Guest post by M
“Dude, she’s got a smoking hot body!”
Hardly an uncommon phrase in the workplace. It may not be something we say publically anymore (at least, not loud enough to be overheard), but guys still send it over IM, mention it in hushed tones around the water cooler, or talk about it around bites of sandwich at lunch when our female colleagues aren’t around.
For a while, I’d excised this phrase from my vocabulary. It was standard fare at both the company where I began my career and the marketing agency where I continued it, especially the later where career-minded women were impeccably-dressed and fit because that’s simply what our clients expected. It was an unwritten rule but a rule all the same: if you were fat, ugly, or a mix of the two, you weren’t going to go very far because clients wanted to see good-looking women.
So did the guys in the office, and we talked about it to each other.
When I did a spell in an office in the UK, I found attitudes towards female colleagues much different. There was more open flirting but when I mentioned how hot one of my coworkers was to another guy, he was flabbergasted. “We’re married,” he said. “And that’s destructive.” It just wasn’t done there, at least not like that. If a colleague was well-dressed or looked nice, you could say so and it wasn’t sexual harassment. But talking about how much you wanted to bang her over Instant Messenger? Not kosher.
I recently started at another marketing agency. About a week after I arrived, one of my guy colleagues (and an old friend of mine) sent that phrase to me me over IM.
I responded in kind. And so it began again.
Except that late last week I realized exactly how destructive this phrase is, and why.
Language, to a greater or lesser degree, shapes perception of reality—which for creatures whose reality is in some part determined by our perception means that language can also help shape our reality. At the very least, it shapes our responses, which can be awfully close to the same thing.
There’s evidence of this principle (called linguistic relativism) in behavior sciences, including cognitive behavior theories (and the implementation of cognitive behavior therapy to alter behaviors). You could also make the argument that it’s the cornerstone for religious behaviors—most notably the principle of Right Speech in Buddhism, but bearing false witness could fall under this category too.
In less-technical terms: if you talk about reality in a certain way, you become habituated to respond to reality in a certain way. This is the theory behind some kinds of politically correct language. If you constantly refer to black people as “niggers” even though you don’t hate black people, or women as “bitches,” or gays as “fags,” then it reinforces the perception that those people are somehow less-than-human in your head. At the very least, it reinforces an “us vs. them” dynamic with you as the “superior side.”
In the workplace, if you’re constantly talking about how hot your female coworkers are, even if you’re married and have no intention of sleeping with any of them, then you’re reinforcing the notion that women are objects, not people.
“But it’s harmless! It’s just what guys do! It doesn’t hurt anyone!”
That isn’t true. I felt my perceptions subtly start to shift in the couple of weeks I started participating in being a stereotypical male again. I was checking out my female colleagues, and doing it all the time. A little bit of this is natural. We’re wired to look and evaluate for potential mates. When that instinct starts overriding equal treatment of our colleagues however, that’s when it becomes destructive. That’s when it hurts. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I saw the early seeds of this destructive attitude in myself. I was mentally evaluating female colleagues not on their intelligence, creativity, the kind of work they produced, their client management skills, or any of the other elements you’d use to evaluate a successful marketing executive. I was not treating them as equals, as I’d want to be treated in the workplace. I was mentally reducing them to objects.
I’m not saying that removing this kind of language is the only solution to workplace inequality, but it certainly helps guide thought processes away from it. The very act of mindfully considering whether your thought patterns or speech are truly treating colleagues equally regardless of gender (or race, or religion, or sexual orientation) helps shape the reality we need to create. To take it a step further: if your thought patterns reinforce the criteria for evaluating people equally through intelligence, creativity, and so forth, then you’re starting to reinforce positive thought processes in yourself and those around you. We naturally evaluate each other, especially in a workplace where a lot of Type-A people are vying with each other for success. Let’s make sure we’re evaluating each other without bias, and about things that really matter.
Upon my realization last week I told my friend exactly what my male colleague overseas told me: “I’m married and I don’t need to participate in this behavior.” And it has since stopped, and I’ve felt my own perceptions go back to normal. Which isn’t to say I don’t notice attractive colleagues, but not being immersed in the language of sexism all the time means that we naturally start to interact with each other without it.
M is a friend and feminist ally. Read his previous MMAS article, Lolwhut?
December 10, 2012 | Categories: Equality, Friends, Men, Women | Tags: Behavior, Buddhism, Female, feminism, Harassment, office sexism, Perception, sexism, sexism in the workplace, Social Sciences | 5 Comments