One night after work, my fiancé came home from work feeling cross. Her irritation stemmed from an encounter while standing in line at the cafeteria during lunch. She had been invited to go down to the cafeteria to have lunch with two male colleagues. She was working with them on a team that day. On this day, she was working at a specific location where she is not a regular presence. Thus, she was not familiar to many people in the office, or in the cafeteria, where she was waiting in line at a stand when an older gentleman she did not know startled her when he came up to her and asked why she was standing in line in the cafeteria, adding that she looked like she should be a model rather than an employee working in the national security industry. It was obviously meant as a compliment, or a cheeky overture of sorts. But while no harm may have been intended, it did not sit well with her.
As a woman who works in national security, she is accustomed to a culture that is male-dominated, which is to say, she works with many more men than women. Nonetheless, she froze up, not knowing how best to respond. She did not appreciate being addressed as if she were a woman drawing suitors at a bar. But she felt that to be vocal about her discomfort risked coming across as an unfriendly vixen who can’t take a compliment. Or as some inebriated men at a bar who get turned away might say, a ‘bitch’.
She ultimately gave a bland reply that she was ‘in line getting my lunch’, and explained dryly that she worked for the government as a contractor and was working at this location for the day. Mr. Gregarious did not pursue the matter further and went on his way. But she came away feeling like less of a professional colleague and more like an object of admiration to be ogled at in the proverbial ‘meat market’. She feared, for example, that the male colleagues on her team, or any of the several men in the cafeteria on that day (many of them dressed in suits and ties), might have overheard the flippant remark and subconsciously might be inclined to see her in a more frivolous light.
Admittedly, there are several ways one might interpret her predicament. Some might argue that the man, who turned out to be a high-ranking officer in the military, was engaging in harmless banter that merely involved giving her a compliment, and she should ease up and graciously and gladly welcome the flattery. Some might focus on his intent and argue that, while his behavior veered slightly into the realm of the unprofessional, he probably didn’t appreciate how his remark could inspire a perception of her as ‘eye candy’ rather than a colleague to be addressed on the basis of her professional merits, but there is no foul because he meant no harm. Others might argue that he is a clueless sexist who needs to come to terms with his patriarchal presumption that a woman can be addressed in a professional setting like one might address her in the proverbial ‘meat market’ of a bar or club, and to emphasize the point, would point out that a man would never be addressed with such impertinence (though some men might point out that men have their own way of addressing each other with impertinence; in colloquial parlance, one might call such persiflage ‘busting balls’ or ‘dick-measuring’, which can significantly compromise the professionalism of a workplace; a friend who worked on Wall Street some years ago used to say ominously that ‘ I walk amongst wolves’).
Nevertheless, it was clear from the acrid tone with which she conveyed the anecdote that she was perturbed by the suggestion, however innocuous, that she should be a model rather than a national security professional. She was already an unfamiliar presence at this specific location, and she was about to sit down with two male colleagues in suits. It did nothing to enhance her standing among colleagues to be addressed not as a professional but like she were a woman in a bar being made to suffer the lame compliments of a cheeky suitor. It also made her self-conscious to speculate on how a flippant compliment might sway subliminal impressions of her professional merits in the subconscious streams of her colleagues’ minds.
Granted, I am among those inclined to give a person the benefit of the doubt. I tend to let remarks of this kind slide (though in my more mature years, I have also become adept at giving the deadpan stare when addressed in a manner I do not approve). After all, I’ve done so in the past while working as a waiter who was harassed by my manager, as I discussed in this article, written years after having reflecting on the experience and realizing I had been a victim of sexual harassment. But I also appreciate that a flippant compliment by a high-ranking officer can make a lower-ranking woman employee who, as the only woman in a room of national security professionals in suits or military uniform (or at least one of the few women in the room), feel like a stranger in a strange land, or at least like she is taken less seriously—as a person to be admired for her physical attributes rather than for her professional qualifications.
None of this is to ignore the reality that many people meet their spouses at work, or to say that colleagues do not or should not engage in friendly banter, date each other, or otherwise form relationships with each other. But it is one thing to engage in the light banter of a friendship or a consensual relationship that can arise organically in the course of routine professional life. It’s a different matter altogether to address a female colleague you’ve never seen before like you’re trying to pick her up at a bar. Note to men who might find a new female colleague attractive: it’s okay to find her attractive, but the workplace is not a bar. Stay away from the pickup lines. After all, she might be your new boss.