Nice rack, wanna check my code into ur repository?
April 22, 2012 8:49 PM   Subscribe

My superiors keep checking out my cleavage during conversation at work. What now?

Background: I'm a technical female in a startup environment. I've worked pretty hard to get to where I am and am damn good at what I do (and have been openly granted respect for that, internally and externally).

Within the last year, I started working at a company whose motivations and goals I strongly believe in, but honest to god, the bro-culture is starting to get to me.

A few manifestations of this culture are:
- if I express any sort of discomfort or displeasure with how my team is acting overall (note that I typically frame this constructively with the team present), my superiors handwave it away and act like I'm being hysterical - distinctly different from how they (hilariously) just roll over for or appease some of my male colleagues.
- the team drinks together, but rarely invites the female colleagues. (Actually, when I do attend, I hear feedback about the job performance of my female colleagues that I should not be hearing thirdhand!)
- even though I'm one of the younger teammates, I'm treated like "mom" when we're doing a coordinated activity for work (ie, everyone expects me to know where we're going, when we're supposed to be there, how we get there, etc.)
- I also deal with the fun double-standard of "We love you because you're so good at being one of the guys!" and "You need to be more professional than how the rest of us act!"
- Most obnoxiously, though: my co-founders keep glancing at my cleavage when I am chatting with them. As we approach summer, my strategy of wearing scarves/shawls/etc. all of the time is not going to hold up (large rack => hard to hide). Note that these are some of the more vocal guys about valuing my contribution to the company, by the way - which is what makes this all so puzzling.

What do I do here? I am extremely passionate about what this company does and I am committed to riding this out until the end of this year for the sake of my career - bouncing seems like a bad step at this point for a variety of reasons that aren't relevant to this question. AND it's not all bad! There's some great people here. Truly, this is less awful than some of the crap I've run into in previous environments (my personal favorite was the VP I worked with who was fired for aggressively hitting on every woman in the office while remote - I caught the disgusting brunt of that when I apparently was the first one to speak with HR and he found out).

I recently mentioned some of this offhandedly to one of my male friends, but he was only puzzled about why I couldn't call my two male bosses out on checking out my rack during conversation (jeez, it's been 5 months - that alone feels awkward to do all of the sudden) - but that inspired me to ask y'all now: what do you do when you're in a place where this kind of crap occurs? We don't have an HR person and I report to the highest-ranking people in the company, so there's no one else here to protect me. I'm already open to better opportunities, but I can't really jump in good conscience until I've done my best to make this situation work.

PS, if you are a DTMFA, I'd love to hear how I should frame this experience should I start interviewing with other companies. I do have a lot of positive things to say that I've learned, but the question of "Why are you leaving when you are so passionate about X?" is a really hard one to answer.
posted by amestar_runner to Society & Culture (49 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ugh. I just simply would not deal with this kind of environment. You absolutely should look for a new job and make it clear that you were subject to discrimination at your old job. This might make it harder to get hired... but it guarantees you won't get hired into the same environment.

You seem like you want to make this work. I'm going to compare this to staying in an abusive relationship. You think it's the only option, but everyone else can see other options. You have other options, and you need to believe they are viable. Even if it's hard in the short term, it's worth it in the long term.

And I'm really sorry you have to go through this.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:59 PM on April 22, 2012


The wardrobe answer is wearing sports bras with polo shirts, if you're willing to put up with this bullshit for the sake of the other things you like about the job. That's work-appropriate for a technical field (as it was for my brief stint teaching at an all-boys' high school!)

Okay, now the "changing the boy zone culture" bit--have you tried humor? I know some people who have had success with that, a la "I'm up here, Joe!" on just crouching down to meet the eyes of a rack-gazer. I am less optimistic about any kind of direct conversation from what you say; in a company too small to have an HR function and where the inappropriate behaviors come from founders and senior employees, the person calling attention to the unprofessionalism is almost always seen as the problem.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:59 PM on April 22, 2012 [16 favorites]


All of the manifestations that you've listed are egregiously bad and not at all okay. This shit is so bad, that if you've documented it, I would consult an employment attorney tomorrow. S/he will best be able to advise you because seriously, this shit seem beyond the pale to me.
posted by smirkette at 9:00 PM on April 22, 2012


The only way I have managed to permanently put men (and women) off looking at my breasts is to dress in entirely male clothes. And I mean loosely fitting male clothes. I do this because well, I teach a lot of college freshmen, who don't really seem to realize I can TELL. It works pretty well with any grad students (a lot of older guys in the department don't seem to realize I SEE THEM LOOKING) or anyone else for that matter.

It tends to weird out those who notice such things to the point they don't look. And those who don't care weren't usually the ones looking in the first place.

As to them realizing I'm not mom? I stop being mom. "When are we supposed to be there?" "No damned idea." "What are we doing?" "No fucking clue, dude." "What are we.." "Dunno. What are we..." And so on. After about the 10th time asking the go bug one of the others. Wash, rinse and repeat.

Oh yeah, and take it to HR pronto.
posted by strixus at 9:01 PM on April 22, 2012 [11 favorites]


And there's so much turnover in startups that "I love what XCo is doing, but I'm even more excited about your work here at YCo!" will always fly. I wish I could tell you that you would be safe in being honest with your current employers and your next employers, but my female friends who work in tech have had such bad experiences with backlash in trying to call sexism out that I regretfully think silence and cunning are your friends here still.

I am so sorry you have to deal with this shit for even a nanosecond.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:04 PM on April 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


@DoubleLune Not to threadsit, but I'm definitely doing this for pragmatic reasons - staying at this company is doing a lot for my career trajectory. Even when these guys are acting like this, I still seem to be treated with this odd double-standard of respect for the work I do, as well - more so than I've been at other places, actually.

@smirkette: Problem is, these are anecdotal. I can give you examples of this stuff going on, but my colleagues can just-as-easily tell you that I'm overreacting to something they are saying or doing for every one of these except checking out my cleavage (which I also can't exactly document). I don't feel like I have much of a case - if I did, I'd be gone by now.

@strixus LOVE the idea of letting things fail, to get them out of the mom habit.
posted by amestar_runner at 9:06 PM on April 22, 2012


I don't have an awful lot of advice, but for the mom bit, don't just let things fail. Due to hideous double-standards, you will be seen as being less capable or organised. Instead, use humor to call them out.

"Where is it?! Don't you know? I'm not your mom dude *giggle*!"

This calls them on their behaviour of not knowing what they are doing, instead of calling them on anything sexist, while reinforcing that you are a co-worker and an equal, not a mother figure.
posted by Joh at 9:16 PM on April 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


OK so... if you feel like you need to deal with this for your career.... you're wondering how to deal with this in the meantime?
Act like a man. As strixus says, dress like a man (or at least in women's button-downs that button past the cleavage). You can wear button-downs that are still flattering (places like New York & Co or Gap, depending on your syle and preference). Opt for slacks over skirts. Wear your hair pulled back in a sleek bun. You can pull off prude professional without looking dowdy. I'm not sure about the advice to "not know" when they treat you like mom, as this might hurt your career, but if you feel like it won't, go with it. Or maybe when they ask you for solutions, you could ask right back (a better way of saying "I don't know").
posted by DoubleLune at 9:17 PM on April 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Couple of questions.
How do you want to be treated? I understand you don't want people to look at your rack or to be the mom but think of movies what "role" or "stereotype" do you want to be?

I'm not saying you have to be a stereotype but it helps people mentally slot you. My first ever real job out of uni was at a tech startup. I decided I wanted to be "one of the boys" essentially and at the time I really didn't want to be a miserable humourless ball buster. (I ended up being a really sarcastic ball buster but anyway) I made off colour jokes, went to the bar with the guys etc. But I also busted their chops and made fun of their dude-bro-ness. When the bitching and really off colour stuff about all the other women (all of which were non-technical support staff) got too far, I just spoke up in a "dude, that's not cool, I don't wanna hear that crap" kind of way, but I picked my battles. It helped that I was actually pretty good at my job, reasonably funny, didn't mind most silly/stupid things, swearing etc, but I put my foot down at misogyny and creepy things. These days I'm older and not quite wiser, but I don't wanna be one of the boys and will go out for drinks only once in a while. Its like a special occasion when I come out, and I have more of a life outside of work.

What's your relationship with execs? My org was pretty flat and the cto, an vps hired me directly.
Like when I wore a v-neck tshirt one day and found the ceo staring down it, I just snapped at him (not super angry, but kinda annoyed) and said something like "CEOS_NAME! don't do that! its creepy and you could all get sued for that shit. What if was some_other_girls_name? she'd sue the crap out of you and we'd all be out of a job. dude, you have a daughter, want her to starve?" Basically warning him off. He didn't do it again. Also I did a lot "what do you people want to work with only guys or something? if i leave it'll be a sausage fest."

And when they expected me to be mom, or big sister I just say, "what do I look like your mummy or something?" or "I'm not an office manager, how the heck should I know? ask so and so" or just "what? wasn't paying attention"

Anyway, feel free to msg me if you want some more solidarity or tips for your specific situation. And don't forget, you're female, smart and determined enough to get this job in this industry and they're damned lucky to have you. Don't over-do it, but dont' be afraid to go after what you want.
posted by captaincrouton at 9:19 PM on April 22, 2012 [25 favorites]


First off- wear high cut shirts. Yeah, they probably shouldn't look but they're going to so cover 'em up. You don't have to wear baggy mens shirts that come up to your chin but body skimming, non-stretchy rather than clingy tops are professional. Clingy tops are not. At least until you are in charge, then wear whatever you damn well want.

If you are already dressing modestly for work and people are openly oogling your breasts then call them on it. Screw humor, let you irritation and aggression show in your tone of voice and adopt an aggressive body language and gaze. Interject with a sharp comment along the lines of "ok, you need to stop staring at my chest now" stare at him until he turns red them move on. Don't discuss it, don't let him apologize or explain or back down then or later. "We're not discussing this Frank! This is not something I deal with at work. Got it? Now do you want to have this budget meeting or no?" Take TOTAL control of that interaction. You are the ultimate authority on this subject. Don't be afraid to step into someone's space or point a finger in their face. These are aggressive gestures that let people know they have crossed a serious line.

As to the other issues, that's a problem with management and how they are allowing people to behave not with you. You have three choices 1) quit (totally reasonable option btw, you are not "giving up". Some work places suck) 2) be an agent of change at your current position or 3) take over and rule from the top, at least your little section. If you can get to be a project manager you can simply pick and choose who you work with. this has improved my life 400%.

If you do decide to be an agent of change bring that bullet point list you made here, that is a damn good list. Lay it out and say: This is a problem. You are in charge and you need to fix it. Don't get suckered in to some ridiculous conversation about what you think they should do. You won't care what they do, you just want all this to stop so you can do your work. Don't let them put the burden on you.
posted by fshgrl at 9:20 PM on April 22, 2012 [8 favorites]


Your situation is bad, and I'm sorry. Please start looking for another job as it is clear that you are working with a bunch of assholes. In the meantime, know that they are assholes and will always be assholes. And I agree with what fshgrl just posted.

I'm a straight guy and I (of course) notice attractive women in the workplace. But I make an effort to be professional and treat people like people and not potential sex partners. Seriously, you're better than them so I hope they fuck off and die. Good luck.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 9:24 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


And personally I'm not a big fan of being one of the boys or trying to be the "cool girl". It's fine when you're all 25 but when you're older and they are all married that is going to work against you.

I have all male siblings and cousins, mostly male coworkers and many male friends but I am definitely not one of the boys. I get along very well with them one on one but I have zero desire to go to Vegas drinking with a group of them, y'know? The few times I've been talked into that kind of thing I've ended up liking everyone a little less because I wasn't comfortable. Be yourself, people respect that and will treat you better.
posted by fshgrl at 9:26 PM on April 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sounds creepy. Leave. But try to go them for sexual harassment before you do.
posted by mattoxic at 9:50 PM on April 22, 2012


Just leave. Life is too short. None of them understand nor care. They are not going to change their behavior. They value you not in the way you want them to. Move on to greener pastures.

My thing is - if they can't respect me, why should I respect them?

They can have the best product in the world, but if they're repeatedly disrespectful towards me as a person, then I'm outta there.

At a co-worker level, I have "behaved like a man", and they just behaved worse.

I have been little miss primp and proper or ignored them and they've seen fit to try to "loosen me up".

Honestly, it does not get better, but you deserve better.
posted by mleigh at 9:53 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have a pretty big rack, and, while it's really inappropriate to stare at someone's cleavage, I never show cleavage, at work or anywhere else.
posted by Occula at 10:15 PM on April 22, 2012 [12 favorites]


As someone who can't NOT show cleavage unless I wear turtlenecks (and then I have "sweaterpuppies" and remind me not to ever start my rant on how much I despise that phrase) the thing I do when people who need to be my colleagues and accord me respect are ogling my breasts is to quickly mention it and pick right back up where I was. Like "I was handing in the TPS reports last Thursday and - excuse me, my chest is not here for you to stare at - and Bossman was completely confused, I had to explain the new filing system to him for the fifth time..." Sometimes, if they've been a repeat offender, I will snap my fingers and point to my face. The key seems to be keeping the exact same tone the whole time, and slipping it in between other things they need to pay attention to. Almost like the same as pointing out somebody has sauce on their chin or their fly is down - acknowledge, rectify, and move on. I've never been in as sausage-festy a situation as you seem to be, though. I've always had a female superior or an HR person I could rely on or overly paranoid male coworkers. It seems like a terrible situation - I wouldn't stand for it.
posted by Mizu at 10:33 PM on April 22, 2012 [15 favorites]


As for the boob-staring thing, i like to sort of wave my hand in front of my chest while snapping my fingers and then pointing at my face, while continuing to talk (or do whatever i was doing) when i catch someone doing that. You really only have to do that one time to make a VERY CLEAR point.

As for the rest of the stuff: I've been where you are. I don't really have much advice, but i don't think you should expect to be able to change them or expect to have to put up with it. Stay the minimum amount of time you need to, and get out.

The only thing that might help, is if they hire a couple more women into senior-level roles. Most men know that they can get away with this shit with young employees at the beginning of their careers, but as soon as a couple self-assured women at the Director or VP level are around, the general tone of the office changes.
posted by Kololo at 10:36 PM on April 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Please please please don't do the 'act and dress like a man' thing. PLEASE. As a fellow lady in tech, i beg - because then the terrorists win. And you'll lose, in lots of ways. (Besides, they won't forget you're a girl - its just that instead of staring at your chest, they'll start talking behind your back about how unattractive you are/dress.) Assuming you're already dressing in a reasonable way, keep dressing like that.

Teach them to start behaving like respectful adults. While you can't change the overall dude culture, you CAN get them to start treating your body with respect.
posted by Kololo at 10:41 PM on April 22, 2012 [45 favorites]


So far as the cleavage thing, I've always wanted to respond by pointedly staring at the offending males crotch and once they notice, say "oh, I thought this was the part of the meeting where we check out each others genitals, or is that just you?" I'm sorry you're going through this, it's almost impossible to change a company culture like this. I would call them on it as it happens (even a simple 'my eyes are here!' will do) but it can get exhausting and you may just want to quit and find somewhere less sexist. Ugh.
posted by Jubey at 10:58 PM on April 22, 2012


To clarify, thats in, "My eyes are up here" referring to the fact that they should be looking at your face, not your chest, when they talk to you.
posted by Jubey at 11:12 PM on April 22, 2012


I totally agree with to refusing to play mama duck, and with Kololo's keep talking w/finger-snapping "this is goddamn face" maneuver.

I've known several women who have found that arranging to telecommute for part of the week helps. It's less tempting (and less satisfying) to pull this sexist shit with a disembodied voice on the phone, and hopefully will let you establish a productive work rapport with at least part of the team. If a co-worker exhibits some huge flip-flop about respect for your opinion during an in-person meeting the day after everyone agreed in an online meeting, it should hopefully be obvious enough to make the jerk look foolish.
posted by desuetude at 11:16 PM on April 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


An unbuttoned blazer is great for minimizing the viewing window. Absolutely no cleavage-bearing shirts with it though! A silk scarf can be tied with a low knot for additional accessories. Your building will have AC in the summer, right?
posted by lizbunny at 11:28 PM on April 22, 2012


I once used "I am going to assume that you're staring at my chest because you've finally begun to see the Matrix for what it really is an there are lots of green ones and zeroes streaming around, because f not, you're being a tool." to great effect...

But seriously, this is a toxic work environment. Unless you're willing to start getting really sassy and, pardon the phrase, deflate some balls, I think you'll be happier elsewhere.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:31 PM on April 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


"Dude, I am not the office mom. I don't know where we're going / what do for Brad's birthday / what time it starts. Figure it out."

Kololo has the right idea wrt to boob-gazing. It's the pits and so awkward to deal with but that is actually the best way.

Other shit is probably not changeable. That sucks and these people suck but startup culture is personality driven and your co-founders are tools. You can start looking now and tell prospective employers "I love ABC App Factory and I've grown hugely in my role there; I'm looking to tkae those skills to a new role with more management responsibility / more scope / a larger team / a more B2B focus" or whatever. Do not say anything about the real reason why.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:36 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Decani made this post a while back; it might help to tailor the phrasing to the situation when you're accused of being "hysterical".
posted by brujita at 11:47 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


PS, if you are a DTMFA, I'd love to hear how I should frame this experience should I start interviewing with other companies. I do have a lot of positive things to say that I've learned, but the question of "Why are you leaving when you are so passionate about X?" is a really hard one to answer.

"I am passionate about X - that's why, despite all the positive things I've learned at Place Filled With Horny And Inappropriate Shitbags I want to pursue the opportunities of X I see here at your company. I think there's excellent developments happening here and I want to be on board and part of your team when they occur."

Minus the part about the shitbags, edit as you see fit. I think the key here is to present it as you leveling up, not as you escaping from a pit of bros. If the company you're interviewing for doesn't happen to have X or specialise in X, you could say something about expanding your skillset and wanting to learn new things. It's kind of weak, but it's all about how you say it, I think. I'm sorry this is happening to you.
posted by zennish at 1:13 AM on April 23, 2012


I am so sorry about the way you are being treated. It is egregious and unfair.

It sounds as though this unprofessional behavior is damaging the whole company, particularly if it makes employees consider leaving. Would you be able to explain to your bosses that the startup needs someone in an HR role if it's going to survive? You might be able to frame it as an "s/he will help with paperwork and insulate you from all the annoying HR BS that you have to deal with". From what you say, I suspect that the startup will not survive without one.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:36 AM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've worked with mostly men my whole life. I do not wear anything that shows the top of my breasts. I feel like this would be uncomfortable for myself and my coworkers.
I'm also a wise ass, so if I were asked "mom" questions, I would just say something sarcastic.
As for drinks, that's a social thing. Men like to go have a few drinks and shoot the shit about guy stuff. I've been the one female going out with the guys but I am able to handle the conversations about chicks and dirty sense of humor.

Try wearing a shirt that isn't low cut.
posted by KogeLiz at 2:47 AM on April 23, 2012


While you are chatting, when the man starts to look at your breasts, stop mid-sentence or mid-word. Stop talking immediately when he does it. Give a puzzled-startled-I-beg-your-pardon look but say nothing. He'll notice the lack of talking and look back at your face. When he's rejoined your conversation, resume talking about whatever it was you were saying. Do this every time.

The tough part is that, even if you stop the boss from ogling, even if they invite you to go out drinking and you show 'em you can hang with the guys, even if you wear shapeless ponchos to the office, the dynamic will not change and you still just be "the girl" in this group and maybe the girl who wants terribly badly to be part of the in-group, the male-group. Do it the other way -- vamp it up, play up the sexual difference since they've obviously noticed -- and you'll be the whore. Do it the angry way and call them out, and you're hysterical. Try to group up with the other female to make change, and you're a femi-nazi.

If you figure out how -- from the lowered position of a female -- to change the group dynamic when it is this way, tell everyone because you will have solved a problem women have been working on for generations. I think the solution is to address it when they (males and females) are little children, but that doesn't help you right now. My experience has been that acting like one of the guys does not help it, either. The best you can do is be yourself -- which might be stereotypically girly, or stereotypically manly, or whatever, all mixed up and depending on the day and the situation. Don't even try to be responsible for their actions, only your own. Be true to yourself, and let them do whatever they want to do.

I doubt this would happen, but never date anyone from this office, or their friends. It would be ruinous for you.

If this job is doing a lot for your career, maybe just focus on addressing each slight as they come up. Don't talk when they stare at breasts, redirect conversations when they bash your female colleague, be the one that handles social calendars and brings in the office donuts if you want or don't if you don't want to. But you can stay, basically using them for what it's doing for your career. Mentally blow it off as immature behavior, cash the checks, and enjoy the rise in your career. Use the situation to make you driven. Don't waste energy trying to change them; use that energy to make your career soar. When you peak, when they have nothing left to keep you, that's when you leave.

Unless it reaches a point where someone slaps you on the ass, or otherwise lays a finger on you. Then you leave immediately and with a great huff.

Whenever you do leave, if you interview with a woman you might be tempted to confide the real reason you are leaving. Don't do it. For reasons I'll never understand, there will be some women who think, "Yes but why didn't you cover up with a poncho? Obviously if they are staring you are showing them off." It's the female flip-side of these guys, and it's blaming you for the guys' bad behavior. Note, for example, how many here have been suggesting that you're wearing low-cut or tight shirts when you clearly wrote that you've been wearing scarves and shawls and are despairing because it's summer.
posted by Houstonian at 3:01 AM on April 23, 2012 [38 favorites]


KogeLiz, I'm totally happy you've got an approach that works for you and that you're comfortable with, but I don't think that should be the baseline solution to workplace harassment.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:04 AM on April 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


Shrug off the mom questions. Keep the drinks evenings to a minimum. "Eyes up, fella," and moving right along unrattled. And jackets. There's a reason the "Career" section of stores are loaded with them. It's armor. You don't have to be all buttoned up and formal looking. There are lots of casual jackets out there that work with jeans, and do the job. Plus, pockets!

I find advice like "dress/act like a man" to be nearly incomprehensible. How could you spend the bulk of your waking hours acting like someone other than yourself? How could you be good at your job if you're fronting the entire time?

Good luck. Been there, it's tricky.
posted by thinkpiece at 4:28 AM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'll bet many of these guys are unaware that they do these things (they're aware they look at your body but think you can't tell.) You could try and ask some of the guys, one on one, what to do about those OTHERS. They'll want to make sure afterwards that they are not like the rest.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:36 AM on April 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


Ugh. I just simply would not deal with this kind of environment. You absolutely should look for a new job and make it clear that you were subject to discrimination at your old job. This might make it harder to get hired... but it guarantees you won't get hired into the same environment.

DO NOT do this. An interviewee that is strident, or warning, is a big red flag. Most tech companies are far more professional that this, IMO (but of course, I'm a guy, so I can't be sure). Certainly most management have had SEXUAL HARASSMENT LAWSUIT drilled into them (the employees have as well, but the mgmt's job is to watch for liabilities).

It's the equivalent of saying on a first date, "My ex-boyfriend cheated on my - you'd better not cheat on me! If you are going to, tell me right now!" Not a good first date experience. Not going to get a second date.

If anything, discreetly inquire about the workplace policies in place when you interview with the HR person. That would be a simple, polite way to say, "This is of special interest to me, for personal reasons...", without sounding like you are still carrying an unburied hatchet. (Whether you are or not is irrelevant to your need for worthy employment.)
posted by IAmBroom at 5:11 AM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I hear this kind of complaint a lot, so I'm going to give you some sexy-tech-sister-to-sexy-tech-sister REAL TALK: Stop being a victim. I also had to learn this the hard way.

Your cleavage should not be showing at work. Sure, whatever, you have big breasts and you shouldn't have to blahblahblahblah. Just stop showing it. It's really inappropriate. Even Joan from Mad Men can manage to find attractive things that don't show cleavage/aren't sexy, so don't tell me that you can't. When I see cleavage at work, I feel disrespected. I'm rocking D cups (most certainly not nearly as big as yours, but still there) on a small frame with a big booty, so TRUST that this is coming from a place of love.

When it comes to getting your ideas heard, don't roll over for these dudes. I am pretty sure that they just treat you like another lowlife bro. It isn't because you are a woman. They've done this to other bros. You need to show them that your ideas are good and solid to get respect. If they change the topic, ask them if they listened to you. Force them to care. Force them to pay attention. The dynamic is really in your favor. You stand out more as the sole woman.

Also, it's time to stop being a people pleaser. These are your work colleagues and work comes first. These people are not your friends. You can make them like you, sure, but they aren't your buddies. If they act inappropriate, call them out on it FIRST THING. Establish your boundaries. They will respect you for it. You can be nice after you get your needs met. If they ask you how to get somewhere, shrug. You don't know. What time is the party? 9pm, I think. We should check the email again. Can you check in my code? Uh, I'm in the middle of fixing this bug. I can run it in the background if you need me to. I don't have enough time to submit the report to John, though.

They aren't inviting the you to their drinking sessions because they have an established group. They don't want to make you uncomfortable. Just ask to tag along. Have you ever asked before? They probably get the 'vibes' from you that you elaborated on in this post.

It sounds like this kind of thing is a pattern for you. I am not trying to blame you whatsoever, but we can create our own environments by behavior (also, by picking out exactly what we want to see). If you don't deal with the way that you interact with people, you may recreate this situation again when you leave. People pick up on how you expect to be treated or how you will allow yourself to be treated. I suggest counseling or therapy to help you both deal with the stresses of work and to get your coping levels up.

Not to threadsit, but I'm definitely doing this for pragmatic reasons - staying at this company is doing a lot for my career trajectory. Even when these guys are acting like this, I still seem to be treated with this odd double-standard of respect for the work I do, as well - more so than I've been at other places, actually.

The best way to improve your career is to learn some severe diplomacy. You can't control the situations that you get thrown into, but you can help change them. Remember that you don't care if your colleagues really, really like you. You need to be efficient and detached-yet-cordial to get promoted, anyways.
posted by 200burritos at 7:00 AM on April 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


The fact that you say it's the people who value your contribution who seem to be checking out your cleavage is leading me to point out what MIGHT be another explanation.

One of my best guy friends is shy around people he doesn't know well, and often has trouble looking them in the eye. He'll be looking in the direction of your face, but his focus is sort of...below your eyes. Unfortunately, he's also pretty tall, so if you're a woman it looks a hell of a lot like he's staring at your cleavage. (On our very first meeting, this is what I thought he was doing, but it was actually also a first date so I was taking it as a sign that "woo-hoo I'm gonna get lucky tonight," so it didn't bug me.) When I pressed him on it, he said that yeah, it was more "not meeting eyes because that's scary" than it was "staring at cleavage because HAWT"; he wasn't really seeing anything. But he also added that he was trying to break that habit because he had indeed pissed off a few women and gotten a few "the hell are you looking at my boobs for, dude?" comments.

So it's at least slightly possible, if it's a guy who's otherwise behaving himself, that maybe it's more "shy and can't meet your eyes" rather than "ogling your breasts". But from the sounds of it, the majority of the guys you're dealing with are tools who are giving you many more problems above and beyond where they're looking.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:02 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


You should be good humored about it and call them out on it. 'Bros' respect strong women with a sense of humor and if you call them out on it in a good-natured manner they will respect you more on a personal level, I believe.

Of course, only do this if you really want to keep working there. Otherwise, screw 'em.
posted by imagineerit at 7:12 AM on April 23, 2012


if I express any sort of discomfort or displeasure with how my team is acting overall (note that I typically frame this constructively with the team present), my superiors handwave it away and act like I'm being hysterical - distinctly different from how they (hilariously) just roll over for or appease some of my male colleagues.

Ugh. Not sure what you can do about this, but it may be worthwhile to ask outright if you're being taken seriously. It will make them think about the question, at least. Follow up as necessary.

the team drinks together, but rarely invites the female colleagues. (Actually, when I do attend, I hear feedback about the job performance of my female colleagues that I should not be hearing thirdhand!)

If you've attended, maybe you can corral other female colleagues to come along? Be firm in vetoes of any obvious dickery (suggestions of Hooters et al, and especially strip clubs, should be reported to HR if it exists) and point it out if gets too bro-ey. If the dudes don't want to hang with the ladies, call them on it semi-mockingly at least

even though I'm one of the younger teammates, I'm treated like "mom" when we're doing a coordinated activity for work (ie, everyone expects me to know where we're going, when we're supposed to be there, how we get there, etc.)

Do you have an office manager or project manager? If so, point the questioner towards them with a gentle reminder that that's their job and not yours. Rinse, repeat, and be curt as necessary if you're busy. If not, then tell them you're working on [project]--which doesn't necessarily have to exist--and that calendars (which your company should be using religiously for this stuff) and map sites might help. Also, maybe hint to the founders that said duties do not fall under your job description and it would help the office out if they got someone to do that.

I also deal with the fun double-standard of "We love you because you're so good at being one of the guys!" and "You need to be more professional than how the rest of us act!"

Pick one of those (I would go with being professional, obviously) to follow as strictly as possible without being an asshole, and point out the double standard if mentioned.

Most obnoxiously, though: my co-founders keep glancing at my cleavage when I am chatting with them. As we approach summer, my strategy of wearing scarves/shawls/etc. all of the time is not going to hold up (large rack => hard to hide). Note that these are some of the more vocal guys about valuing my contribution to the company, by the way - which is what makes this all so puzzling.

Others have made good suggestions vis-a-vis this issue (bringing attention to it but not haranguing unless it gets really bad), and I'm a dude, so I don't have much to say here.
posted by zombieflanders at 7:14 AM on April 23, 2012


There's been a lot of discussion in the last few months (years as well, but I've seen more recently) about how unfriendly the culture of tech companies is to women -- it's exactly the bro crap that you're talking about, and it's pervasive enough that moving firms might not be enough to fix it. However, things like being told to "calm down" or in other ways that *you* are the problem are very much at the heart of how women and their concerns are sytemically squelched. I don't recall anybody proposing localized solutions, but you might feel better just knowing you're not alone in this.

The best I can think is to do a bunch of reading and find a particularly good example of such a discussion -- one that give broad evidence of the cultural problem and how it tends to assert itself -- and print it out for your superior(s). You can say that you understand that the problem isn't unique to this company, but that basically everything in that article matches your experience, and if this company wants to succeed in the long run, it needs to become a more welcoming environment, or else it will lose out on lots of talented people like yourself. You can leave it there, but it also gives you grounds to point out subsequent episodes that are emblematic of the problem -- being told that you're overreacting is the classic one, and if you've noted in advance that that's a recognized way of dismissing women's voices and needs, then you're in a better position to call them on it when it happens.

Good luck, I don't envy you.
posted by acm at 7:23 AM on April 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Fascinating array of responses.

You should be able to wear whatever the heck you want at work. The boys certainly do. (I've seen your office a thousand times.) It is time to up your game with dealing with the boys. I'd join in with the people here who are suggesting you be assertive. Absolutely you have the right to clap your hands in front of their faces and tell them where your eyes are. Absolutely you have the right to explain to coworkers when they behave wrongly and absurdly that "this is what people are talking about when they complain that tech is a boys club." You have the right to say "I'm not your damn mom" and "I'm not your maid" and "I'm not your secretary."

You don't have to tailor your responses to them. You get to be yourself. Be as aggressive, or humorous, or sly as you naturally feel you should be. It's unfair that you're put on the defensive and feel you have to game this system. And speaking up is hard but it gets easier.

This is a great opportunity to make friends and common cause with other women in tech too.

I've seen far too many women drive out of, or driven kinda crazy by, boy-heavy offices and all their boy baloney. Don't let it happen to you.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:24 AM on April 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


I just want to tell you that your list in your post is like EVERYTHING I had experienced in companies with a large male population. Ugh, what a pain. I'm a project manager, so I'm not always working with strictly technical people but when I am, it's like that. Just like that.

One thing I do with the rack staring is stop talking, if they're doing it when I'm talking. Just abruptly stop and give them a sharp look. They would usually get it.

I do NOT mean to excuse it but in my case some of the people who were doing it were just kind of socially awkward and not paying attention to what they were doing.

The rest were just creepy creeps being creepy, but by abruptly stopping the conversation they figured out that I'd noticed.
posted by sweetkid at 7:40 AM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Get a power hair cut. Wear tasteful 3" heels that complement your outfit. Stand up straight. Train yourself to remove the word "like" from your vocabulary and remove any upward inflection at the end of sentences. You want a voice that is low and even.

Now, if someone is being shifty to you during a seated conversation, you can stand up to full height (thus towering over your colleague) and slowly and evenly assert your position. Be confident. If you look and sound like you mean business, people will listen.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:55 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I usually wear a blazer or sweater at work, as do most of my magnificently-breasted friends. But I will also relay that I have a friend who rocks a truly astounding rack, and she doesn't care if anybody looks at it. Heck, she'll show cleavage when I wouldn't ever at work, and I think she sometimes enjoys that it Helps people to listen to her. She's also assertive, and can kick ass, and she will make sure that people respect Her and her Ideas in every way.

So if what you really care about is where there eyes are, you can do the covering up thing. If I were you I'd generally try to be a bit more professional than the dudebros (because you're going to go farther and faster than they are), and make people listen to you. That may involve the pausing technique listed above, or the quick "my eyes are up here" correction, but mostly, make sure they respect You.
posted by ldthomps at 8:01 AM on April 23, 2012


This is sexual harassment. You're wearing shawls and scarves, and still getting obviously ogled. You are consistently being ignored or disrespected. If "the boys" go out and talk shop over beers, any managers in that group should realize that it's not acceptable to limit access. And, if you are in a work group, after work, being sexually harassed, it can be considered work-based sexual harassment. There's plenty of case law on this. The current climate may not be headed in the direction of supporting women's rights in the workplace, but this is still absolutely harassment. It might also come under creating a hostile work environment.

Lawyer up. Document. Go to HR.

The lawyers/ firms that want to sue for discrimination are looking for 30 - 40% of a settlement. You have not suffered lots of damage, so your case is of little interest to them. A lawyer who can assist you with clarifying what is and isn't acceptable is a big help. Then you document the harassment. One way is to keep a private blog, or email notes to yourself at an account used only for that purpose, possibly cc:ing the lawyer.

You go to HR and consult with them, with a list of concerns - the egregious ones, and explain, in a friendly way, that it is affecting your performance and effectiveness, and that you want to protect the company from potential liability from other female staff, as well as having an harassment-free workplace. If there's no HR, go to the other founders. You don't need to tell them you consulted a lawyer, but you can be quite clear that you are concerned about liability, and about the culture being created, because the culture will tend to persist, even after you are wildly successful, and grow into a big company.

Things you can do. Wear a bra that fits really well. This post on BitchPhD is terrific. (may have to favorite my own comment to make it easier to find again.) Wear clothing that is the female equivalent of what men at your company wear. There are men in my office who wear casual shirts with several buttons open; I'd consider a vneck tshirt the equivalent, but not a low vee; no actual cleavage. Dress appropriately, at the same level of professional dress that men wear. Maybe a notch or 2 better dressed, as wearing better clothes does help people take you seriously.

I agree. When being ogled, stop talking. If someone mentions, calmly say "You were distracted. I waited until I had your attention." If there's an office jerk who makes a sexist comment, calmly say "It's inappropriate for you to stare at my breasts; don't do that." Document.

- if I express any sort of discomfort or displeasure with how my team is acting overall (note that I typically frame this constructively with the team present), my superiors handwave it away and act like I'm being hysterical - distinctly different from how they (hilariously) just roll over for or appease some of my male colleagues. Have these conversations with your supervisor. Your work is a boyzone, and in a boyzone, the men may be unable to accept perceived criticism of other men. Also, don't put yourself in a position where they will take the opportunity to blow you off. When you discuss your team with the boss, go in w/ a checklist, and present your preferred solutions for buy-in, and listen for any advice, as well as expecting acceptance of your plans. Have an outside circle of colleagues for this kind of open discussion and advice-seeking.

I hear feedback about the job performance of my female colleagues that I should not be hearing thirdhand: Go out w/ the guys, and talk shop. When there is inappropriate discussion of any staff, calmly say "Hey, let's not get too specific outside the office. You never know who's going to share information they shouldn't." There's probably a better way to phrase it, maybe even being slightly aggressive "Chad, you always divulge confidential HR data; you're gonna get us sued, and my bonus is gonna get screwed. Sheesh" which is king of how you present them behaving, just aimed back at Chad.

- even though I'm one of the younger teammates, I'm treated like "mom" when we're doing a coordinated activity for work (ie, everyone expects me to know where we're going, when we're supposed to be there, how we get there, etc.) "Seriously, Gomer, have you not been reading your email? That's Pat's project, not mine" or "Marcus, if you need a nanny, please ask you manager to recruit one."

- I also deal with the fun double-standard of "We love you because you're so good at being one of the guys!" and "You need to be more professional than how the rest of us act!" Yep, If you have professional standards, you're a bitch who can't take a joke. If you're casual, you're too casual. There is no middle ground; in fact, you can be accused of both, and the accuser(s) will not understand the dilemma. Sucks, dunnit.
posted by theora55 at 9:16 AM on April 23, 2012


One thought: http://www.badideatshirts.com/MY-EYES-ARE-UP-HERE-T-SHIRT-P227.aspx

I do think that you can defuse some of this with humor combined with public shaming. Public shaming is especially effective in agile development meetings, where it's often used as a potent efficiency tool. ("You broke the build AGAIN?!?") I think that if you call someone out for staring at you during a standup, that'll get the message across to everyone but good. At least, they'll all be aware that you're paying attention.

These are aggressive tactics. I only suggest them because it seems that you have a good working relationship with people outside of the things that they do wrong. They might well listen to you if you teach them how you want to be treated.
posted by Citrus at 9:21 AM on April 23, 2012


Lawyer up. Document. Go to HR.

Apparently, there is no HR. This is not unusual in startups. Where there is no HR, the founders and partners run the company like a fiefdom.

And if this is in Silicon Valley, the likelihood that the OP is going to get an attorney to even consider a sexual harassment case is slim. It's a hugely toxic environment out there. The "terrorists" are currently winning, to paraphrase Kololo.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:24 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


p.s., IANAL, I am a woman who is experiencing bullying and harassment at work. Talking to a smart lawyer was a huge help.

Lots of people at work, mostly men, but not exclusively, want to be dominant. They'll use bullying, harassment, disrespect, sabotage, and lots of game-playing to gain prominence in the pack order. If you are simply, calmly competent, you may get steam-rollered. Learn to boast - point out your successes - large or small - make sure you mention how terrific you are, what a great team leader, how smart, etc., as often as possible. Point out other people's lack of success/failures/screw-ups. Yep, it's no fun. When people are civil, team-players, respectful, reward them, with a kind comment, or later, "Hey, you had some good points in today's meeting." I keep a bag of mini-candybars in my desk, and have given 1 to a colleague to reinforce it when they were esp. cooperative in a meeting. You may have to be more assertive, and even somewhat aggressive; something I dislike, and find counter-productive, but it is often necessary in business, where people often don't play nice. Be yourself, as best you can, but add a protective layer that takes the offense as needed.
posted by theora55 at 9:26 AM on April 23, 2012


Lots of great answers, folks. I appreciate the thought. I'm normally pretty sassy, and it sounds like giving the sassy "Hey guys, stop it," responses are actually acceptable and won't make me seem unprofessional or make things too awkward for us to keep working together - which is honestly the concern that's held me back so far.

To be clear, these guys aren't total jerks, and for the crap I listed above, they've still demonstrated having my back in other contexts (for example: proactively severing a relationship with another company whose rep who they saw coming onto me and blatantly ignoring my telling them to back off during a professional event). Not defending them or the sexism in my company, but there's a little hope that I can get them to listen if I can figure out what to say, and how to say it so they don't go straight to the defensive.

As for the cleavage thing - if it wasn't clear, I'm already covering up (and it's only when a layer slips that I catch someone's attention faltering). But it's disheartening to see how many folks leapt to conclusions about how carelessly I must be dressing, how meekly I must be conducting myself, etc.

Finally, thanks for the support; it sucks so many of us seem to have gone through this, but it's nice to know I'm not alone.
posted by amestar_runner at 10:40 AM on April 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


But it's disheartening to see how many folks leapt to conclusions about how carelessly I must be dressing, h

To be fair to us please read your post again. You used the word cleavage which means people can see the space between your breasts and/or breast tissue (for lack of a better term!). Which led me to assume you are wearing a shirt that exposes that at least some of the time. Which is what were advising you not to do. Scarves etc just draw attention to that area and, as you've noted, they slip.

I have a large chest on a small frame. People stare at it, even women. But at work they are covered up in skimming tops always. No one can see my "cleavage" or bare skin in any way. The times I've worn lower cut shirts to work people have looked, yes even women, and sometimes even commented.
posted by fshgrl at 2:31 PM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


> Get a power hair cut. Wear tasteful 3" heels that complement your outfit. Stand up straight. Train yourself to remove the word "like" from your vocabulary and remove any upward inflection at the end of sentences. You want a voice that is low and even. Now, if someone is being shifty to you during a seated conversation, you can stand up to full height (thus towering over your colleague) and slowly and evenly assert your position. Be confident. If you look and sound like you mean business, people will listen.

Sometimes they will. Sometimes they'll fit you into whatever assumptions they've got going regardless, without even consciously realizing that they're being sexist. Even if you're NOT dressing and acting like a teenager.
posted by desuetude at 10:52 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


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