Editor’s Note: Workplace sexual harassment can happen between any group of people. Men are not always the perpetrators, and women are not always the victims. This article focuses on the specific dynamic of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, but in no way is meant to imply that this dynamic is the only one.
But for now, I have to deal with the almost inevitable consequences of working in a hyper-masculine, male-dominated field: unwanted sexual advances.
Some call it flirting; some call it sexual harassment. In reality, it’s both, either, or neither — the only person who can decide what an unwanted advance means is you.
Women in male-dominated fields might disproportionately experience sexism as a result of the environment in which they work, but unwanted sexual advances happen to many of us, and they have nothing to do with our career choices.
After several years of dealing with this, I’ve accumulated an arsenal of tools to fight back and continue functional workplace relationships with the men who seem to have thought the company turned into a speed dating service the day I walked into the office.
First, a disclaimer: If you are at all uncomfortable with speaking to a male co-worker who is hitting on you, or you feel threatened, afraid, or simply don’t want to have to face him on your own, your Human Resources department is supposed to address this.
If you were at all physically, emotionally, and/or verbally assaulted, then I strongly encourage you to consider reporting him.
However, I understand how intimidating speaking to HR can be and how often it can lead to a long and overwrought process.
Many men live in a hyper-masculine, patriarchal, and heteronormative society, and while they don’t face the same marginalization that women do, their perception of masculinity is seriously skewed. Sometimes being direct with them about their impropriety can lead to a changed mind, or, at the very least, a change of behavior while you’re working with the guy.
So here are some tools and sample language to address uncomfortable scenarios with male coworkers.
1. Talking with Him
Sometimes it’s hard to decipher if a co-worker is being friendly or asking you out. But since I have found myself inadvertently on lunch dates with co-workers, I prefer to play it safe.
If a co-worker asks you out to lunch and you think it sounds like an invitation to a date, tell him you don’t feel comfortable going out to lunch with him: “Thank you for the invite, but I don’t think it’s appropriate unless it’s a group thing.” It’s usually best to be direct with him right off the bat.
If that feels too direct for you, make it a group lunch yourself. Invite a couple of other co-workers whose company you would enjoy.
And for those of you that are a little bit shy, just tell him you’re busy and will get back to him when you have a chance. Eventually he’ll get the hint!
There’s no shame in just avoiding the awkward talk. It’s basically how I dealt with my early 20s.
If the offending co-worker becomes slightly pushier, tell him that his behavior is not okay: “Hey, whatever your name is, I really need you to stop asking me out. It’s highly inappropriate, and it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to have to feel like that when we work together.”
I want to believe that a lot of them don’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable, and if you let them know, they’d want to stop.
2. Talking to Your Supervisor
But what if this co-worker isn’t respecting your boundaries and is completely ignoring what you tell him?
This is a good time to talk to your supervisor.
In the not so distant past, I had an awkward encounter with a raving misogynist at work. He would constantly comment on my attire and my looks, and the never-ending barrage of advances and dinner invitations was really wearing me out.
At one point, I remember actually changing my outfit before leaving to work because I was going to see him in a meeting. It didn’t work, obviously, and although I talked to him several times about his impropriety, he continued to tell me that he was just “being friendly.”
His exact words were: “Relax, I have a wife!” Like that has ever magically made a person less of a jerk.
I debated contacting HR about it, but the thought of all the meetings, paperwork, and requests for proof of harm done was not a situation I was interested in being in.
My next best option was to discuss it with my supervisor and request that he was reprimanded.
I told him that I didn’t want to jeopardize my working relationship with said co-worker, but that it had become increasingly hard to keep telling him “no.”
He promised to talk with him, and while I don’t know what happened during that conversation, the offending co-worker never bothered me again.
Your supervisors are there to mediate awkward work situations, so use them! It’s their job.
3. Advances Outside the Office
Another issue that I have unfortunately encountered (and one that is so much harder to quell) is the co-worker who is trying to hit on you outside the office — say, in an office party or a company happy hour.
When things happen outside of the office, it’s much more difficult to know what to say because it’s such an informal setting. You’re technically in a professional setting, but you’re also sitting at a bar.
When a co-worker is inappropriate outside the office, treat it the same way you would treat the situation if you were in the office: Tell him to freaking stop! It really doesn’t matter where you are; you don’t have to accept unwanted advances.
The one thing you do have a chance to do when you’re outside the office is have a longer and less constricted conversation about the situation. In the office, I usually feel like everyone is watching, and anything I say to another co-worker is overheard.
It might actually feel safer to confront him in an informal setting with an “I’ve been wanting to say this to you about your behavior in the office, and since we’re in a less serious environment, I hope I can discuss this with you now.”
If he doesn’t want to belittle you or get in trouble, he should get the hint.
And if he doesn’t get the hint, there is always the option to talk to your supervisor or file a complaint with HR.
4. What About Work Travel?
An even more uncomfortable situation that I have also experienced (groan!) is the unwanted advances while traveling for work.
I don’t know what it is, but something about traveling with co-workers makes people feel like all rules can get thrown out the window. And being in a hotel exacerbates this — apparently “hotel” is code for “etiquette optional.”
During one very unfortunate business trip, a relentlessly annoying co-worker insisted on escorting me to my hotel. After many no thank yous, I gave up and allowed him to walk with me.
Once we were outside my hotel, he kept begging to go up with me. It was highly uncomfortable, completely inappropriate — and seriously, like I didn’t know exactly what he was looking for?
It was especially awkward because I had to handle the situation all on my own. There is no supervisor or HR person to talk to when you’re miles away from your workplace or home.
During that particular scenario, I had to tell him that if he continued pressuring me, I was going to have to call the police and file a complaint. He apologized and left, but our work relationship was never repaired.
I felt that he had gone too far, and although I never did say anything to the company, I stopped all contact with him and avoided speaking to him at all costs. Sometimes it was unavoidable to see him, but we were never friendly again.
A couple of years after the hotel incident, I spoke about it with another female co-worker who told me she had a similar experience. She did file a complaint, but unfortunately that led to her being pulled out of the project they were working on together — essentially punishing her for doing nothing wrong under the guise of protecting her.
This is why I believe sometimes we have to handle things on our own.
I have a deep distrust of corporate companies and their ability to make the workplace safer for women.
We do have rights, and we should exercise them whenever possible, but having all the tools to choose the path you’d prefer to take for your own peace of mind and well-being is important.
I hope that one day I don’t have to write an article like this one. But for now, let’s fight injustices, and keep our jobs while we’re at it.
Patricia Valoy is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a Civil Engineer, feminist blogger, and STEM activist living in New York City. She writes about feminist and STEM issues from the perspective of a Latina and a woman in engineering. You can read more of her writings on her blog Womanisms, or follow her on Twitter @besito86. Read her articles here and book her for speaking engagements here.