Recent incidents of sexual harassment have apparently left men “confused” about how to treat female co-workers.
After all, women have been entering the white-color work force in numbers for only about 50 or 60 years, and working-class women have been working since only, well, forever. Surely it’s unreasonable to expect men to keep up with such lightning-fast social change.
So, in the spirit of understanding, I offer some answers to the most perplexing questions about the co-ed workplace.
1. How do I avoid committing sexual harassment?
Some thought experiments can help you here. Imagine that your female co-worker or employee is not primarily a sexual being during the hours when she is at work. Or, if that is too difficult, try the time-honored technique of imagining that she is a male co-worker.
Would you tell Andy in accounting that you like his new haircut? Yes? Then it’s probably OK. Would you tell him he looks really hot in that sweater, or that you wish he’d wear tighter pants? No? Then refrain. Would you stroke Bill’s bottom to show him he’d done a really good job on that quarterly report? Probably not, so . . . Do you get the idea? (Although directed at heterosexual men, these guidelines apply equally to all sexualities and genders.)
In addition, you may consider actually reading the sexual harassment memo your company sends out every year before you file it in the wastebasket.
2. How do I show support for my female co-workers without talking about their bodies or stroking them?
This is a hard one, for sure.
Are there any other options? Again, try a thought experiment. How do you support your male colleagues? You can say, “Magda, you did a really good job on that quarterly report” or “Mirabelle, I’m going to give you a raise.”
You can also include women in important email chains, respond to their emails, invite them to important meetings, and so forth. Be aware that some behaviors are considered unsupportive, such as interrupting a woman, taking credit for a woman’s ideas, or instructing a woman to make you coffee — go figure! (Pro tip: Interrupting a woman to talk about her body is generally considered sexual harassment.)
3. May I throw caution to the winds at pseudo-social events?
True, weekend office parties make co-educational work even more confusing because the festive, frat-house atmosphere makes it tempting to assault your co-workers.
However, you will still be held responsible for your actions, unfair as that may seem. Remember: office parties don’t sexually harass women; men do.
Avoid drinking too much and doing stupid things you will regret when you get subpoenaed. If you find it difficult to refrain from getting hammered at office functions, why not pretend you’re at a party with people who are important to you, such as rich clients or your children?
Some companies have taken the bold, anti-harassment step of moving their parties to Tuesdays, on the theory that men are somehow able to resist committing actionable offenses on weekdays. So, if the above suggestion doesn’t work for you, just pretend it’s Tuesday. That should work.
4. What should I do if I find that, because of the extremely confusing presence of women in my office, I have innocently and inadvertently committed sexual harassment?
Apologize and cut it out.
When apologizing, it is important to avoid sounding like a self-serving weasel. Useful phrases include “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong.” Other phrases are less effective, such as:
“If I offended anyone . . .” You did offend someone. That’s why you’re apologizing.
“If anyone misunderstood my actions . . .” You misunderstood your actions. That’s why you’re apologizing.
“If I made anyone uncomfortable . . .” “Uncomfortable” describes the state of someone sitting in a draft. Women who are sexually harassed feel angry, vulnerable, frightened, threatened, undermined, demeaned and devalued. Do not confuse the two states, even for the sake of covering your behind.
Although these suggestions may sound arcane or outlandish, I encourage men to try them. At least for a couple of news cycles.
Ellen Rosenman is the Provost's Distinguished Service Professor in the University of Kentucky’s Department of English.