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Why do my male coworkers pick on me?
November 21, 2012 8:29 PM   Subscribe

Why do my male coworkers pick on me?

I am 46 years old and have been picked on pretty much my whole life, starting around 12 years old. I'm female and the majority of the teasing has come from males.

I've heard most of my life that I am "too quiet", so I am guessing that is the reason why I am getting teased. But in the interest of full disclosure, I was trained in a different field (math) to the one I am currently working in (computers), so sometimes have to ask for help. I have to deal with men putting me down at work quite a bit (I worked as a scientific programmer for a long time but am currently working in an IT group). To give some examples:

- "... since she is the most important person in the group" (said sarcastically, as I was the most junior)
- "make sure you get her phone number in case you need help this weekend" (also said to elicit a laugh)
- "she can't do x and y at the same time"
- "even a small step is a big thing to her"
- "nothing's going to happen if you keep staring at a blank screen you know" (the machine didn't start up on my first try)
- "I don't know why you haven't killed yourself by now" (ha ha)

I don't understand this, as I've always gotten good reviews, and have always worked hard to do good work. Some of the reviews have even come from the same people who are openly badmouthing me (they call it "joking around" - but I don't find it funny). There are other women in my group and none of them get the treatment that I seem to draw.

Then they wonder why I don't want to talk to them.
posted by jenh526 to Work & Money (32 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You're working in a hostile environment, that last comment about killing yourself, is just hateful. You need to report this to your employer and, you might want to get an attorney.
posted by HuronBob at 8:36 PM on November 21, 2012 [60 favorites]

Why do my male coworkers pick on me?

Because they are assholes. I usually have more to say, but...
posted by milarepa at 8:49 PM on November 21, 2012 [17 favorites]

This is a long-standing thing, so I guess you need to look at what you can do to get people to change their behavior. To me, I enjoy teasing friends when they react, with accompanying laughter. This is, specifically, good-natured teasing. When you react to mild teasing like it's okay, people think you enjoy it and tease you more. So probably, you laugh or smile when people tease you. If you want to let them know it's not okay, frown slightly (for people new to you), or to people you have know, start by gently saying "that kind of joke makes me uncomfortable." You might get thought of as the "boring" one, but if that's your comfort level, you need to make it known. And I don't think the level that teasing has amounted to is by any means acceptable, but I'm sure you can change it by just making it obvious that you don't find it funny. Unless people are genuinely cruel, they won't tease people who they know are sensitive. Thing is, when people are sensitive (even if just about a certain thing), they usually just try to laugh it off instead of sticking up for themselves, and then nobody knows they're sensitive.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:55 PM on November 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Can you take some of the other women out to lunch/dinner to get advice? I would NOT complain about being picked on, but rather to explain that you are coming from a very different work culture, and are looking for ways to fit in. It sounds like there is a bit of the "brogrammer" culture going on, which makes things even more difficult for women.
posted by Sophont at 9:00 PM on November 21, 2012

Have you spent most of your time in male-dominated social/work environments?
posted by kylej at 9:10 PM on November 21, 2012

They are not picking on you. They are harassing you. Talk to your boss and/or HR. Get out of this horrible company as fast as you possibly can. A job with coworkers that treat you with the respect you deserve is only an interview away.
posted by deathpanels at 9:16 PM on November 21, 2012 [20 favorites]

Have you practiced saying stuff like "That's nice." "I appreciate that." And "Really?" with fake sincerity when they tell you something that's totally obvious. Like say "I appreciate that" totally deadpan with no expression whatsoever. Or just look at them and say "Okay" with no affect because you don't care and get back to whatever you were working on.

I mean what a bunch of insecure losers if they have to say stuff like that to you. It's not even witty. I would approach them with the attitude that this stuff is kind of sad and immature, whatever dude, enjoy your life, I'm sure you're a hit at parties.

I would also look for a better job where the environment is pleasant and your colleagues are professional.
posted by citron at 9:18 PM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm the only guy in an office full of women who can be pretty outspoken. They put me down all the time, but I know it's in fun, and we do get along. But I make wisecracks and have a pretty dry sense of humor and they know I can take a joke (though I sometimes think they're lucky that I can).

What is your general demeanor at work? Just blank and indifferent, or an "aw shucks" type? How do you compare to the other women there (is their interaction with the guys just minimal)?

Are they married or single? Do they put each other down just as much? I'm sure some will speculate that they're just insecure having a woman there, and maybe it's some of that. It could also be that they're trying to make you feel like one of them, but just do a lousy job at it. If they didn't like your work, I wouldn't think they'd hesitate to admit it to management.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:24 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the great answers.

As far as the other women - there is one other one in my immediate group. She is quite pretty, has long dark hair, and the men seem quite enamored of her. She is also married to a manager at work. The men in my group are respectful of her even though she doesn't do much. She laughs at all their jokes and laughs along with them when I'm being picked on/harassed/whatever you want to call it.

I have talked to a couple of them, saying I don't appreciate their teasing. And they've stopped. But now my manager has started, after I told him about their behavior.

I have spent most of my career in male-dominated environments. I've worked with some really great people too. Unfortunately, I've also worked with men who seem to delight in putting me down. It's not just the put-downs either. A couple of them actually cut out my contributions to the code. This current place stuck me in a dirty workstation with no direction on what they wanted me to do. I ended up having to ask a lot of questions, which was like pulling teeth.

I'm not sure what my demeanor is - I have difficulty seeing myself as others see me, I think. I am mostly just focused on my work, but I'll usually converse with the others about non-work stuff for around 15-20 min in the morning and afternoon.

No, I don't see them putting each other down much. The guys all like to hang out with each other, go to lunch with each other, that kind of thing. One of the guys in my group has been married for 20+ years, the other is on his second divorce, and my manager is currently getting a divorce (his wife wanted it).
posted by jenh526 at 9:58 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

This could be teasing, or bullying. The comments you cite sound over the line to me, but it depends on which pattern in fits.

Men tend to like putdown humor. Field notes for recognizing this: everyone participates; the boss is not exempt; no one seems to be hurt; the jibes are absurd (and ideally witty) and relate to unimportant things; many of the jokes are self-deprecating.

The more of these that are reversed, the more it's bullying. E.g. one person is singled out; the boss teases the underlings more than vice versa; people do get upset; the jokes are stupid and insensitive.

If it's more like the latter, it's creating a hostile environment and you should bring it up with your boss.

And if it's the former and it bothers you, you can still say so! Teasing should always stop when it causes offense.
posted by zompist at 9:58 PM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't understand this, as I've always gotten good reviews, and have always worked hard to do good work. Some of the reviews have even come from the same people who are openly badmouthing me (they call it "joking around" - but I don't find it funny). (jenh526)

In general, praising you during reviews and insulting you to your face sounds like---well, I guess I can't call it healthy, since you obviously don't like it, but it seems non-malicious. If they were insulting you behind your back or discussing their concerns with management, that would worry me more.

I agree with zompist's characterisation of putdown humor, and I'll add that one of things that marks friendly putdown humor for me is picking on people "who can take it." Presumably, the people who wrote your reviews knew you'd see them, so in their minds, the later "joking around" is done in a context of, "Oh, but she knows I don't actually mean this."

Another, and less charitable, hypothesis is that they're threatened by your background. You mention that you're working in IT but your background is scientific programming and maths. There are a lot of places where both of these are considered more prestigious, more challenging, and more intellectual than IT work. (I'm not saying this is accurate, just that the prejudice exists.)
posted by d. z. wang at 10:24 PM on November 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

Agreed, there is a lot of 'put down' humor out there, especially in IT. But any good "respectful workplace" seminar worth its weight in cheesiness will tell you one thing: As good natured as it may be, the intention of the person doing the teasing means exactly bupkis. That Joe Douche is giving you a friendly jibe like he does to every one of his other co-workers doesn't count for jack shit. It's the perception of the target that is important.

The fact that you've brought this up with some of them, and they have stopped, is encouraging. What is stopping you from talking to the rest of them?

As for your boss, my suggestion is one e-mail, firm but polite, strong but non-confrontational, that specifically lays out that you are not comfortable with his actions and demeanor towards you. Print it and save it for your records. If it continues, go straight to HR and possibly an attorney as suggested by HuronBob.

The fact that you seem to be used to this is irrelevant. Truth is, some people are just fuckwads. But you are under zero obligation to put up with them.
posted by SquidLips at 10:32 PM on November 21, 2012

I would not give an inch on that kind of behavior. It's disrespectful and abusive. I'd exclude them from contact, up to and including just leaving, if it continued.

They have to know that it's wrong and they will lose people (if not you, then others) if they continue that way.
posted by ead at 10:56 PM on November 21, 2012

Perhaps talk to HR after you have spoken to an attorney. Your boss joined in on the abuse after you discussed it with him. This is workplace harassment, it is a serious matter, and you owe it to yourself to get legal guidance about how to proceed. Document your experiences.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:19 PM on November 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

You've got people suggesting you kill yourself.

This is not put down humor, this is harassment. Lawyer up, especially if the management's in on this.
posted by Jilder at 11:27 PM on November 21, 2012

They're threatened by you and are trying to put you in your place. I've suffered from this myself due to a killer combination of being really good at my work but insecure about myself with social anxiety. If you want them to stop, you'll need to stroke their egos, but that's a horrible and really annoying thing to have to do to people you don't like. You're probably better off searching for another job where the people are nicer and will treat you with respect.
posted by hazyjane at 11:45 PM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

This sounds very unpleasant, and you have my sympathies. I would consider that your co-workers may have deliberate hostility but/and some of them may also have poor social skills. Some people find it difficult to tell the difference between ribbing and really insulting stuff. I understand that you don't like the ribbing, and they shouldn't do it if that is the case, but it is possible too that they don't pick this up. Some people lack that subtlety. I would aim, first, to ensure that you are being very unsubtle (perhaps you already have-- you have spoken with the manager) with each of them individually, if you can bear it.

I would suggest that you might like to leave the term 'male' out of the question, since you note that a female colleague joins in/supports them and it doesn't seem like it's terribly relevant. I think it is a bit of a distraction-- your colleagues are harassing you. 'Picking on me' also has connotations that I think undermine the seriousness of your situation-- if you decide to take it further I would rephrase.

I hope you are able to work this out.
posted by jojobobo at 12:15 AM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

FWIW, there's an even chance you are misinterpreting 'bad mouthing' with workplace banter.

I have held memberships in several "Insult Exchanges" in a number of workplaces. Nicknames were brutal. "Eric the Hutt" for a vastly overweight engineer. "Satchel Ass" for a formerly overweight engineer whose pants were suddenly looser.

"My, Bobby, that sure is a sensitive and vulnerable shirt you are wearing" to a guy who chose pink one morning from the available items in his closet. "What's the matter, Bill? Couldn't you sleep" to a guy who showed up on time for a change. "I'd give you a penny for your thoughts, John, but I know how hard it would be for you to make change" (self explanatory). "Call me if you have trouble with any of the big words", to my boss. One day, when the boss was out of town, I taped my name tag over his office sign and put a big X of tape over his as if I was taking over.

Point is, all of that was boy-boy violence and done in the most friendly way possible, and returned whenever weakness was displayed. Sometimes it went wrong, but usually, you could tell who wanted in the Insult Exchange and who didn't, and generally we excluded women because there weren't many and they didn't like blood sports much.

None of that ever resulted in legal threats. Some folks are prickly. Some folks can't be 'cats' who poke, test, jump, sneak up, scare each other. You may be one. Part of the fun was parsing for the truth and it was more like the office practical joke stuff you'd see on Sienfeld than some evil attempt at destroying a character. A whole lot of boys don't know how to be playful with women/girls. It's cross cultural sometimes.

You sound competent and smart. Some of what you relate could be taken as self-deprecating on the part of the speaker, such as the comment "She's the most important person here", a tacit recognition of your math smarts in a room full of folks who barely passed trig.

The problem in a room full of boys has a lot to do with the fact that the room is full of boys. On a good day, we not only don't know what's going on, we don't know what to do other than what we do with other boys. Trying to resist stereotyping too much, male society is about competition, and modern manifestations are workplace potshots, particularly in geek land. You won't find us holding hands or talking relationship stuff. Or, sometimes being considerate. Bosses aren't immune, either. And frankly, sometimes there are office peeps who get targeted for soul death. Male or female, certain things will get your social safety net untied.

Just my 2 cents worth. If this 'harassment' is real, I hope you can fix it. If it's just misdirected play, you'll need something superior to legal threats and hypersensitivity to fix it. For that, there is only OJT (on the job training) and it never stops.
posted by FauxScot at 12:40 AM on November 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have found myself in a similar situation. I have been in my current position for just over a year. I work at a small company comprised of 15 men and two women, it's a mostly engineering and a little bit of science crowd. About half of of the men are very gossipy and put other people down constantly. They seem to wield power this way, but I don't understand it, as I was raised that putting others down was a sign of weakness and a character flaw, one which I would assume one would want to hide. These guys flaunt it, and amazingly it works. They are not considered weak and strange but seem to get their way a lot of the time. They have lunch together a few times a week, my boss included, and the conversations can be quite vulgar and degrading to women, but no one stops it or considers it inappropriate enough to warrant intervention. My boss generally doesn't talk this way but he in no way stops it and laughs along. I have excluded myself from these lunches because I often feel very uncomfortable and embarrassed, which has left me out of the loop in a big way. If you don't buckle up and take put downs and teasing then you are not included. I'm now a target of gossip and stories. I have heard they are making stories up about me, two men in particular are saying things that just aren't true. I emailed my boss about it, but it was hard because he is on medical leave for a month and I am pretty sure he will file it away as whining. I am currently looking for another job but feel extremely frustrated and cheated because all I wanted to do is my work and participate, but these guys dominate everything.

So, I feel for you. I wish it weren't like this but I have no answers. I don't think teasing back is a good idea. I am actively avoiding any conversations with the worst offenders and will sometimes cc the VP on emails that underscore my contributions, just to be sure he knows what I am up to directly from me and not filtered through the assholes. Seems the best way of getting through the day is to focus on the work, improving your skill set, keeping to yourself. Hopefully if they don't get a reaction they will get bored and move on.

You sound like an intelligent and socially aware person, and being picked on is horrible and cruel. Don't let them get the best of you, and just know you aren't alone :)
posted by waving at 12:43 AM on November 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, and by the way Satchel Ass would flaunt his baggy pants and Eric the Hutt would call himself "An eighth of a ton of fat and fun". And I have fired several folks for legit sexual harassment. No tolerance for that crap here. There's a big difference between "Show me your tits" and "Nice shoes, Candace. Walmart have a sale?"
posted by FauxScot at 12:49 AM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

You mentioned you've been victimized for much of your life. I am in *no way* suggesting that you invite or are to blame for the harassment you've experienced (your current coworkers sound WAY out of line), but might there be something about your body language etc. that signals "target" to douchebags?

I'm thinking of another office scapegoat (also female) I once knew of. Not only did she get bullied like nobody else in that work environment, she also got mugged a lot.

You can't control other people's behavior, but you can control your physical presence, at least to some extent. Assertiveness training, improv, acting classes, physical disciplines like tai chi -- these have all influenced the way I carry myself, and I get treated with palpably more respect as a result.
posted by stuck on an island at 3:22 AM on November 22, 2012 [8 favorites]

I work in a small group that is mostly male dominated. We had an intern for a while and, truth be told, we abused that relationship to a certain degree. We ended up hiring her full time, but the abuse continued in the form of teasing. It was enough that it started bugging me, so as a senior person at the company I tried to gently shift the company culture away from that and I also had a brief face-to-face with her to find out if she felt like she was being treated in a way that was out of bounds and if she was, I'd be happy to step in. She said in all honesty that she preferred to fight her own battles and we left it at that and over time the behaviors I noted went away.

In your case, you don't have me. You have you and whoever else you can get on your side. If your abuse has been accepted as it has, do you feel it has been institutionalized? If no, then you have a much better chance at turning it around. You don't have to accept it. A frank, "you know, I'm right here" in public might help. One of of the more traditional ways of dousing humor is to ask, in a very even tone, to have an explanation as to why that was funny; don't sound shrill - think Vulcan. Over time, that will be a sufficient disincentive to those comments. Otherwise, document, take it to a manager or HR.

Were it reported to me, I'd want to put an end to it. I'd rather avoid losing a good employee.
posted by plinth at 4:40 AM on November 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

The examples you cite, they have a common theme. They're not the usual bullying themes: sexist, racist, ageist.... Other answers here refer to other kinds of bullying and teasing which clouded the issue for me, until I went back and read your Q and followup. That first example "she is the most important" suggests that someone thinks you're stuck-up, arrogant. The other examples suggest that people think you're a freeloader, not doing your fair share of the work. Now, it's ok to be the least productive person on the team, someone has to be, but that person also has to show that they're working hard.

Another thing that came to mind was "current place stuck me in a dirty workstation with no direction on what they wanted me to do. I ended up having to ask a lot of questions, which was like pulling teeth." - this does put you in a position of weakness; one solution is to formulate demands rather than questions. The end result is the same, you negotiate a process of working together, but you're not coming from a position of weakness.
posted by at at 5:58 AM on November 22, 2012

That first example "she is the most important" suggests that someone thinks you're stuck-up, arrogant.

This came from a former boss. He strongly favored my male coworker. I think it was his way of pointing out that I was really the least important person on the team. He also told me he didn't think I was assertive enough.

The other examples suggest that people think you're a freeloader, not doing your fair share of the work. Now, it's ok to be the least productive person on the team, someone has to be, but that person also has to show that they're working hard.

This stings a bit. I was hired to work on a specific project, and that is where my focus has been. It's a difficult project and I am working on it pretty much by myself. When the others are sitting around talking, I am working. The last person on this project quit after 9 months.
posted by jenh526 at 6:13 AM on November 22, 2012

I would suggest that you might like to leave the term 'male' out of the question, since you note that a female colleague joins in/supports them and it doesn't seem like it's terribly relevant.

Point taken. Thanks.
posted by jenh526 at 6:17 AM on November 22, 2012

I have to say that I disagree with jojobobo's suggestion to remove the word "male" from your question. The complicity of another woman who is young, pretty, and married to a manager doesn't mean that gender isn't a factor in what's happening to you. And while it's true that none of the comments are explicitly about your gender, most people working in corporate America are aware that those kinds of remarks (e.g. "Why don't you stop programming and make me a sandwich, sugartits?") are lawsuit material.

In my experience, programming is not only a male-dominated profession but also a profession with a lot of men who have been picked on in their younger years who are now getting a little taste of professional/cultural power and are not using it wisely. THIS IS NOT A BLANKET STATEMENT ABOUT ALL PROGRAMMERS. Most male programmers are NOT like this AT ALL. But I have encountered a large number who are. In their eyes you're probably the person on the team with the least power, in large part because you're a woman. For this crowd the hierarchy seems to be men > young, sexually attractive women > all other women.

Now, if you're bringing this up to your manager or HR, I would maybe suggest leaving gender out of it. Not because it's not part of the problem, but because people and companies will often vehemently deny that anything of the sort is happening out of sheer defensiveness and for fear of being sued. The path of least resistance for them is to convince you that it has nothing to do with your gender, which is significantly less effort and liability than admitting there's a problem and trying to change the culture.

If it's a question of navigating your corporate culture, you may get further if you leave gender out of it. But that doesn't mean that you need to tell yourself that it has nothing to do with being a woman. I think that it is relevant, and recognizing this dynamic in your workplace may help you navigate it better. It can also help you avoid ending up in a similar culture if you decide to change jobs in the future.
posted by Colonel_Chappy at 7:17 AM on November 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

There is a point in life where if a certain thing has gone on for more than so much time we ought to consider how we're contributing to its continued existence. After 34 years of being victimized by others, I have to wonder: what have you done to counter the treatment that others lay on you? Have you sought therapy to help you build up your cobfidence and your ability to confront others? Have you ever looked into the possibility that, yes, your behavior and communication style may be training others to treat you with disdain and cruelty? What can it you do to take charge so you don't have to change jobs or even careers?

This is not all on others, but I don't get the impression you've looked into ways to assess what you're presenting that's so baiting to these people. At some point this would have stopped -- and 34 years is a long time to believe that people love picking on you. You gotta start using your mind power to show them that you're not going to take it anymore, and I think taking a very, very hard look as to why this has been an ongoing pattern in your life with someone objective like a CBT therapist will be crucial in helping you achieve long term and lasting results.

Stop affirming that people like to pick on you. Stop affirming feelings of victimization. Start believing that you can and should stand up for yourself as loudly and as firmly as others target you. You deserve that.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:54 AM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

This may not be easy if someone has struck a nerve or makes you feel threatened, but it's possible to get some great results out of simply pretending to not understand their "joke". Play dumb and ask for further explanation. For the small price of appearing a little bit naive, your coworker is faced with the thought of having to explain themselves. Even if they don't oblige with an explanation they're forced to think, just for a moment, about what motivated them to say those things in the first place. Invariably, the motivation for this kind of rude behavior comes from a dark, unpleasant place. Even the thought of explaining the "joke" will remind them that this ugly place exists, and they may be discouraged from acting that way around you in the future.
posted by yorick at 10:18 AM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is a bit off the beaten path but here it goes. Most, if not all people, are basically herd animals. The pack leaders and the pack itself set the tone for the group, the context, and what's allowed and what's not. Pecking at perceived weaknesses is a standard behavior...I can see this in my group of chickens on any given day.
I've never seen the advantage in behaving this way, but when you are in the minority in a group that does allow this and you become targeted, it's a problem, it can weigh on you and affect your sensibilities.
My personal strategy is never to indulge in it myself, never gossip or fire back in anger or vulnerability. Secondly, I tend to hang with people in my off hours with a rep for being really out there, unpredictable perhaps even nuts to mainstream people. They aren't really, just seems that way to your ordinary white bread person. When word gets around who your 'crowd' is at work, you can see people adjusting their mental pictures to perhaps put a little distance between you and any perceived slights or transgressions.
Works for me. Find a bad-ass crowd, then wear a bit of their paraphernalia or let it drop you are attending an event full of them. Tends to confuse, worry and drive off vipers.
posted by diode at 1:30 PM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pecking at perceived weaknesses is a standard behavior...I can see this in my group of chickens on any given day.

Thank you diode - this made me smile. I also think it explains a lot. I guess what I have trouble understanding is how some people get pleasure from hurting others that they perceive to be weaker than them. I can't think of a time when I've ever done this or even wanted to.

Anyway, thanks again everyone for all the insightful and thoughtful replies. You've all given me a lot to think about.
posted by jenh526 at 2:48 PM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

It was enough that it started bugging me, so as a senior person at the company I tried to gently shift the company culture away from that and I also had a brief face-to-face with her to find out if she felt like she was being treated in a way that was out of bounds and if she was, I'd be happy to step in.

plinth: you're a hero
posted by jenh526 at 5:57 PM on November 22, 2012

I am hearing that these guys are just jerks, and the pretty female coworkers insides do not seem to match her outsides. Don't worry about the why right now; just push forward. You know you are capable. You should be out of there living your life not stuck with these huge buzzkills.
posted by kettleoffish at 7:57 PM on November 27, 2012

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