Are you going on a date?

There are some challenges that men just won’t face. I’m sure there are aspects of their work life that are uniquely challenging too, but I want to take a moment to talk about some of my own experiences.

I work in the tech industry, an industry which is mostly dominated by men. There are some great leaps and bounds being made in this inequality by a lot of companies at the moment – including the one I currently work at.

It can be hard at times with not many women around to form meaningful working relationships. I remember one time at a previous workplace when I was onboarding a new starter in my team, I decided to take them out for lunch to get to know them better.

This person was male and around the same age as myself. As we were leaving, one of the guys on the team made a comment and asked us if we were going on a date together. Everyone around us laughed awkwardly, and immediately I could see that the new person was very uncomfortable. 

I also had a partner at the time. Regardless of that fact, it was completely inappropriate of that person to imply that I was dating someone on the team. It made me feel like every time that I went to lunch with someone of the opposite gender, that people thought that something inappropriate was going on.

It would be very hard to not have lunch with male friends at work because 85% of the team were men. Was I expected not to have friendships with them at all? On the flip side, if I started ignoring all the men on the team, I’d be labelled a frosty, cold-hearted snob. 

Sometimes I feel like in that space I can’t win. My male colleagues never receive compliments for “looking nice” that day, but I do. Why is my appearance important? I understand they’re trying to say something complimentary, but it makes me feel as though my appearance is sometimes just as important as the great work that I do. 

I want to have male friends at work, but I don’t want to be accused of dating all of them.

On the more extreme side, another comment at a previous workplace I received was much more inappropriate. It came from a man who was leaving the company and was in a much higher position of power than me.

I’d recently been promoted into a customer service role, and I knew he wasn’t happy about the promotion. He thought I was the blonde bimbo receptionist and was upset that he couldn’t derail my new job.

This man on his last day came up to me and said, “Oh Jess, you’re in customer service now? Does that mean you’re going to service me?” in this really provocative tone. Then he walked away.

I’ve never been more shocked in my life. You hear about these kinds of sexist, inappropriate comments in the workplace, but I honestly thought that in Australia and in this day and age that I wouldn’t be the victim of one. I guess I was wrong.

You might be wondering what happened to that man. The answer is – nothing. As he was leaving already, the decision was made not to pursue the matter. From my end as well, I never made a formal complaint to HR about what he said. I was 22 years old, fresh out of university and afraid of what might happen.

That was the only time he ever said anything inappropriate to me, so I brushed it off and tried to forget about it. But I still wonder sometimes if I should have pursued that issue harder than I did.

I’m worried that by this point in the post that I might have depressed you. These are two isolated incidents that have happened so far in the 6 years I’ve been working full time in a professional environment. I hope that they are the last, but sorry to say that I suspect they won’t be.

So how do we as women handle these moments? In a lot of ways, the first moment where a colleague asked if I was taking someone on a date actually felt a lot more destructive. I can write off the second guy as being a terrible human being.

It’s those small, borderline insidious comments that can hurt more. It left me wondering what people thought of me. If they just saw me as a woman creeping around with men instead of the successful professional person that I am.

The way that I handled that moment is that I shut the person down straight away. I very seriously and clearly said, “No, I am not” and I called that person by their name to highlight how inappropriate and personal I found the comment. I find by setting boundaries about the kind of behaviour you will accept often shuts down these moments.

That person never said anything inappropriate again, because I stopped it in the first instance. If I accepted that comment, I really believe that there would have been more to come. I didn’t try to brush it off lightly – it was inappropriate and I’m not going to put up with that.

Figure out your boundaries and make sure that you adhere to them. If someone is toeing the line, push them back across it because they are testing to see where the line is. And if they cross that line, don’t hesitate to speak to HR. They’re there to support and protect you from that nonsense.

I like working with people who identify as any gender, and I hate that sometimes I have to face this kind of challenge. The future is bright and things are a lot better than they were. Just be yourself and remember that at work, you are a professional and should never be made to feel less than that.

I’d love to hear about your challenges, especially the part about how you have overcome these problems. I’m sure there are other strategies out there to handle these moments. Comment below and let me know your stories.

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