I can only blame myself. I shouldn’t have such a high bar for the content of conversations I overhear in a busy food court, particularly in the section immediately adjacent to Panda Express. But alas, I still have the Obama hopey-changey bug, so I ate my orange chicken bowl and smiled warmly at the two suited men who sat next to me. Until they started talking.
“They got James Franco, too? You can’t even tell a woman she looks nice without getting #MeToo’ed.”
“We gotta be more careful out here. Where’s our safe space?!”
It’s one iteration of a conversation I’ve heard from men in the past few months that rests on a bed of balderdash more egregious than Panda’s claim of authentic Chinese food. This particular myth is that:
1. Men are being fired/prosecuted/publicly shamed for innocuous acts like a polite compliment.
This simply isn’t true. Workplace harassment doesn’t include pleasant niceties. The men who claim as much are either willfully ignorant or painfully stupid. There’s “Hi, Sandra, you look nice today,” and then there’s “Wow, Sandra, you really filled out that dress well,” which is typically accompanied with a lewd appraisal and delayed stare. Stop this gaslighting now.
This idea is often paired with another nasty notion I’ve heard repeated by both men and women (but let’s be honest; according to my unofficial GroupMe survey, it’s 95 percent men):
2. It’s only harassment when the harasser is unattractive or undesirable (e.g., Harvey Weinstein).
False. Harassment has nothing to do with the appearance of the harasser and everything to do with the behavior of the harasser (and the fact that the recipient is uncomfortable, nonconsenting or simply not interested).
Not only do people presume that you want generic Idris Elba from your office—you know, the guy with the confidence of Stringer Bell minus the accent and with a stare that’s more dehumanizing than smoldering—but they presume that your response is an indication of whether or not the act is harassment. Which brings me to the next misconception:
3. If a person doesn’t immediately denounce a harasser or, worse, dares to laugh along, he or she must have liked it.
Wrong again. In the ’50s and ’60s, when domestics were asked by their employers, “What do you think of all this civil rights stuff? We treat you good, right?” they often replied something to the effect of, “Oh, I don’t fool with that. I don’t want anything to do with that trouble.” They didn’t mean it then, and women don’t always mean it now when we laugh off men’s harassment.
By nature of the power that a harasser often has over a woman—whether it be their seniority, their popularity in the office or simply their ability to make you look like an aggressive woman (and, for some of us, an angry black woman)—women are often left with few choices. So if you hear a conversation like this:
Him: You should wear skirts more often; you’ve got such great legs! No wonder the client loves you.
Her: It’s either that or my ability to turn around contracts in record time. Total toss-up! Haha!
There’s no need for you to conclude that she appreciated it. For one, consider how infuriating it is for women in the workplace, corporate or otherwise, to have to consistently assert to others that we should be judged based on the work we do versus how we look.
Second, think about the consequences a woman faces for calling out the fan of her skirts. She could be ostracized, viewed as aggressive, dragged through a lengthy HR process that ends in little or no action aside from a waste of her time, or, worse, passed up for opportunities because she didn’t go along to get along.
I realize that most of my examples are related to men harassing women. But that brings me to the next myth:
4. Women are the only recipients of workplace harassment, and the perpetrators are always men.
Nope. My husband likes to joke that before he introduces himself to people, he tells them he’s married, just so there’s “no confusion.” While the sexual harassment he’s experienced likely pales in comparison with my own experiences, it doesn’t negate his. He attended a holiday party with me a few years back, and I recall a complete stranger squeezing his bicep while cooing, “I wish my husband would go to the gym.”
Nah, sis. Keep your hands, feet and all other objects to yourself because I can’t control my reflexes and your health depends on it. (That’s the rule we learned in kindergarten, right?)
In short, with all that women have to deal with in the workplace—and I’m not even speaking to the unimaginable horrors endured by working-class women and domestic workers who often have no recourse—I can assure you that the majority of us really aren’t interested in entertaining anyone’s advances while there, whether the pursuer is Michael B. Jordan or Flavor Flav, at least not on the clock. The men who know better really aren’t about that life, either.
Be friendly, not flirty. Be fierce, not forceful. Help keep your workplace a safe haven, not a, ah ... what’s another presidential phrase that begins with an “s” and an “h”? Yeah ... that one.