On Sexual Harassment.
Yesterday, I was meeting with a nurse from the really super cool ultra-high tech surgical unit I’m studying as part of my grant, and also just in general as part of my job. It’s an amazing unit, and something that MECMC does better than anyone else in the world. It’s an honor to be a part of it, and I’m super excited about the project. In part of my role as preparing for the development of a simulation, I interview the people who work in the system and ask them to describe their roles, and take me through their day and the day of one of their patients.
As I sat down for this interview, the nurse told me that she liked how my socks matched my jacket (an accident… I wear brightly colored socks which may match or clash depending on random chance.). I said, “Thank you! I try!” And we got to the interview. There was another nurse in the room, whom I had interviewed a few days previously. About a half-hour into the interview, out of the blue, the nurse I was interviewing asked me, “Are you single?”.
I paused for probably three full seconds as I went through my options. Included were, “I’m not sure how that’s relevant right now.” and “Really none of your business.”. I went with, “I have a girlfriend.” She then sort of slightly rolled her eyes in exasperation and said something close to, “It’s so hard to find a man with a real job.” From there, we talked for a few minutes about the differences between single men and single women in their 30s. Full of stereotypes, to be sure, but there might be general trends to spot.
Based on a conversation I had recently with Chicago Joe, we talked about how there seem to be many, many more competent, professional, educated, attractive, and unattached women in their 30s than there are men. The single men in their 30s, unless divorced, tend to be, as the nurse put it (eerily echoing Chicago Joe’s words of perhaps 4 months ago), “playing video games in their mother’s basement.” I don’t know why that’s true. Hell, I don’t know if it’s true. But I know that it’s a sentiment echoed by many men and women alike in the cohort of “30-somethings looking to date”. Women say it’s hard to find a decent man. Men say high-quality women are thick on the ground.
But whatever the epidemiology of the single professional cohort of humans in their 30s is, it’s not really what I wanted to write about. The topic I’m interested in is: Was I harassed?
No. Very simple. She complimented my outfit, and she asked about my relationship status with the strong subtext that she’d be interested in going out. When I told her I had a girlfriend she immediately terminated that line of inquiry. Now, was the question inappropriate? Yes, probably. We were in the middle of working. Is it always inappropriate to ask a coworker out? No. In fact, at my orientation to this job, the preceptor told us she met her husband here at MECMC, and that dating coworkers is explicitly allowed as long as it doesn’t interfere with work.
But the question left me wondering. What is the standard? What’s going on? The skeptical community is currently embroiled in a huge sexual harassment/abuse/rape scandal. People are drawing lines and making accusations. I’m not going to take a position on that here. But of serious import is the question, what constitutes sexual harassment and why? Suppose the genders in my circumstance were reversed? Then what?
When the romantic approach (that’s what I’ll call it) was made to me yesterday, the subtext was essentially just context: she liked how I dress, she appreciated that I have a good job. Now, the subtext goes a tiny bit deeper than that, in that she probably found me at least tolerably physically attractive and/or funny and/or whatever. But for the most part, what she made very clear was that she valued me for the reason I was there. That is, I was a competent professional.
When a man makes a romantic approach to an unknown-to-him woman in the workplace, the subtext is generally not that. Whether he means to communicate it or not, the subtext is usually, “I find you physically attractive.” Often, it’s the outright context, in the form of physical or sexual ‘compliments’. Now, obviously, there’s nothing wrong with finding people physically attractive. But with a few exceptions, being physically attractive isn’t why a woman is at her job. She’s there for the same reason a man is. To do work she has the education, training, and experience to do. So the approach doesn’t say, “I value you for the reason you’re here.”, it says, “I am interested in you despite the reason you’re here.”
And that can be objectifying. Nevermind the fact that you’re a trained professional here to do a difficult job for which you are eminently qualified. I find you sexually appealing. That’s where your value lies.
Now, I’m not saying that men can never ask women out in the workplace. I’ve done it. But never anyone that I worked directly with, and never anyone that I just met. I went out with a post-doc in my last job when I was a new investigator. But she wasn’t my post-doc, and we didn’t work on any of the same projects, and I had no particular influence with her PI. I had known her for years before I asked her out. We dated for a few months, it didn’t work out, we’re still friends.
Now, I can hear some men complaining that there’s a double standard. I’m saying that I wasn’t harassed but that if the genders were reversed it would have been? Well, no, not exactly. I’m still not sure it would be harassment for a man to compliment a woman’s outfit, ask if she is single and then drop it immediately when she says no. But I can decidedly see how it would be much creepier, less welcome, and a bigger deal. I can see it making her very uncomfortable, instead of how I felt (bemused, a little flattered, and mildly put-off at the same time).
So yes. There’s a double standard. Men and women are different. While uniform standards of conduct are reasonable, to put everyone on the same footing (i.e., legally, if it’s not harassment when a woman does it, then it shouldn’t be harassment when a man does it.), it is also appropriate to consider both context and subtext, and how they are different, when the woman does the approaching versus when the man does.
So I wasn’t harassed, no. But guys, don’t do that.