How sexualized is a federal/military law enforcement workplace?
December 13, 2011 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I am a young and pretty college female about to start an internship at a federal and/or military law-enforcement agency. I am concerned about the attention I might get from men, and I'd like to hear about your experiences.

For reasons not worth going into, I'm sensitive about being the object of male attention, especially when that attention is sexualized. Most of my new coworkers will be male. I have worked in very professional settings and I do know how to dress simply and conservatively, and I don't flirt, but I have been hit-on (sometimes inappropriately) even in relatively tame offices. I have never worked in an environment like this, comprised almost exclusively of presumably "alpha" men.

This is not strictly an office job. Everybody spends time in the field. So I am not just thinking about "office" dynamics, but also about situations where I will be alone (in the car, etc.) with individual agents. I'm thinking about the gamut from innocent jokes that people roll their eyes at but don't consider "sexual harassment" (but which I'm sensitive about) to full-fledged advances. I really, really don't want to be the object of "Score with the intern!" male-dominance exercises. I plan to pull my weight and I'd like to be seen as just "one of the team."

If it's relevant, I do have a boyfriend and I'm not looking. And apologies if this question reads as if I'm stereotyping federal and/or military agents. That isn't my intent, nor to be preemptively critical or cynical. This is a new experience for me. That's why I'm posting this question.

So I guess what I'm looking for is some insight from the ground. Do you have experience with this type of environment? Insight or advice on what I can realistically expect to encounter? Tips on how to prevent, or react to unwanted advances or inappropriate behavior?

Thanks in advance!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Ultimately, confirmation bias is going to be your downfall. If you expect to be harassed, you will be. If you figure that most people don't go to work to hook up, then you'll probably notice that that's true too.

Anyway, the best way to control the situation is with your attitude. Don't assume anything and assess the situation as it develops. That's all you can do; you can't control other peoples' actions, after all.
posted by jrockway at 8:40 AM on December 13, 2011 [6 favorites]

It would be unavoidable even if you were hideous. Most men abide by social rules against getting fresh with female coworkers in cars. Don't give them a reason to believe you're anything but professional, and clearly and immediately call out any other rude behavior.
posted by theraflu at 8:41 AM on December 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Forgot to add - I am a federal contractor (IT not military, though) and so far have experienced far less boys-club baloney than I'd ever experienced in the private sector. People seem vigilant about maintaining their reputations and security clearances.
posted by theraflu at 8:44 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

In my experience, local and state police are not great environments for young women to work for the reasons you fear, but the few Feds I have interacted with have been much more straitlaced and professional. I believe the military is similar: tough at low levels, more polished and professional at high. But that's hearsay.

Practice saying "Can we stay professional, here?" into the mirror until you can do it without trembling.

I also think jrockway has a strong point, and it's how you react that can cause rippling problems much, much more than how you happen to look or dress, which is ultimately irrelevant.

I am a fairly average-looking cranky old dude, and even when I'm putting out my best "leave me alone" vibe, I still get hit on pretty often in business settings. It happens, and you need to somehow find a mindset that will allow you to shrug it off and move on. To stay professional, in other words.
posted by rokusan at 8:44 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think rokusan has it: if you were interning with a county police department, you might well have a problem here. But federal agencies tend to be very, very professional, and complaints about things like sexual harassment tend to be taken seriously. Remember, the federal government has far more stringent rules about sexual harassment and discrimination for its own employees than most state or local governments do, and these rules are taken pretty seriously.

Federal jobs are sexy. People want them. This means there tend to be far more applications than positions, which lets the feds recruit from the cream of the crop, both personally and professionally. Also, it's pretty much impossible to hire civil servants via nepotism--federal HR regulations are an unholy mess--so there's a lot less of the good ol' boys club, and you basically never hear about dynasties the way you do in local police departments. The odds of a new hire knowing anyone in their department when they show up are actually quite low. Both of these tend to put a damper on the sort of unpleasant culture that can grow around male-dominated organizations after a decade or two.
posted by valkyryn at 9:00 AM on December 13, 2011 [9 favorites]

Do your best to be assertive. I believe you when you say you've got "professional" down, but your fear (your totally reasonably, valid fear) may undermine you. Being assertive won't prevent everyone ever from being inappropriate, but it'll help you to come off as the sort of person who doesn't put up with bullshit, and help you learn to shut it down quickly when it happens.

And each group is its own culture, but sexual harassment training really has gotten better, so hopefully this group will be more professional than other folks you've worked with in the past.
posted by ldthomps at 9:01 AM on December 13, 2011

I don't know about your specific environment, but I've survived in some fairly boyzone places.

I've generally found that it helps to mimic the local culture; in other words, to behave as much like "one of the lads" as is reasonably possible. Watch how they rebuff inappropriate comments from one another, and use the same tricks yourself.

Usually in a group of guys there will be some kind of verbal horseplay tradition in which they trade insults - quite possibly including the sexual variety. Of course it's NOT expected that a trade of sexual insults between guys in the average workplace would progress to overt advances!

This means that if you reframe incipient harrassment as some kind of jokey insult, you can insult the person right back with a grin on your face and expect them to follow protocol, shut up, and discuss something harmless.

There's a subset of more traditionally feminine responses that can sometimes just serve to escalate the situation, because you unintentionally reinforce the person's idea that you see them as a threat.

As always, your workplace may vary, and it may require some level of social skills to pull this off well.
posted by emilyw at 9:02 AM on December 13, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've dealt mainly with with the military rank of Major in my job and my experience has been uniformly positive with their professionalism. I agree with theraflu that most of the military personnel I've encountered are very conservative in how they treat civilians and with rokusan that this attitude becomes more pronounced as you go up the ladder of rank. Just behave in the manner you want to be treated and correct someone immediately if they do something that makes you uncomfortable. Good luck and enjoy the experience.
posted by victoriab at 9:02 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

If working in Canada you may want to read this news item. The RCMP does not have a good track record with this.
posted by ServSci at 9:04 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dress professionally, act professionally. Not like a nun, not like a 'librarian,' but dress like person with a professional position. Be aware of your surroundings, and don't get pulled into hazing, which may include stories intended to gauge your reaction to sexually explicit material. if they get into such stories, try to turn the conversation to a similar, but not sexually explicit path. I.e., stories about hookers? Listen with a blank face, then ask about robberies. Rude jokes? Don't participate, walk away. In a car, turn on the radio, start a new topic. If it crosses the line, say, "Let's keep it professional, thanks."

If you get hit on, say "You're flattering me, but I'm taken."

If it's really bad, complain. The more women who make it clear that it's intolerable, the better.
posted by theora55 at 9:06 AM on December 13, 2011

Wear a conspicuous wedding band.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:14 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know people in federal law enforcement (female and male), as well as military and the above are fairly correct.

Federal and military, you shouldn't have a problem. They are professional, and focused on respecting all the guidelines - sex, religion, etc. Especially higher the rank, the more straight-laced they will be, as well as stomping on anyone they see acting unprofessionally. (and there are many behavior controls that are much harsher in the federal and miliary arenas that makes them particularly sensitive to anything not kosher)

That being said, normal joking with coworkers they have known for awhile will go on, but far from anything you should consider 'harrassment.'

Normal county/state police - will differ by state and locality. But with definitely a higher potential for issues.

But your question seems to say that is not the case - it's federal/military. Also expect that since this is an internship, there will be some eyes on it and you'll be looked at more as 'the college kid we have' on top of the buttoned-up sensibility those I know have in their workplace.
posted by rich at 9:24 AM on December 13, 2011

If you're in the States, the federal bureaucracy is absurdly professional. I won't say that you absolutely won't have any problems, but I'm pretty confident that, of all the workplaces in the world, this is one of the ones where you're least likely to have problems.
posted by downing street memo at 9:25 AM on December 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

There is pretty much nothing you can do to prevent it. Don't let yourself blame yourself when you're the victim of sexual harassment.

That said, my company (private sector) is heavily male-dominated, as are the conferences and tradeshows I attend, as are my (mostly military) clients. By and large, I have no problems whatsoever. Some people -- all civilians, FWIW -- have occasionally been inappropriate, but that's because they're assholes, not because it's a male-dominated industry or because I'm dressing "wrong" or acting "wrong" or what have you. And when an older man has a younger woman he has just hit on turn to him, look a little disgusted, and say "That is really not okay," he shuts the hell up because he's embarrassed. He may call you a bitch behind your back to someone else, but the mature people -- including men -- know what that means, and it says more about him than it does about you.

You cannot prevent it. You will not escape it. But you will not be surrounded by it. The best you can do is not let it get in your way of doing an excellent job.
posted by olinerd at 9:29 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Growing up in the military I noticed that the women were treated like everyone's little sister. They'd get teased some, but in a friendly way. There was also a feeling of protectiveness. Kind of like "She's ours, we can give her a hard time but nobody else better mess with her."

This was just my perspective as an outsider.
posted by TooFewShoes at 9:36 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

For reasons not worth going into, I'm sensitive about being the object of male attention, especially when that attention is sexualized.

Slightly aside from your question here, but - you should never, ever, ever have to feel like you need to defend your reasons for wanting to be treated with respect, like a human being, and like an equal.
posted by elizardbits at 9:36 AM on December 13, 2011 [17 favorites]

I personally disagree that you should try to be "one of the lads." It can send a message that that kind of behavior is okay and that you're cool because you're not uppity like those other hypersensitive women.

From personal experience, I've found that a good strategy for combatting sexism in the workplace is not to be afraid to show how intelligent and competent you are. If someone is explaining something to you that you already know how to do, speak up. If you have an opinion, put it forward. Don't ever pretend to be stupider than you are.

I'm thinking about the gamut from innocent jokes that people roll their eyes at but don't consider "sexual harassment" (but which I'm sensitive about)

Stop blaming yourself for being "too sensitive" and start blaming the people who tell those jokes for being too insensitive.

And if the harassment is overt, tell the person he's harassing you/making you uncomfortable. If he has a problem with that, report him to HR. They're there for a reason.
posted by petiteviolette at 9:43 AM on December 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

[folks, be helpful. If you need to get your digs in you have MetaTalk]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:48 AM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

My best friend is the only woman working in an all-male office for the US military. More frequently than advances, she has to put up with sexualized jokes and comments (her coworkers love talking and joking about their dicks). She copes by doing what emilyw does--getting in on the boyzone joking. Her coworkers like her. That being said, she hates it and it's constant. It's pretty much the definition of a hostile workplace, but she's long felt she can't do anything about it without risking her job because of certain workplace dynamics.

So rather than play into it, I would dress very professionally, do your job really well, and, if you really don't want to deal with this stuff, make it clear you don't want to participate. theora55's advice is great for specific phrasing.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:53 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

qxntpqbbbqxl has suggested wearing a wedding band. That might give the wrong idea. I was going to suggest an engagement ring, but only if you're ready to fib about it (or to get engaged, but that seems an extreme solution for this particular problem). It would send the signal that you are not available.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:57 AM on December 13, 2011

To add to brianogilvie's concern, it's my understanding that workplaces like this take a very dim view of dishonesty of any kind. Wearing an engagement ring or wedding band when you're not actually engaged or married could create more problems than it solves.
posted by burden at 10:02 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wear a sports bra, even when you're not planning to be particularly active. At the very least, not a push-up bra.

Mention your boyfriend in casual conversation. A lot. "Oh, that tv show? Yeah, my boyfriend loves it but I've only seen one episode."

If comments are made, a good first response is a very dry, "Uh, no." If that doesn't do the trick, I would suggest just ignoring the person until they get the hint. But if you show yourself to be a strong person in general, you should find that people are much less likely to make the comments that make you feel small.
posted by Night_owl at 10:07 AM on December 13, 2011

disclaimer: I am not a woman, and I don't work with federal/military. However, someone close to me does, and I'll share their perspective (shared with me):

She's found her environment to be fairly professional - but she's one of a very few women in her position, and acutely conscious of often being the only woman in the room. Also, being younger by a few decades (and she's a few older than you).

You can deflect the sexualized jokes and such by jokingly shutting it down. "Oh, there he goes, talking about his X again." If it's directed at you, shut it down, "Hey, not cool. Would you talk to Wakowski with that kinda mouth?" with a smile. Pointed, but polite.

Be competent and professional at all times, even if you're furious. Cold and icy works well. As an intern (and this goes for anyone), do more listening than talking.

Do not apologize for anything that is not your fault. This is key. Women are socialized to say "I'm sorry" when they really mean "oh, it's too bad the such and such that I had nothing to do with, didn't work out." Unless something is a result of your own screwup, do not say, "I'm sorry that x hapened." "It's too bad / it's regrettable / " etc. Men rarely say, "I'm sorry" when something they had no influence over fails.

Make sure that if you up-speak (your statements sound like questions by an upswing in tone at the end) that you kill that dead right now.

Find a female mentor in the office if you can - she can give you the best read on how things lie. But don't automatically stick with the first one you talk to, talk to a few, if possible. Sadly, not all of them will be interested or able to mentor you effectively.
posted by canine epigram at 10:08 AM on December 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've heard a number of anecdotes from this kind of environment that go beyond harassment into outright assault.

Dress very conservatively.

Be careful around older men, who may have grown up in a time where sexual harassment was considered benign.

There are a lot of people with "problems" -- mental illness, alcoholism, severe lack of social boundaries -- who work for the government, in part because they can never get fired. Usually it's easy to tell who those people are. Be careful around them.

If something does happen, don't be afraid to report it to your supervisor.
posted by miyabo at 10:31 AM on December 13, 2011

There's been some very good advice upstream. I work in a profession that has been (until relatively recently) traditionally a male-dominated one. All I would add is that it's all about the vibes. It's a difficult thing to do sometimes, especially if someone's acting the dinosaur (and yes, I have come across those men in my younger days and yes, they were chauvenistic in the extreme and actually quite proud of it - pricks) but if you can project an air of calm, friendly professionalism, that should help.

Unfortunately (and it isn't confined just to lumbering male stegosaurs) some people can pick up on those nervous, anticipatory "Someone's bound to be nasty to me - I'd better brace and be ready just in case" vibes we can give out when we're unsure of our setting or those around us, and will take childish delight in provoking a reaction. If possible, I would try and find a friendly colleague (male or female) as a mentor figure if you can; not just to have someone you can talk to about any issues you might be worried about but because having someone to get coffee with or stop off and chat to on the way to your desk will make things seem a lot less daunting - and cynically speaking, any possible harrassment is less likely if the potential harrasser sees the potential harrassee has an ally to hand.

Try to relax, and give people the benefit of the doubt wherever you can (because most of the time, most people are good and want to be kind to you, in my experience). However, if someone seems off then all the normal precautions apply, obviously. Listen to your gut.

What I have done on a number of occasions if people have been ignorant or unnecessary is to get them on one side and quietly, gently and firmly say how it made me feel and why I'd prefer it not to happen again. And also point out how bad it makes them seem in front of others, and that I really don't want to go above them because I respect them but they leave me no choice if it happens again etc. It can and has worked but if it doesn't you still feel better for having asserted yourself.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 10:51 AM on December 13, 2011

Someone asking you out is not sexual harassment nor is minor flirting with a new coworker. These are things people of the opposite sex do when they meet and you should relax and treat it the way you would if you met the guy at school or church. Let them know you're not interested immediately, move on. That's a no harm no foul. Repeatedly bugging you is not ok but lots of people do meet their SOs at work so don't assume all your new colleagues are creepers off the bat.

I don't enjoy getting hit on at work either but most of my coworkers don't know my relationship status and you can't blame people for trying. I'm also dating a guy I met and flirted with while he was at work so again, I can't really get too huffy when occasionally a new colleague is all "hey, eh, you want to get lunch....?"
posted by fshgrl at 11:28 AM on December 13, 2011

Going to second "behaving like one of the lads" - don't take any of their crap and the ones who aren't complete jerks will back off or will at least drop the hitting-on-you front. If you can develop either some comebacks or at least a sarcastic-ish way of dealing with the ones who try to pull whatever with you, or if you at least don't just giggle and say nothing everything should be fine. Even just being able to shoot a "please..." look at them should work. It's always worked for me. I've worked in places with a lot of men and I was a bartender in a totally redneck bar(where I was usually the only girl in the place) back in college. As long as you hold your ground you will be fine.

Also, I haven't worked in a military/law enforcement environment but aside from when out at bars and other places where drunken shenanigans occur, I've found both groups to be pretty respectful overall.
posted by fromageball at 12:00 PM on December 13, 2011

I work in federal law enforcement. Many of the agents are former military. Just based on my purely anecdotal experience, I would think you would be completely fine. The male agents I work with are very professional. I hope I'm right but my impression reading your question was that you are worrying utterly unnecessarily. I would caution others not to hype you up more - if they don't have recent fed/military experience they may be off base.

Things have been said around me that would probably make you uncomfortable, but that has always been after the agents have gotten to know me and have learned that I wouldn't be offended. (And even then usually the statement has been accompanied by an apology for their language). It is a fairly conservative culture.

I suggest that you relax and assume that things will be fine. Of you find that's not true, you can deal with it then.

The worst I've heard in 6 years here was a joking comment to me when one of our young, pretty attorneys left and an older guy replaced her that the new guy was a good lawyer but the previous atty was also smart and much nicer to look at.
posted by n'muakolo at 2:11 PM on December 13, 2011

I think you're going to have to get a feel for the environment in which you will be working before deciding whether to "behave like one of the lads" or be "cold and icy". I've worked in mostly male environments, including amongst military men, and you have to feel what is right for you and what will work in that environment. I've been "one of the lads" and I've been the Ice Queen. I've also been a calm, cool, rational professional who carried my weight.

If someone asks you out, Miss Manners says, "I'm sorry, that's not possible." Rinse, repeat. They don't need to know if you have a significant other or not. It is none of their business. If someone makes you uncomfortable, tell them. If they don't listen, there is a chain of command and everyone knows it.

Just respect yourself and others, and expect the same. You will be called "ma'am" a lot.
posted by kamikazegopher at 2:12 PM on December 13, 2011

I am young, attractive, and worked for the federal government... and those who say you'll have to figure out the lay of the land first have got it right. I found that I worked best in a middle ground between "one of the guys" and "pointed politeness." I can take a joke, but anything that truly offended me, made me uncomfortable, or whatever got shut down with a look and an icy retort. I mentioned that I was in a relationship early on but didn't make a point of bringing it up terribly often. Yes, I got asked out. Yes I got hit on. Just say no. Ignore it. Move on. Same as any other workplace.
posted by sm1tten at 5:02 PM on December 13, 2011

There's also a pretty good chance that the attention you get will be more fatherly than sexualized - the average age probably trends higher than at a .com, for example, and many will likely have daughters your age.

I haven't worked *in* a LE office, but I've conducted trainings for several groups of federal and state law enforcement professionals, including at several day conferences that included long drives and dinners and drinks together. All my interactions were generally professional and even the more relaxed, jokey, dudes were pretty polite.

However, on the rare exceptions, I found that a good balance of being "one of the guys" and straight up calling out harassing behavior in a sort of wry, sarcastic manner was key. I never said "I'm sorry, you're making me uncomfortable," when "That's gross, you're my dad's age" or "Whoa, dude, I can see why you're popular with the ladies" would do.

Practice your most obvious eye roll!
posted by sawdustbear at 5:38 PM on December 13, 2011

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