"Not because you're a woman, but because I'm a gentleman."
May 23, 2013 1:40 PM   Subscribe

Is there a classification of (HR-speak) discrimination when a male employee defers to female coworkers chivalrously (e.g. holding doors open)? Because the activity is solely based on gender, it seems like this would be the case, but it is not addressed as an example in our policies. (Title is Dad-quote from the 70's.)
posted by panmunjom to Work & Money (30 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure if I understand. Being condescending? Which isn't nice, but it's not what I'd consider a HR offence.
posted by GuyZero at 1:47 PM on May 23, 2013

Usually workplace "discrimination" like that would come under harassment policy. Since most people don't consider everyday chivalry like holding a door to be harassment, it tends not to get a lot of play.

My understanding is that most people handle this stuff on a person to person level rather than taking a complaint to HR. Which is probably for the best. Would you want to work with someone who complained to HR every time someone held a door for her?

Not every action solely based on gender is gender discrimination, by the way. Most people continue to be comfortable with the existence of gender-segregated restrooms, for example.
posted by Sara C. at 1:49 PM on May 23, 2013 [8 favorites]

Gender-biased courtesy?

I hold doors open for my coworkers all the time. They hold doors open for me. It's pretty equitable. It's been a long time (since I lived in the south, but also I was a teenager so that played into it, too) since it felt like it was A Thing Done Solely Because I'm A Chick.
posted by phunniemee at 1:49 PM on May 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

Doesn't discrimination have to create a hostile environment or otherwise cause harm? Frankly it drives me up the fucking wall when some dude does all that "no after you because you are a lady, and I will wait here until you accept that fact and get on the elevator since you are after all the one with the breasts, yes you are" routine, but I would not say that it rises above the level of ordinary work annoyance.

If you're thinking of talking to a co-worker, perhaps you could just emphasize that when men defer to women in a work setting, the message they are sending is "I am thinking about your gender all the time and your gender is very relevant to me even though we are at work" and that is very discomfiting, gets in the way of a comfortable workplace, etc.
posted by Frowner at 1:50 PM on May 23, 2013 [21 favorites]

Well, if offensive it would be called sexism.

At work there is no place for this kind of recognition of gender, so you're right that it's inappropriate. However it is also usually well meant, and when it's not well meant, that fact tends to be revealed by bad actions on the knight's part, so in turn it would be those actions that would be against whatever policy.

Not that it couldn't be treated as a "soft sign", e.g. The office butt-pincher always says "ladies first" when opening a door for a female coworker, not appropriate, not terrible in itself, but adds to a general persona of sexist inappropriateness and could be seen as creating an opportunity for butt-pinching.
posted by tel3path at 1:50 PM on May 23, 2013

That is, emphasize that a social setting is where all this gender stuff belongs, because people can choose environments where their gender is treated in a way that is comfortable for them; treating work as if it is social is not conducive to working well.
posted by Frowner at 1:52 PM on May 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think the way you've phrased this is assuming facts not inevidence.

It's not really discrimination when a gentleman holds a door for a lady. How does this harmless social ritual show discrimination?

As a woman in the working world SINCE the seventies, I'm WAY more intent on getting the same pay as any man doing my same job, than I am in worrying about if Billy Bob holds the door for me or if someone says "fuck" in a meeting.

It think that it's not addressed in policies because it's not discrimination, it's a cultural thing and we perceive it as courtesy.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:55 PM on May 23, 2013 [17 favorites]

I have never heard of any workplace HR policy that classifies this as discrimination.

If you only hold doors for women and not for men, you are being rude (to the men!) and potentially making the women uncomfortable. The first person to get to the door, or the first person with a free hand, opens the door for those who come after him/her. And if a women holds a door open for you, you should say thank you and walk through it, not make a show of "after you" - allow her the pleasure of being 'chivalrous' as well.
posted by amaire at 2:22 PM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I hold doors open for everyone, and consider it rude to let them slam behind me when someone is approaching. When competing for a doorway (i.e., folks are coming out when I am entering), I usually defer to them. There is a timing and distance window that is hard to describe, variable, and influenced by various factors (like an approaching aged or mobility compromised person), and I admit to tinting my judgement based on chromosomes, but not much. It's less sexual than just considerate.

I also say Please and Thank You, way more than average.

FWIW, I grew up in the south and my parents and schools emphasized it.

Back then, I would also gladly kick you in the balls and punch your face sometimes quite unexpectedly, so the politeness training obviously competed with native youthful aggression.

Note that I am still rather polite, but it has been weeks since I kicked anyone in the 'nads. Your question kind of pisses me off, though, so it's good you are just phosphor.
posted by FauxScot at 2:24 PM on May 23, 2013 [9 favorites]

It seems like something that should be addressed by HR in some kind of "employee expectations" way if there's some kind of big orientation that deals with workplace behavior - because it's really about making sure that everyone is as comfortable as possible, just like not cussing a lot, not spitting on the floor, not stealing each others' food from the shared fridge, etc.

The best framing I can think of is "we are all here as workers first and foremost". Just as it would be inappropriate for someone to make loud remarks about how all men are rapists-in-waiting (even though it is acceptable to believe this in private life, to avoid men in a social setting,etc), it is equally inappropriate to do twirly chivalrous nonsense to women. In each case, the emphasis shifts from "we are co-workers" to "I am Man; you are Woman". In each case, it is distracting and carries the potential for offense and bad work relationships.
posted by Frowner at 2:27 PM on May 23, 2013

Drawing attention to my gender is a reminder that I am "Other" in my male-dominated workplace.

It's a drag, but it's only the older guys who will not go through a door first (well, that and the creeps). The younger dudes and I hold doors open for each other all the time.
posted by travertina at 2:32 PM on May 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

Oh, also - IME, many men do twirly chivalrous nonsense only to women they consider attractive, or much more emphatically to women they consider attractive. This can end up tipping over into really unpleasant stuff about age, body size, gender presentation and race - when there's a great deal of twirly nonsense for the Joan Holloway of the office and the cleaning lady gets the door slammed in her face, it's pretty gross. It is worth addressing this, too, if you can do so - work is not a dating site, and treating someone extra fancy because you think they are pretty is not appropriate.

If you work in a fairly groovy GLBTQ-friendly place, you might point out too that sometimes you do not know how someone identifies. I, for instance, do not identify as a woman [and generally dress pretty goddamn butch anyway]. I don't especially like it when my choices are "out myself to potential transphobes" and "be misgendered". This whole situation could be avoided if folks just dropped the chivalry routine at work.
posted by Frowner at 2:32 PM on May 23, 2013 [13 favorites]

It is a form of sexism and I think it is a problem but I also think you would have a tough time getting it recognized as sexism. However, it tends to reinforce ideas about women being less capable than men and it also emphasizes a woman's gender in a way that makes it An Issue (potentially one involving sexual harassment).

Also, going through a door last suggests you are in power. They did some piece showing world powers jockeying with each other to hold the door open, etc. and talked about why it mattered to diplomats and world leaders. The clip they used (actual news footage of such an event) was sort of comical, like those overly polite gophers (cartoon characters) each trying to insist "No, after you!"

This is a subtle social thing which does, in fact, reinforce that women are second class citizens and are treated differently. But it is likely to be really hard to get it taken seriously as a problem.
posted by Michele in California at 2:38 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is nothing gentlemanly about bringing attention to it.

There are two kinds of "being polite"- the just being a nice person, and the more chivalrous/white-knight/creepy-flirty attention paying by doing nice things as a way to engage the person. Holding the door extra long, saying "ladies first", etc. They aren't doing these things because they are just naturally courteous and deferential to whatever person happens to be nearby, but because they feel a social obligation to do them. More importantly, they want the recipients of their "kindness" to KNOW that they are doing these things out of said obligation. This definitely *can* be harassment, because it creates a hostile work environment in as much as it consistently reminds women that they "need" extra things done for them. Hostile work environment doesn't have to mean outright hostile, but simply less comfortable just because someone is a member of group X.

Unfortunately, this is a very hard thing to articulate. How do you go to HR and say "Bob from accounting is being nice to me, make him stop!"? And how does HR make a policy that says "you better make sure you hold doors open for everyone"?
posted by gjc at 2:39 PM on May 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

I also think you would have a tough time getting it recognized as sexism

I don't think that's necessarily the case.

I do, however, think that it would be difficult to get one's workplace to recognize that sexism as an instance of discrimination worth acting on.

It's like ladies' night -- everybody knows it's sexist, but few people think it's a hill worth dying on.
posted by Sara C. at 2:49 PM on May 23, 2013

IANAL, but I have some master's level education in human resources management. It is my understanding that in order for something to be legally actionable discrimination, the act must involve someone getting something favorable that someone else is not getting because of their membership in a protected class. Different states have different lists of what constitutes a protected class. Sex is always a protected class, in every state in the US, though, so that's clear.

So, if a man in your office is holding doors open for only women, most lawyers could and would easily argue that the women he is holding the doors open for are not getting any meaningful benefit from this action, and since he is not holding doors for men, they are not being discriminated against because they are not losing out on anything meaningful because they are men.

Now, just because it may not be discrimination, doesn't mean that the man in your office holding doors for women doesn't have something else going on that would raise HR's eyebrows. For example, if he is opening doors for women and taking the opportunity to check our their rear ends as they pass him, that is workplace sexual harassment. Talk to a lawyer.

Then we get into issues of retaliation. If a particular woman is not comfortable having doors held for her by a certain man in her office, she asks for it to stop, and is mocked, or notices that she is not being invited to meetings or offered projects, she may have a good argument that she is being retaliated against because of her gender due to her request not to have a gender-based courtesy extended to her. Again, talk to a lawyer.
posted by juniperesque at 3:14 PM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Perhaps a quibbling point, but some people only recognize negative treatment as "sexism" (or racism or whatever). There is evidence that affirmative action helps hold back people of color by reinforcing the view that they aren't really competent, they got it in spite of their lack of qualifications. So there is evidence that positive favors based on sex, race, etc are, in fact, harmful. However, it is much harder to convince people this is, in fact, a problem. Some people really only recognize other more obviously negative things as an "ism" and Bad Thing.

I have actively argued on a male dominated forum for men to stop doing certain things that they thought were "nice" to women. I have seen that forum improve. But I had some people react really negatively to my initial suggestions to quit that stuff. So, no, I do not think I misstated anything. Some people will recognize it but think it is not a problem. Some people won't recognize it at all as "sexism." Relatively few people will see it as a problem that needs to be addressed.
posted by Michele in California at 3:33 PM on May 23, 2013

Can you give more details? If a supervisor makes a lot of comments specific to one gender, i.e., the ladies in payroll, the gentlemen in IT, the girl at the front desk, that's sexist. HR might have a chat with the person, advising gender-neutral speech. The only time I notice door-holding is that I think it's well-mannered for young people to hold the door for older people, as well as the obvious door-holding for someone whose arms are full or who's pushing a stroller. It's annoying when someone makes a fuss about chivalrous door-holding and disrupts pedestrian traffic to do so. If there's a pattern of sexist behavior, document it, ask others how they feel about it, and maybe try to find out if salaries and opportunities are influenced by sexism. To document, you can keep a notebook, or maybe send an email from work to home with specific events, with date, time & who was present.
posted by theora55 at 4:30 PM on May 23, 2013

Not HR-speak, but more feminist-speak, I have heard this referred to as "benevolent sexism."
Benevolent sexism represents evaluations of women that may appear subjectively positive, but are actually damaging to women and gender equity more broadly
I had a boss who would round up people to rearrange chairs in advance of a meeting every week. He would only choose men to do this. Every single time. Of course, compared to what we usually do, moving chairs is a crappy job. But I do know that the women, although they didn't exactly resent this, were not thrilled about it either. At the most basic level, "discrimination" is about making distinctions between people that are not truly justified.

I think if this was written into an employee handbook, people would think that it was overreaching. But it is an interesting concept that could work well as "something to think about" during orientation, or team-building exercises or something.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 5:11 PM on May 23, 2013 [8 favorites]

Is there a classification of (HR-speak) discrimination when a male employee defers to female coworkers chivalrously (e.g. holding doors open)?

I think your specific example might be throwing off your whole question, because you're making it sound like if a man holds a door open for a woman, he is necessarily being sexist. For instance, I'm a man. I would, and do, hold a door open for anyone at work (and outside work). Woman, man, young, old, superiors, assistants — anyone. So it doesn't necessarily make sense to observe a man holding a door open for a woman and conclude that it's sexism. And if you suddenly declare that it's sexist, that's naturally going to make some people defensive.
posted by John Cohen at 5:24 PM on May 23, 2013

Also, consider that men can reasonably feel they're in a no-win situation: if they try to be helpful, they're called sexist, but if they don't, they come off as jerks. What motivation do men have to do the right thing, if any possible action is going to be viewed by someone as the wrong thing? I think I agree with most of what most people in the thread are saying, but you have to be very careful not to make sweeping generalizations that are more likely to lead to unhelpful gendered tension than anything else.
posted by John Cohen at 5:28 PM on May 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry, but I don't see any discrimination here, just old-fashioned good manners.
posted by easily confused at 5:55 PM on May 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

Some people walk faster than others or just like to get to the door first. That person, man or woman, is not going to slow down at least half the time to ensure nobody walks through a held door more than others. That's just one of the reasons that legislating equal distribution of common courtesies is a difficult task that only stifles and frustrates employees. Most in HR are too wise to do that to their workplace, or at least too busy.
posted by michaelh at 6:36 PM on May 23, 2013

some dude does all that "no after you because you are a lady, and I will wait here until you accept that fact and get on the elevator since you are after all the one with the breasts, yes you are"

Dudes do that to dudes as well. It's a polite-fight. Your breasts don't enter the picture.
posted by wrok at 7:55 PM on May 23, 2013

I have heard it called "benevolent sexism" by some. I don't know how it would be classified in HR speak. I work with a few senior men who would have a hard time not holding the door open. Oddly I find when it comes to the younger men in my office building that they expect me to always exit the elevator first. However, I work in a downtown business core, so it could be part of the culture; when I worked outside of downtown, these things didn't matter or happen.
posted by Calzephyr at 8:52 PM on May 23, 2013

Dudes do that to dudes as well. It's a polite-fight. Your breasts don't enter the picture.

Or as suggested above with world powers, it is sometimes a power-fight. And because marking someone as a woman is often a signal that one has power over them, it is just a gendered instance of a general power-asserting move. So unfortunately our breasts do at times enter the picture, when it gives someone particular satisfaction to cite gender as a reason when justifying their social power play.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:37 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Holding the door open for someone right behind one is common courtesy.
Rushing up from behind and jumping in front of another to open the door is menacing .

Making a production of holding the door open for another who is nowhere near it is creepy.
posted by brujita at 11:17 PM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's not really discrimination when a gentleman holds a door for a lady. How does this harmless social ritual show discrimination?

As others have said, it's known as benevolent sexism, and its harmful effects are measurable.
posted by solotoro at 2:44 AM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

When men I work with consistently refuse to go through a door unless I go first, even when I'm the one first to and holding the door in question, and/or insist on jumping ahead to hold the door, whether or not I'm carrying something, I count that amongst other petty sexisms*.

If it's in a consistently annoying fashion to the point where it becomes "let me be chivalrous or I'll act like a little shit", call them out on it. Preferably standing proud and looking them right in the eyes.

    *i.e. calling me "sweetie" or "dear" or "babe" also while at work; a male coworker assuming that because I keep turning down men at work then I must be a lesbian; the "bro conversations" about women, or gaming, or rock & roll, or the history of philosophy dies because I join in.

posted by DisreputableDog at 4:55 AM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

men I work with consistently refuse to go through a door unless I go first, even when I'm the one first to and holding the door in question
This happens all the time at my office, under the guise of manners and politeness. Also, elevators - nobody can get on or off because all the men at the front are trying to let the ladies in the rear get off first. Just get the fuck off the elevator, already. But it seems like I'm the one who looks aggressive or harrassing if I try to get it to stop.
posted by CathyG at 12:24 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

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