I make a point to avoid talking too much about my work, but this week I had something happen that took me aback. I’m not a particularly voluptuous woman and it’s only been recently that I’ve developed any concept of fashion. Perhaps that lead me to be especially uncomfortable this week, because I have never been made to feel this kind of uncomfortable in my life.
The short is that we had someone in our office teaching us how to use a machine. This person does not work for my company and is not someone I will have to see often (hopefully). The first day this person was in the office, I noticed they never looked me in the eye. I was oddly uncomfortable around them but didn’t think much of it. Besides, most of the time they were sitting and I was standing. Maybe that is what made it feel awkward (although I talk to people like that all the time and never feel that way).
The next day, myself, another woman in the office and this person spent a good amount of time standing next to each other and talking about our new machine. Again, this person never looked me in the eye. They didn’t look at their feet or at my forehead. They didn’t focus their attention on the machine, as if afraid to make eye contact. No, this person was defiantly looking at a couple of female characteristics I had on top.
Certainly I had to be seeing things. They were just nervous and looking down. They didn’t speak like they were nervous though. My discomfort had lead me to avoid looking at them too much, instead focusing my attention on the machine. As the awkwardness continued, I decided to commit to meeting their eye. I spoke, looking directly in their eyes. I had a back and forth conversation looking directly at their eyes. Not once did they so much as glance up. Apparently, I had a couple of very compelling distractions. I mean, I noticed that they were staring. Could they not see me staring them in the eye?
How do you react to that situation, especially when you are new to an office? Is that bad enough to tell a superior? Was my discomfort an overreaction? Is this just part of being a woman in an office?
Of course, the biggest question was whether or not I was imagining things. I went to the other woman who was trained with me and made a comment about how odd it was this person never met my eyes. She adamantly agreed and had come to the same conclusion I had. If she felt the same way, certainly I wasn’t imagining things.
We both ended up giving the “I don’t want to make a big deal out of anything, but I don’t want to be in a situation where I should have said something and didn’t” speech to our superiors – which was also quite awkward. I still feel odd, actually. There is absolutely no way to make that conversation comfortable. Then there’s the nagging voice in the back of my head, saying I’m making something out of nothing. I wonder if I should have mentioned something in the first place. Wouldn’t my life be easier and less awkward if I said nothing? What was a few days here and there of discomfort?
Talking to my boyfriend, he actually suggested holding something against my chest, like a notebook, when I am next around the person. Is that what I needed to do in order to having this person look me in the eye? I shouldn’t have to do that. I shouldn’t have to put up with that. If I had a conversation with a man at work, the whole time staring at his crotch and never looking him in the eye, that would be just as wrong.
Let’s just get out of the way that we all look. I look. You look. We all notice. It’s natural to notice someone with particularly attractive breast or a particularly large bulge. Even when those things aren’t large, the way a person dresses, sits or carries themselves can lead us to glance.That’s all okay. It’s totally normal and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Blatant staring is not okay. Doing so in a professional environment is defiantly not okay. The logical, reasonable part of me knows I made the right decision in putting up with the discomfort of mentioning this person’s stare to a superior. Yet, I still feel awkward about the incidents.
I talk a lot about gender issues and gender equality on this blog, but the reality is that I’ve rarely received more than tasteless comments targeting my gender. I’ve never been gawked at or fondled without my permission (since Zachery). Is this what I can expect as I dive further into the corporate world? Will it get worse? Will I experience incidents that are worse? The question that scares me the most is, when I choose to tell someone, will I be taken seriously?
Have you ever experienced or witnessed appropriator gender based behavior in a professional environment? how common or uncommon do you think it is? What would you have done in my situation? Have you ever been gawked at or worse in a professional environment?