The Red Flag in the Harmless Drink|
Many of us, as young women, have encountered and sometimes struggled with-both internally and externally-an inevitable issue: sexuality in the workplace. Some office environments have strict “no fraternizing” policies; some turn a blind eye to intra-office dating. Still others turn a blind eye to office cultures that include built-in sexual harassment. Do you know which office environment you’re working in?
Last year, the AAUW produced a study claiming that nearly half of students in grades 7 through 12 have experienced sexual harassment. The study was a timely interlude to the sexual harassment lawsuit that ultimately drove Herman Cain from the Republican nominee race in November, and was also featured in Katie Roiphe’s New York Times opinion piece on the robusticity of women in the workplace. Women can handle the ups and downs of office cultures that include sexual references and jokes, Katie wrote back in November. The National Institute of Justice and the Department of Defense teamed up to perform an exhaustive survey in December whose results indicated that 1 in 5 women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. That’s a significant percentage-too significant to brush off as “friendly interloping,” anyway.
Many women are familiar with the types of culture that contribute to the results the Department of Defense and NIJ found: callous, overbearingly fraternal conversations that leave little room for a woman to participate in a way that represents the more ‘best practice’ elements of self-respect.
In that light, we’re publishing a short and anonymized story written by one of our readers. It’s one you’ve probably heard before-or maybe even one you’ve been a reluctant participant in.
Lost in cultural backlash
As young female professionals, we are often instructed to remove sexuality and sex from the workplace. But we are often refused that same courtesy from our counterparts. Whether or not there is room for sexuality in the workplace is something that, for the large part, either must 1) still be worked out by our society as a whole or 2) must be decided on an office-by-office basis. Sometimes it seems to work. Sometimes-and in many of our experiences, it’s easy to apply the maxim “When it’s suppressed”-it doesn’t work.
This story is not meant to titillate. The intention is to make obvious and make public what often seem to be subtle or pressurized attempts to coerce.
The Red Flag in the Harmless Drink
Act I: Enthusiastic New Employee Hour
You’re 25, beautiful-even curvaceous. You have just landed a great job- a good starting salary, benefits, and upward mobility. You are confident that you can climb up the ladder quickly and you’re excited about it. You cut your long Disney princess hair into a short bob to look more “professional.”
After a month of bone-crushingly long hours on the job, your supervisor tells you he wants to talk to you about your performance- over drinks. Eager to impress him, you agree, not thinking anything of it. He has a few beers, you have a glass of wine- the bar even has Riesling, your favorite.
Your supervisor says you’re doing a fantastic job, and he sees a profitable and long future for you with this company. Somehow the conversation weaves around to family life, and he tells you all about his wife Sandra, and children, two girls, Lily and Rosie, 4 and 8. You make a few jokes about what it’s like to be single in New York. And then he says “I find it hard to believe you’re single. You do know how beautiful you are, right?” Then he gives you that look- you know, the eye contact that lasts about four seconds too long. You think, “Is he…hitting on me?”
No way. He just told me about his kids and wife in Jersey, even about his dog Coco. It must be your imagination- he’s just being nice. Plus, he’s twice your age. Certainly even he thinks that’s a dealbreaker.
Act II: The Switch
Things resume their normal pace. Two weeks later, he takes you out for dinner. You’re pleased with how well you’re doing- clearly, if he is going to spend money on a steak for you!
The conversation is pretty similar to the last- you talk about new business opportunities and stuff going on at work. Then he asks you what you’re doing that night. “Pretty girl like you, you must be going out on a Friday night in New York City.”
You laugh uncomfortably. Uh- huh, you nod. It’s actually a friend of mine from college’s birthday. He pays for the bill on the company card and you walk out together. “Well you can’t possibly have time to go home before you meet your friends.” (It’s true- you live in Brooklyn. So annoying sometimes). “My apartment’s right here, why don’t you come up and have a Scotch until they’re ready to meet up?”
“You have an apartment?
“Yea, for during the week in case I’m too tired to take the train home. So, whaddya say?”
The alarm bells go off.
“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” you say.
“Why,” he responds. “It’s just one drink. I’m trying to help you out.”
Am I being paranoid? Is he just trying to be nice? What the hell is going on here? You think.
Then you notice that he is not wearing a wedding ring. You think about it, and realize that you have never seen him wearing a wedding ring outside the workplace.
You know exactly why he is trying to get you up to his apartment. And you want to vomit.
Act III: The Carefully Calculated Response
But more than just vomiting, you realize that your career lies in this precarious, extremely touchy balance. And you’re a nobody- he, meanwhile, is a very powerful man with a lot of connections. He could literally make or break you.
If you blatantly reject him and tell him how outrageous he is, you’re out like Rick Santorum in the primaries. Worst case scenario, you might even be blacklisted in your industry. You could continue to decline politely, but you’re not sure that a polite refusal is going to dissuade his advances. Why is he acting so offended? As if you did something wrong here by turning down a married man- and colleague- at his offer to feed you liquor in his apartment. You are totally in the right.
But the business world is tough, you think. People don’t care about your sob stories and you know it will look bad if you quit or get fired after only a month on the job. And you know that people want to be on his good side because he brings them business. No one will hire you if he badmouths you, which he could easily do. Plus, he didn’t touch you or anything. It’s not like you have any legitimate claims against him.
Carefully, you say, “I really don’t think it’s a good idea. My friends will I’m sure be along shortly.”
He acts offended. Again, he says, “It’s just one drink. I don’t know what you’re making such a big deal about.”
You wish you hadn’t told him you were single so that in this moment, you could lie about having a boyfriend.
But then again, it seems like fidelity isn’t his highest concern.
Epilogue: The Catch-22
Women’s responses vary in this situation: some go in for the kill, worried that not giving in will hurt their careers- and that giving in will help them. Some ignore it, pretending it never happened or isn’t happening, while all the while having ‘Should I have stood up for myself ?’ flashing through their heads, and a heavy burden on their hearts.
Some fight back, meeting passive aggression with real aggression, and are branded as bitches and hotheads. And some probably are. But you’re not. You’re just trying to avoid getting into hot water.
How are we supposed to deal with this issue that is all too real, and not often enough talked about? What is the correct way to forward your career and your business opportunities while still maintaining your boundaries and not having someone badmouth you because his ego is bruised?
All too often, Gen Y women find themselves in this situation. If it hasn’t happened to you, it has happened to your best friend or to your sister. And, somewhat frighteningly, the situation will probably arise for you also. The behavior may not be overt enough to qualify as sexual harassment, but a mentor, a boss, or a business contact, crosses a line. Maybe it’s not even an invitation up to an apartment– maybe it’s lewd comments referring to your breasts or physique.
Most importantly, what do you do? It is difficult for a woman at the beginning of her career in a big (and often new) city to know how to handle this type of situation. And it is easy to feel alone, lost and confused. And sad. Sad that some woman somewhere has a husband who is dishonest, and instead of rushing home to be with her at the ned of each night, is tossing his wedding ring and hitting on interns at the bar. Sad for his children, who not only have a sickening role model, but don’t get to see their daddy because he is too busy womanizing. Sad that the fairytale of having a husband who is not only rich and handsome, but honest, might be just that, a fairytale.
photo credit czcad.com