Dear Bitter Butch,
One of the senior executives at my workplace is a bit of a skeeze in that he showers women at our workplace with ambiguously inappropriate attention. From what I’ve seen, the attention ranges from overly friendly hugs, to hands at the small of the back when opening doors, to fairly frequent office visits with small presents like pieces of chocolate. You know the sort of attention I’m talking about, because, unfortunately, it is a fairly common occurrence.
My wife has a former boss who discriminated against her after we had kids, so I’m hyper-aware of how few good options my female coworkers have (which is why discrimination and harassment from a higher up is so awful). I suspect that some of my female coworkers feel like they should just tolerate these sorts of things because they don’t want to offend a guy who could makes their lives more difficult and, on the flip side, could be helpful to their careers if he is favorably inclined to them. Again, from what I’ve seen, the behavior is ambiguous enough that they might also feel weird complaining about it (which he likely knows and uses to his advantage); this is an example of why this sort of behavior is so pernicious.
So, with that background in mind, my question is as follows: What should I as a male colleague do about these sorts of things? I have several official reporting channels taht I could use from employee relations/HR to our ethics office, though we’re a small enough place that it is difficult to do that sort of thing anonymously. this may sound cowardly, but if I do report it, I don’t want it to come back to me, because this guy could hurt my career as well. What should I do?
– What to Do?
PS This guy is married and a social conservative, which isn’t relevant but makes him a hypocrite and ups the ick factor a bit as well.
Dear What to Do,
First: a married social conservative treating women like children or like they are on a perpetual date with him instead of in a work setting is not remotely hypocritical. I find this very consistent with a married socially conservative male outlook. I also think he is not doing this on purpose. I don’t think he realizes that he’s sexually harassing women nebulously. I don’t think he’s a cold and calculating predator. I think he’s a guy who truly thinks this is how you treat women, and acts accordingly. He probably thinks he’s a swell guy and pats himself on the back for how gallant he is with the ladies.
But as you said, that is neither here nor there. You need to know what to DO.
The short answer: nothing.
The long answer: everything.
Here’s what you do nothing about: you don’t file a complaint about him touching women on the small of their backs as they go through doorways. (And eeeew. I’ve put up with that in the past myself). You don’t report him for bringing women what amounts to dog treats and hugging them and generally treating them like pets.
While you outline very clearly what the problem with this behavior is — and it is definitely a problem — your female coworkers have dealt with worse. Trust me. It’s paternalistic to think that you should save them from this thoughtless creep, to be blunt. Women should not have to put up with crap like this simply to remain employed, but we do. Every day. That is the reality we live in. If there is a woman who has had enough of his shit, and she decides to tell him off or file a complaint, that’s up to her. That’s her job. Women are perfectly capable of deciding what is worth putting up with and what is worth fighting against, for themselves.
Here’s what you do everything about: all the rest. THAT, you can do something about.
All the rest is what you haven’t noticed. How all the men, including you, interrupt women in meetings whenever they try to speak or pick up what they started to say and take credit for it. (Multiple studies have shown that men dominate women in conversation endlessly, pretty much across the board, and feel women are dominating the conversation when they are speaking only 30 percent of the time.) Notice when men come to you for advice instead of to women who are more qualified to answer. Notice when women don’t get the chance to present their ideas, when men don’t even respond to their comments, when they are passed up for promotion or the chance to work on cool stuff.
And then change it. When a man interrupts a woman in a meeting, hold up your hand gently and say: “Sorry; I’m not sure Lori was finished,” and look at her expectantly. When a woman starts to present an idea and a man takes over and begins presenting it like it’s his, you can laugh and say: “Wait a minute. Isn’t that literally what Susan was just saying?” When people come to you for advice that you know would be better answered by a woman on your team, refer him. When a woman is looking for a raise or a promotion, be her cheerleader.
Use your privilege as a male. If a male colleague says: “That’s just what she was saying,” it sounds much different to our ears than the woman herself saying angrily: “That’s what I was just saying!” Ditto for the manterrupting. Women are socialized to patiently allow men to interrupt us constantly. It’s much harder for us to speak up for ourselves when men DO interrupt us. And, unfortunately, the unconsciously sexist men in your office will take what you say more seriously than what she was saying. It sucks, but it’s life.
And I’ll tell you this, too: if you start acting this way in the office? The women are going to see you as an ally, and when someone finally DOES get sick of this asshole’s bullshit and files something, she will know you have her back and can corroborate what she says.
And you will. Right? Even if you’re scared? You will.
BITTER BUTCH aka Haddayr Copley-Woods is a queer, a cripple, a nerd, a mom to two kids with neurological differences, and has a truckload of opinions on everything including sex and relationships, parenting, disability issues, family relationships, work dynamics, gender/sexuality issues, and etiquette. You can reach her with all your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org