceptively powerful. He knows he is not the best looking/smartest/most interesting man in the room. This is why he will never say these words to your face because he knows that it will be met with rejection. Email provides a safe outlet for him because most women like myself will just ignore it. However, what the Career-Creeper doesn't realize is that a business to business email creates an opportunity for offices to get involved if one of his female recipients were to get offended. There is no doubt that his office does not want an employee using company email to look for women and the recipient's office does not want their employees to feel harassed at work.
My female friends and colleagues and I have all experienced some variation of the above and many of us begrudgingly accept it as part of the business world. I'm always interested to speak to other women from the working generation before mine who broke into finance when meetings at strip clubs were the norm. There seems to be quiet frustration among them. I was surprised that when I spoke to men about this that they admitted, "men are idiots". As a feminist, I never wanted to fall into the "men are bad" category, I just want to make sure that there are equal opportunities and pay. However, when it comes to sexual harassment or sex in the workplace, I have to wonder if it is true of a sizable group of men. After the incident that my coworker experienced a few days ago, one of my male colleagues explained to us that "men are idiots." His wife works in HR for a large company and without fail comes home from work every few months after having to fire someone for looking at porn on work internet.
Why bring sex into the workplace if the risks are so great? Granted, I've already admitted that my friends and I have never reported harassment, but we also haven't welcomed it. So what is there to gain?