[Part 2 of a three-part guest post by Gloria W. Here's Part 1 if you missed it. Part 3 will be posted tomorrow.]
4: But work is where we all “hook up”, so why is the comment “Nice dress” derogatory?
To me, this question has a significant element, but seems to be wrapped in many assumptions. The person who made this comment challenged me to acknowledge that the workplace is a place where some people end up meeting their significant others. His fear seemed to be that if one cannot comment on a person’s appearance at work, the environment would become so politically correct that it may become too emotionally sterile to pursue a mutual interest.
I gave it some long, serious thought, and realized that he is right in one respect. No one wants to work in an environment where people are so politically correct that they do not socialize and have some fun with each other, out of fear. Many of us even want to be able to approach people, or be approachable, if the environment and conditions are such that we would even consider dating someone at work. But despite this, a comment such as “Nice dress” is not only an awful pick-up line, but also a horrible segue into a relationship. Even abiding by the general rule that the comment “Nice dress” isn’t acceptable at work, there are tons of opportunities to be more creative, and court each other over lunch and engaging conversation instead.
When I tell the story of the “Nice dress” comment to other women, there is a general consensus of possibly being offensive, and even a reaction of disbelief that a man may not understand why a woman could be offended by this comment at work. For the men who are sincerely boggled about why this is offensive, here is my best attempt to explain the situation to you.
It’s all about Consent and Intent
The comment “Nice dress” could be a purely innocent comment, that you like the colors of the dress, and that it looks good on the person wearing it. But it could also imply that you have imagined what she looks like out of the dress as well. If she does not know you well enough to know how to interpret this comment, or if you’re using such a comment to express sexual interest at work, this could get you a reaction you may not be expecting.
a: What’s wrong with “hitting on” women at work?
So you have imagined what she looks like outside of the “Nice dress”, and you feel bold enough to tell her so. When you tell another person that you’ve done this in your mind, you now make it an act involving another person for which you did not get consent. Granted, it happened in your head, not in real life. But when you state “Nice dress” to her, you’re asking her mind to go in the same direction as yours went, and to consent to the act of imagining her naked.
Now place yourself in her shoes. She is focused on work, and loves her software development/firmware design/schematic design/etc job. She enjoys discussing work related facts with you and all of the other guys in her predominantly male environment. She may even have engaging geek conversations with you about different authentication algorithms, for example. Her defense mechanism, which is on just about everywhere she goes whether she realizes it or not, is down around you, because you genuinely listen to what she says, you respond with intelligent discourse to the engaging geek conversation, and you’ve never made a comment about her body. She can relax, and talk to you about other things as well, without fear of being misinterpreted as hitting on you, and without fear of you hitting on her without her consent, thus creating an awkward work situation.
Now you comment on her dress. Is it a comment about the dress, or her body? It’s not clear, and it happened in what was previously thought of as “neutral space”, at work. That makes her uncomfortable. The comment has no clean segue from anything work related, or anything you’ve discussed before. You ask her mind to go where yours went, without her consent. Her brain executes that harsh context switch, from unguarded and “one of the guys”, to guarded, unequal and objectified, reduced to body parts despite everything else, even despite the fact that she is at work. Her imagining you, imagining her naked, may actually make her want to vomit, and you’re going to see that visceral reaction right before your eyes. You’ve messed up.
Lunch and more engaging conversation about movies, music, online games and Open Source software would have been the better way to segue into a possible date. It would have given her the ability to prepare to be “hit on”, and either gently let you down and leave the situation gracefully, or to acknowledge and consent to it in mutually designated “appropriate space” (shared by choice) outside of work space (shared by obligation).
b: I am a man who likes to wear dresses. I comment on her dress because I love the color, and I want one like it. What is wrong with that?
This was an actual comment on another blog. Of course there is nothing wrong with “Nice dress, I want one. Where did you get it?” The intent is obvious, and it does not lead to a sexual context. I am sure we could find about a hundred perfectly acceptable fringe cases for this comment. I am addressing the cases which have a vague intent, and are not fringe.
Geek Socialization and the Scarcity of Women in this Field: The Gray Areas
All of this discussion about comment protocol at work makes me wonder about the gray areas. I have personally been in several entirely male “geek” engineering environments where men stuttered and sputtered around me. Apparently they had never worked with a female in their lab space before, and had no idea how to just be themselves around me. In these environments, I realized that I had to make an effort to help some of these guys relax, and speak to me just like anyone else. I realized through these experiences that it is possible for a male engineer to go through years of schooling and more years in a hardware lab, and never be exposed to a single female in their daily environments.
I hope over time we’ll see more women in hardware labs, and other almost exclusively male tech environments. But until this happens, what resources are available for men with so little exposure to women, to help them learn to socialize and relax around women? In college I’ve painfully witnessed my geeky male friends fumbling through awkward social situations, where their best efforts to socialize with women turned into cringe-inducing moments. I could imagine their work experiences being horrifying, making them even more shy and socially awkward than ever. I have also suffered the frustration of having to be that mentor for many men who do not know how to socialize with women in the workplace. It is exhausting and irritating to have to repeatedly do this in so many work environments on top of the existing workload.
I have no idea of a good solution aside from encouraging more women into these predominantly male work and education environments; not for geek social practice, but so that more women benefit from better paying jobs, and so that women become commonplace in these related fields. Maybe then, geek men would not see women as such oddities. As these same men get promoted to management roles, they will be more likely to hire and promote women. Unfortunately not everyone wants this same outcome and many studies show that women are leaving IT in droves right now. Many studies delve into possible theories on why this is happening, and for this reason I won’t go into the many proposed reasons here.
Tomorrow, the conclusion of this article in Part 3.