Or, “How to kick sexual harrassment in the balls.”
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in college, it’s that most of my peers think that office jobs are much more glamorous and civil than they actually are. The truth is, offices are horrible places in which lazy managers and florescent lighting make secret pacts to break your spirit every single day, a place where even the most genuine friendships are put on hold for battle-to-the-death attempts at promotions that don’t even come with a raise, a place where grown men scratch their naughty-bits at the water cooler and complain about how sensitive the ‘girl’ in the next cube can be.
And yet, every day another young professional woman pulls up her panty-hose and runs head-first in whichever direction the winds of change are blowing. You see, my generation grew up watching sexual harrassment PSAs on prime-time TV. We played with Doctor Barbie and dreamed of becoming a hardhitting reporter just like April O’Neil. Once, on Nick-at-Nite, we saw Lucy fumbling over the conveyor belt at her factory job, but then one day Ally McBeal was a lawyer in a sexy miniskirt and we knew that our time had come. So what if Monica La-whats-her-face tried to ruin it for the rest of us–we knew that we could be serious and sexy, fierce and feminine, professional and playful.
I began my ladder-climbing as an Accounting Clerk in a reprographics office. I made myself familiar with the history of the company, memorized client purchasing histories, and completely restructured the accounting system of my branch (which was in utter disarray when I arrived). In three years, I was the Billing Manager. I came in early and worked late. I did everything I could do for the company, and more. Clients loved me. Corporate loved me. My boss loved me. And yet, I made the shocking discovery that every man in the office (including subordinates) collected a higher salary than I did. In my annual review, before noting that I had the lowest reporting errors of anyone in corporate accounting and had received the greatest number of positive reviews in our annual customer survey, my boss told me my greatest asset to the company was “[my] pretty face.” When a twenty-something woman in on our sales team began a relationship with the CEO of her largest account and others joked openly about how she “kept her clients,” I realized that this whole “professional woman” thing was going to be a lot harder than I thought.
Later, I became the marketing assistant at a small civil engineering firm in Atlanta. I was the only woman in an office full of men. The experiences I had at that company opened my eyes to the reality of gender issues in the office. I stopped wearing skirts to work, less the Survey Manager feel the need to tell me again that I “look sexy in that outfit” and even then he pulled me into his office to tell me with a wink that my very loose slacks “bothered him.” I even stopped making coffee–originally something I did because I usually got to work before anyone else and it’s just a nice thing to do–when I was told it was something I did “because [I am] a girl and girls make the coffee.” I stayed in that position for two years until the company went under when Atlanta’s development bubble burst. I didn’t sue the company (although I was told that another woman in the Florida office did). I endured it because the money was good, the benefits were excellent, and because I realized that every complaint I made against my coworkers only made me seem more weak to them. No, that’s not fair, but it’s true. Instead, I developed another strategy for dealing with the constant sexualization of everything I did: throw it back in their faces.
How to climb the corporate ladder in a skirt (without showing your panties):
1. Lose the skirt. Stop trying to look like a woman. Wear your hair up, or keep it cut short. Wear dull pants-suits. If you insist on wearing dress-suits, they should be navy blue or black. Interestingly, a pair of black pumps makes you seem more fierce, as long as the heel is not too high. Yes, this is boring and ugly and you run the very real risk of looking like Hillary Clinton, but at least people take her seriously. Every morning as you dress you should think to yourself: “Could this outfit be involved in a sexy-librarian fantasy?” I am tempted to tell you to carry around a fake mustache just in case, but some offices do not allow facial hair.
2. Adopt traditionally “masculine” characteristics. Be assertive. Be aggressive. But do not, under any circumstances, be clever. Witty banter has no place in the board room. You have to play on his level, and if he is the kind of guy that makes inappropriate comments to women in his office, then he will not be able to reciprocate your biting witicisms. He will then be left feeling stupid and will misinterpret your cleverness for bitchiness. They can understand frustration and needless cursing, but they cannot handle bitchiness. And believe me, for a woman, there is a very fine line separating “assertive” and “bitchy.”
3. Laugh too long and too hard at racy jokes. If he tells you a tasteless joke, or if he slips one too many “that’s what she said”s into conversation, then it’s time for this sneaky little number: Don’t look at him in disgust or tell him you are offended; instead, just pull out your best full-bellied, over the top laughter. Put your hands on your stomach and rock backward and forward dramatically. If you’re up for it, point at his face while laughing. This will make him uncomfortable and he’ll stop telling you jokes.
4. One of the most disturbing things that my male coworkers did was to stand too close to my desk and scratch or “adjust” themselves. I mean, they could’ve done that in their own offices or anywhere-else-that-isn’t-my-desk. This is a difficult thing to handle, but you have two options that should prevent it from happening again. One, you can simply point out what he did. Most guys don’t realize what they are doing, so you should let him know. When he scratches, you can oh-so-casually say “Woah! Hey there! You gotta an itch big boy?” Or two, you can scratch or “adjust” yourself and turn this strange habit of his into the most awkward social situation in the history of offices. Pick your wedgie, start pulling on the support-top of your panty-hose, or do whatever else it is you do in the privacy of a bathroom stall like a normal person.
In all honesty, sexual harassment is not as funny as you might think. At best, it makes work feel even more like a secret level of hell that Dante might have overlooked, and at the very worst, it completely destroys a woman’s sense of self-worth. Ladies! Listen, you are not defined by your sexuality, and you should not allow anyone to treat you like you are. Just remember that you don’t have to succumb to it; just because what’s-her-name-in-sales is sleeping with a client doesn’t automatically mean your coworker can just come up to your desk and touch your feet because oh my gosh are you serious? who freakin’ does that?!