Inappropriate Staring in the Workplace

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.

This photo, “A million stories” is copyright (c) 2014 Joseph Brent and made available under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license. The image was cropped to create the featured image.
This photo, “A million stories” is copyright (c) 2014 Joseph Brent and made available under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license. The image was cropped to create the featured image.

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?

Advertisements

26 thoughts on “Inappropriate Staring in the Workplace”

  1. “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.”

    I agree that you should not have to do that. Also, not once have I heard of someone staring at a man’s crotch, and yet it is a good comparison to what women commonly experience.

    1. No, but I don’t think we live in a society where staring at men’s crotches is as accepted. There’s media, music, memes and everything else about staring at women’s chests. There’s tricks to doing it without anyone noticing. On some level, staring at breasts is normalized.

  2. My wife sometimes works with Aspergers teens. What you’re describing sounds more like how she describes their behavior than a normal person. I have a coworker who never, ever looks anybody in the eye. I don’t know if he looks at women’s body parts, but he might.

    There have been occasions when I realized i was looking inappropriately and made a conscious effort to shift my gaze. I have some small amount of self-awareness that some people lack.

    All that being said, it is inappropriate. In small doses it is wrong and if it was as constant as you say I think you did the exact right thing to mention it to someone. If the person lacks self-awareness then maybe a few complaints will force them to become self aware. If the person goes beyond looking and some day touches somebody inappropriately, the record of inappropriate behavior will help the victim.

    1. I understand what you mean. I have been good friends with people who had autism (which I believe is a form of aspergers, right?). Now, the people I have known have been high functioning, but if this guy has a job and has aspergers, I have to assume he also gets along well in society. My experience has been that, while they don’t always pick up on typical social behaviors we do on instinct, they can learn then. I don’t think the organization he worked for was told, though. We just told them we’d prefer a different trainer next time.

      We all look. I mean, hell, I look sometimes, too. Depending on many factors, sometimes we look more than we should. Sometimes we have to try hard not to look. The thing is, though, we DO try not to look because we have respect for that person.

      Lastly, I probably wouldn’t have said anything if it wasn’t for the fact another coworker felt the same way I did. That was enough proof to me that it wasn’t just me. Clearly I wasn’t just seeing things (because I really thought I must be crazy when it first started happening.)

      1. As an aside: Aspergers is a form of autism. The people are usually pretty high level and often very, very smart. Think Sheldon on Big Bang Theory or the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in the movie The Social Network, particularly the first scene where he dumps his girlfriend for not going to the right school (i.e., she must be dumb). They often gravitate towards high tech or the sciences. They can learn appropriate behavior, but usually someone has to teach them.

  3. I think your boyfriend’s solution a good one, even as it is an unfortunate solution. You strike me as a strong woman so if this were to happen again let me suggest this: do what Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich (sp?) did in the movie when she caught someone staring at her “girls”. She put her hands up to her chest and said something like, “yes, these are breasts.” It shot down the stare-er quickly and defiantly.

    1. a) there are no large books or notebooks for me to carry, so I probably can’t do that.

      b) as this is still a pretty new job, I don’t want to make the wrong kinds of waves. I don’t like being the center of attention and I certainly don’t want to cause a scene.

      He hasn’t been back, though, so all is good.

  4. There’s an acquaintance in town that often does that. Always staring at the chest of a woman. We were at the town baseball field and he was staring at my wife’s chest while I was there! I said, ‘hey buddy, her eyes are up here’. I’ve never been gawked at in a professional location. Perhaps in nightclubs, or while on stage in a band, but that’s it.

    1. Even on stage, it seems like a person should be looking at all of you, not just your private parts. I don’t even think I’d appreciate it in a club. There is a difference between admiring the way someone looks and blatantly staring at one part of them.

      It was just odd all the way around.

  5. People stare at me ALL the time, and sometimes men follow me out of supermarkets to my car. I usually don’t feel too creeped out except one night, after midnight, I left CVS and man I had seen inside was waiting by my car door and obviously crazy. I would take your boyfriend’s advice this time and let it go. Especially since you said you may never see the creep again.

    1. Yeah, I do plan to let it go. All the same, I shouldn’t have to deal with it in the first place. And you certainly shouldn’t have to put up with all that. That’s sounds super creepy. I’d start taking self-defense lessons or something, for worry of what one of those creepy people might do.

  6. Firstly, I’m stunned that you have not experienced more of this unwelcome and inappropriate behaviour. Maybe that’s a sign that things are gradually changing.

    I’m not especially attractive and don’t tend to wear revealing clothes yet still I have had to deal with inappropriate male attention and deal with the unwanted male gaze since my mid-teens. I, therefore, don’t think what women look like or what they wear is the key to the issue – and that should absolutely be irrelevant anyway. When we get into a situation where wearing a low cut top is seen as an invitation to conduct a conversation with someone’s breasts we are drifting towards the culture of interrogating victims of sexual violence about what they were wearing.

    No, I think the problem arises once again out of some men (because it’s far from all of them) not perceiving women to be equals. They become decorative, adornments, a source of entertainment. In my professional life, I never had this problem with the male colleagues who treated me as an equal. However, the same male colleagues who patronized me and were condescending were also the ones who thought it acceptable to stare at my bosom or pat my bum. As someone who is comfortable being confrontational, I spoke up to those colleagues and told them I did not appreciate those behaviours. In one case that achieved nothing because he still didn’t see me as an equal so my request fell on willfully deaf ears.

    I could tell you so many anecdotes about my experiences of gendered behaviour – the cat calls and wolf whistles, the inappropriate gaze, the persistence of not taking no for an answer – and I think most women would be able to do the same. That’s why I’m surprised you’ve not experienced much of this before. Hopefully that is a sign that the culture is slowly evolving. The key to that, I think, is to teach girls that they don’t have to tolerate or accept such behaviour and equip them to speak up and confront it and to teach our boys that girls are equal to them in every way and that they are therefore deserving of the same treatment they would expect in return.

    1. Perhaps it has something to do with my location as well. I mean, I spent most of my life in a small town. In college, I wasn’t a big partier. I didn’t go out to the typical places where men would act like that. I mean, I’ve gotten some comments here or there, but not stares.

      Fun story: One Halloween, my boyfriend and I went to a sparely populated bar. My boyfriend’s costume completely covered his face and no one knew who he was. We’re pretty independent people and started up conversations with different friends around the bar. Eventually, I was talking with this one I guy I didn’t know. It wasn’t long before I brought up my boyfriend because he just comes up. This guy was like “oh, you’re with green man?” After this revelation, he continued to talk to me. We had a great conversation. In the end…. well, I guess he did sort of ask my boyfriend’s permission. He thought I was cool and I gave him my email so we could be friends.

      … he never did send me an email. But that’s still progress, isn’t it. Maybe that will happen again in a few years and I’ll make a quality, non-romantic male friend.

  7. I would speak the truth kindly to this person saying something like;

    “I’ve notice you never make eye contact with people, is there a reason?’ It makes people uncomfortable.”

    I would love to hear their response, Claudia

  8. TK first of all Thank You. You are a terrific read.

    Sexual Harassment is never okay. Neither is covering yourself to avoid harassment. Either pull the person aside and explain your discomfort, alone or with a friend.

    Or As I told my daughter, bend down, catching their eye. Then with palm outstretched raise, smile on your face, raise your palm to his eye level. Point made. Then if they feel the need to retort and explain their awkward behavior, they can feel what’s it’s like to made to feel objectified.

    1. Yeah, I didn’t find the attention or the proposed way of avoiding said attention to be the greatest. I’m not sure I’m outgoing enough to take such action as you suggest in a professional environment, but I might have if nothing changed.

  9. I have had the same experience. (More when I was younger!) I generally do something to make the person uncomfortable. For example, ask a question that makes them look bad. Or make a comment that reflects poorly on them. It’s not my typical way of interacting with people, but it gets them to stop staring.

  10. It’s amazing how “out of it” some men (I assume) can be. I’m going to be writing a bit more on what’s going on in their heads at some point. Apparently, they can get so hypnotized that they don’t even realize they’re doing it. But it is possible to stop if you’re motivated.

    1. is it really that different than for women? I mean, I notice those characteristics on people and sometimes they are just in your face. BUT even then I make a point to look them in the eye. I don’t stare. I have respect for them as a person. It seems like a person showing respect should put in the effort to to stare even when compelled to do so.

  11. ‘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?’
    Sexual harassment is very serious deal for companies today. You did the right thing – you informed your supervisor. Now, if they don’t do anything about it, and it continues, technically they are opening themselves up for a lawsuit because you have notified them of the situation. No, it is not acceptable today in the office by Federal law.

    ‘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?’
    yes, you should be taken very seriously unless they are ignorant of the law. That means they can loose a lot of money
    due to harassment in a court case.

    ‘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?’
    I think in some environments it may be more common but there are very strong laws protecting all people today from this type of harassment. I would tell the person to stop staring at my chest and embarrass them. If it continued – I’d tell my manager. And yes, I’ve experienced sexual harassment in the workplace back before the law got very clear about it not being tolerated. A woman walked into my office and walked behind my chair. She reached around and loosened my tie and then started unbuttoning my shirt. She got down to my belt when I finally reached back and started unbuttoning her blouse – then she stopped! She was sleeping around with other guys in the office, and I guess that I was her next target. It does happen to men too, as the movie Michael Douglas made with Demi Moore pointed out. I was more annoyed than anything and she never tried that again.

    Lastly, this person may have some kind of mental issue like Asperger’s or some such, and refuse to look anyone in the eyes. I personally don’t ever trust anyone who will not look me in the eyes but then that’s just me. You have to stand up for rights, know your rights, and set proper boundaries in the office with people. Otherwise, when you meet someone who is opposition-defiant to all rules – they will walk all over you in an office setting.

    1. Well, I didn’t say anything directly to him, partially because I wasn’t sure if I was being crazy or not. It wasn’t until my coworker confirmed my suspicions that I thought what I was seeing was real. I don’t think he’ll be in the office again, but if he is, I will kindly tell him to stop staring…. or at least try. I’m not the type of person who likes to confront something unless I know it will have a positive result.

      I know these things happen to men, too. I think a lot of women’s issues are actually gender issues. They happen more often to women, but that doesn’t make it any better when it happens to men. I honestly think the next step in gender equality is having men admit they are also victims of sexual assault (1 in 7) domestic violence (some studies estimate as much as 40% of DV victims are men) and sexual harassment. The problem is, there are so many men out there who try to make fun of these issues that it’s still hard for a man to come out and say they have been the victim of a sexually based offense.

      1. well, I think these figures on men are way off (40% DV) and men deal with things differently than women. I was harassed but found it amusing, since I could have easily overpowered this woman in an instant. Typically, men are the stronger and larger physically, of the two genders. In a utopian world, we’d have gender equality but I don’t see that happening for a very long time. The Middle East is still in the stone age where they kill women for marrying the wrong sect, adultery etc. That’s the first hurdle that should be addressed IMO and made so severe a crime, that no one would even think of going there.
        Here in USA, sexual harassment is against the law and any company who allows this to continue unchecked will bear the brunt of very expensive litigation from anyone who knows their rights, and is not afraid to
        exercise them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s