How to Deal

Too Much Male Attention at Work? Take Control of the Situation

Lily Garcia
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, January 29, 2009; 12:00 AM

I'm a 30-year-old woman who works in a male-dominated industry/team/environment. Apparently I'm one of the "beautiful people" who still feels like the awkward ugly duckling from high school. So when people stare at me, my initial reaction is that they are glaring at me or that I have something on my face. Whatever the reason they stare, it makes me very uncomfortable -- and I feel like talking to anyone in the company about this is like someone complaining about the problems of being too rich.

The way I manage it now, is to withdraw completely, so that it doesn't look like I'm encouraging or initiating the behavior (i.e. flirting, sending signals, using my looks to get ahead, etc). But that is causing me to be very isolated. I've decided to leave the company and I'm in the process of finding another job. But was there a better way to deal with this, should I just suck it up (because there are worse things) or was what I did the best way to address? Thanks.

It is difficult for me to discern from the way you wrote your question just how many of your coworkers are guilty of this behavior. But you seem to feel that it is pervasive enough that you are prepared to leave your job to avoid it. I cannot fault you for deciding to leave an uncomfortable and isolating work environment. Yet, I also hate to hear that a woman has decided to limit her career choices because male coworkers are staring at her.

Before you make any false moves, think carefully about what you might be giving up and whether a new job is really going to free you from unwanted attention. If you are as good looking as you say you are, then your new coworkers will stare at you, too. I am not so sure that your move to a more gender-balanced workplace is going to do away with the gawkers entirely.

The fact that you describe yourself as "the awkward ugly duckling from high school" indicates to me that you still lack self-confidence about your appearance. People in your workplace need to stop staring at you, not only because it is inappropriate, but also because it is rude. You, in turn, can help to dissipate the situation by accepting that, no matter where you go, your appearance is going to draw attention. If you take some of this in stride, you will find that other people will relax around you, too.

Rather than shrinking away, you should also try asserting power over the situation by gently pointing out to your counterpart that he is looking a little too hard. For example:

You: (wiping at your cheek) Do I have something on my face?

Gawker: Um, no, why do you ask?

You: Oh, it's nothing. It's just that the way that you were staring at my face made me think maybe I had something on my cheek. Anyway, about the quarterlies . . .

All of that said, there is a line between admiration and sexual harassment. You should understand that staring at a coworker in a sexually charged or lascivious way is a clear example of harassment and you should not hesitate to report such conduct to your manager or your human resources department. You are not "asking for it" by being pretty and friendly.

Join Lily Garcia on Tuesday, Feb. 10, at 11 a.m. ET for How to Deal Live.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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