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
Not even joking: When I leave my legs unshaven I have dreams about the fact that my legs are unshaven in contexts where it is embarrassing or even horrifying. What the hell is going on in my psyche? Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of it, or at least unpack it a bit. (If you’re still with me after the headline and opening pic, the rest should be cake!)
In real life, if I haven’t shaved and I suddenly need to go somewhere I’ll give myself a quick shave in the bathroom sink, or if the weather’s cool, throw on a pair of black tights. Fixed! In dreamlife I don’t have the luxury of preparing for a situation–I just AM. In my very favorite of these dreams (I’ll let you decide whether this qualifies as a nightmare) I’m sitting in a posh bar in a hotel during the Oscars. It’s like at a convention, where everyone is there for the event, but you hang out in the hotel bar and BS when there’s nothing better to do. In my circles, we call it BarCon, and it’s a treasured part of any convention experience. So, here I am at BarCon surrounded by dark wood and fancy dress, sitting next to Julia Roberts who is speaking earnestly to me about I truly wish I could remember what, and I look down at myself, and I’m sitting there in a tank-top and ratty shorts and my legs are bare and So. Hairy. I mean, not impossibly hairy, but what they look like when I go a good, long time between shaves. And I’m just…mortified.
(The better Oscars dream was the one where I found myself in my hotel room with no idea how I’d come to be there, and called my mom to tell her “I’m at the Oscars!” Then I walked out into the hallway wrapped in my maroon hotel towel and ran into Sarah Jessica Parker who was also wrapped in her towel and we joked that it was embarrassing that we were wearing the same dress. Later I ran into Jennifer Jason Leigh, but she was in character for Dorothy Parker and couldn’t be arsed.)
Anyway, I had another unshaven legs dream not long after I quit my last job. In it, I was at work in a baggy t-shirt, shorts, and unshaven legs. (At this point I’ll note that I work at home and while I often wear pajamas or other loose, comfortable clothing at home, I really don’t wear shorts.) I was talking to one of our VPs and he didn’t seem to notice anything, but I felt so gross.
When I think about my life during the times I had these dreams, there are some similarities. I was without a full-time job, spending a lot of time at home, and not always bothering to get dressed or shave my legs or even shower some days. Was I missing the act of making myself presentable for the world? Did I feel guilty about not keeping myself “well-groomed”? Is this reaction something that is built-in or did media and culture rewire my circuitry?
There was a time as a young woman when I would never go out with bare legs–it was nylons or tights or nothing. I was ashamed of my fat, ugly legs and I wanted to hide them. I never, EVER, wore shorts (like even less often than I do now, which is almost never) because of that shame. When I was a little girl with scabby knees a teenager remarked within my hearing how remarkable it was that our legs were so ugly as children and got “nice” or something when we got older. I was pretty fucking hurt at the time and obviously I never forgot it, but I assumed that when I grew up I’d have pretty legs like the ladies on tv. But mine were fat and dimpled and spotty and just not. At some point I matured enough that it was ok to let people see my legs as long as they were clean-shaven from top to bottom. Nowadays if the weather’s warm I check and if it’s under a quarter inch, I’m good to go. But then, I’m nearly 48 and I’ve come to a point where I accept the hand I’ve been dealt in a way that never seemed possible before. I credit a lot of that to age and wisdom, but a good deal also to the love of a partner who sees *me* when he looks in my direction.
And something else has changed. Very recently, I had an unshaven legs dream, but in it I was still in the house, though dressed up and ready to go out. I remembered that my legs were unshaven and looked down and the hair was long enough to be visible. I was perturbed because I’d have to do something about it. That was it. That was all.
Maybe after nearly 50 years I’m finally growing up. At this point, I won’t fight it. Much.
October 18, 2012 | Categories: Fun, Humor, Life, Personal, Women | Tags: beauty, Dorothy Parker, dreams, feminism, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julia Roberts, ocscars, Sarah Jessica Parker, Shaving, Social Sciences, women | 15 Comments