Saturday, July 31, 2010

Guest Post: Toeing the Line Between Friendly and Flirtatious

VikingKitten is a friend of Femonomics, and has agreed to submit some summer guest posts for us. She is an aspiring lawyer, recovered Diet Coke addict, Texan, and cat-lover. Let's make her welcome!

During a recent diversity-themed luncheon and discussion at my company, we began to touch on the issue of being hit on at work. My coworker mentioned that she often faces unwanted or inappropriate comments from male colleagues and clients, and that she was unsure of how to respond to them. The advice she received from my colleagues was nearly unanimous: they advised my coworker to take particular care in everything from choosing her wardrobe to altering handshake techniques in an effort to avoid giving off the wrong impression.

My subsequent Google-ing of the issue turned up this recent Corporette post, dealing with the issue of being hit on in a professional setting. Interestingly, the author of the Corporette post concludes in part by suggesting that women who want to avoid sending out inadvertent “I’m flirting” signals be particularly mindful of their body language when associating with others in a professional setting. Thus, both my coworkers and Corporette seemingly agree that it is important for female professionals to be overly cautious about their actions towards the opposite sex.

And in fact, it is certainly realistic that men may pick up unintentional flirting signals from women: Psychological studies have shown that males have more difficulty than females in distinguishing between “friendly behavior” and “sexually interested behavior,” and that men often misinterpret friendly behavior of women as flirtation. Thus, at least in interactions between men and women, signals can often be confused.

However, this recognition this leads to a difficult question: should it be the responsibility of women to be overly mindful of their actions in order to avoid unintentionally sending the wrong signals to men, as my colleagues implied? Or should men instead be held accountable for their unwanted and inappropriate remarks? While professional women fear client loss, job loss, or retaliation from employers if they report (or harshly respond to) unwanted and inappropriate advances, men may not even be aware they have said something that is in fact unwanted unless women do respond. Is there a middle ground here?

Readers, what do you think is an appropriate way to deal with being hit on in a professional setting?


  1. I think another interesting question this raises is why are men more likely to see simply friendly behavior as flirtatious? Do they on balance tend to overestimate their own attractiveness to the women they work with? Sounds like a little bit of self-centeredness might be involved on the part of such male colleagues.

  2. There's another study that showed that the perception problem is even worse when men are drunk(ok, that may not be surprising). It's here:

    Maybe the interesting thing for your post is that there is no problem with the way the women dress

  3. Interesting question. Unfortunately, I think there's a huge difference between what I would say in response to a blog post and what I would say in response to a friend who found herself in that situation.

    My response to the blog post would be that men should be held more accountable. Why are women always portrayed as the vixens who asked for it? That's getting old. To hit on a woman puts her in an incredibly tight spot--to blow him off too aggressively (and thus make it clear that the advance is unwelcome) might turn the professional relationship awkward or tense. To try to be nice and not hurt his feelings might be misconstrued as leaving the door open for future advances. Better to not place this burden upon women and instead insist on shifting it upon the men: make the workplace an unacceptable place for these type of advances. Period.

    My response to a friend would be quite different, however. I would advice her to think hard about how she dresses and carries herself at work. Given the unfortunate reality, I would greatly dissuade her from dressing too "feminine" or attractively (never mind anything that could be considered provocative). And be extra cautious about friendships with male coworkers. As the post points out, they can easily be misinterpreted by men. Even if among your social circle you're known as the cute, friendly one (because that's just who you are, nothing wrong with that), it's better to "hide" your good looks or overt friendliness if you're worried that they might grant you unwelcome attention at work (and the chances are that they might).

    Sadly, this is the advice I follow in my own male-dominated workplace. It helps prevent this problem from occurring to me, and I think it helps me get taken more seriously--so as unfair as it might seem, why wouldn't I?

    Just out of curiosity, what advice was given in terms of handshakes? What type of handshake could possibly be misconstrued?

  4. I think it's absolutely NOT the obligation of women to do this, but I would guess it's a practical reality for many women in business. When I'm out and about, I generally avoid eye contact with men. I shouldn't have to do this, but it shields me from harassment.

  5. I am a male who has been in many leadership roles over as well as equal team-members with females in the workplace. I am in my early thirties and have experienced many unique working relationships all through my twenties up until today with female co-workers. I am guessing that the fact that I have been a younger worker to date who is unmarried with children maybe makes women more cautious of my motives in the workplace.

    I am naturally friendly and socially inquisitive. But when I am single and even in dating mode I am always very careful not to read too much into a females behavior towards me. I have been overly cautious in this regards so much in my life that many times the women who where interested in me and sending me signals end up having to hit me in the head if they don't give up first.

    With that said, I have experienced many women in the workplace who allow their workplace behavior with male teammates, especially non-married single females, to seem extremely cold and anti-social, which I am reading into that they are obviously just being extremely cautious to not send the wrong signals to their male counterparts.

    It seems these women would be wise to be cautious with male co-workers they perceive could possible quickly try and pursue them, however I think the responsibility is on the dumb guys. I know a lot of these guys, it is just their natural instincts that they are allowing themselves to become a victim to. Women should not walk on egg shells in this regard. Because I believe they are the ones that suffer, especially when their bosses are males. I had to let one female worker go for her anti-social unproductive behavior and had to reshape some other working groups in the past as well because of this behavior on the female side.

    If a guy steps over any of the obvious barriers, like asking for your cell number or I would argue even Facebook friend requesting you, the female, at that point has to break it to him. Just be nice about and say I just want to make sure I am not sending you the wrong signals, or I don't want to effect of working relationship in a negative way. There are many ways you can smooth it over. The guy will then be embarrassed but get it. If he then starts acting like a jack-ass then call him out on it, or if you have to take to the superior, he is in the wrong, not you. You have got to have balls and not worry about keeping everybody happy. You have just as much of a right to be your strong confident self in the workplace just as much as him or any other guy. Some of the best and most productive coworkers I have worked with have been women that expect common sense from their male coworkers and are good at being appropriately social and thus contribute and build great working teams. As well these types of women were not afraid to voice their opinions or hurt anyone's feelings. But still I find so many cater and step on egg shells. I could go on and on but I'll cut myself off.


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