Women in the Workplace Are Not Out To Get You

Dolly Parton in "9 to 5" (Apic/Getty Images)

Slate executive editor Allison Benedikt recently wrote an essay about meeting her husband at work, when he was her boss and she was a 23-year-old entry-level fact-checker: “My boss would look down the gap at the waistband of my jeans when he walked past my desk… My career, at the time, was in his hands.” In the essay, Benedikt worries that the current reckoning around workplace harassment would make relationships like hers impossible. She sympathizes with women who “have written recently that they fear a coming backlash — that one false allegation against a famous man will bring this whole new reality crashing down, or that in the understandable urge to name names, women will be seen as the aggressors, out to tar every man’s reputation.”

A take like this annoys me, not least because women are clearly already being seen as aggressors. It doesn’t help to have our peers making the patriarchy-addled assumption that we are all lying in wait, eager to wrongly accuse someone who did nothing, apparently relishing the vicious, vitriolic backlash that every woman who speaks out experiences. Benedikt continues:

I have those fears too, but I also fear the consequences of overcorrection, of the concept of harassment ballooning to include perfectly legitimate attempts at seduction—the initial touch, the scooting closer in the booth, the drunken sloppy first kiss, the occasional bad call or failed pass.

This is a popular concern right now, and it annoys me even more because it assumes women are somehow unable to tell the difference between a well-intentioned attempt at romance and harassment. None of the stories that have come out so far struck me as falling into that grey area. Glenn Thrush was married when he allegedly made passes at much, much younger women (Benedikt’s husband, for the record, was a mere four years older than her). Michael Oreskes, the now-ousted NPR editor, abruptly kissed women who asked to speak with him about getting a job at the New York Times when he worked there.

Benedikt asks a series of questions about what constitutes a consensual relationship at work, concluding that their answers were not “definitively yes”:

If a younger woman asks an older and more professionally powerful man for job advice, and that man ends up hitting on the woman, is that on its own harassment? Is it always wrong when a man is attracted to a woman at work, and acts on that attraction? If that man tries to, say, kiss the woman he is attracted to, and she’s not into it, and they leave it at that, was that forcible kissing? If a woman is not attracted to a man who comes on to her, and that man is in a position of any sort of power, is that clearly a fireable offense?

If a young woman asks a man for job advice and he hits on her, that is inappropriate. If a man is attracted to a woman at work and acts on it — well, wait a minute, how is he acting on it? Is he Matt Lauer, calling the woman into his office and then raping her? Or is he Benedikt’s now-husband, asking the woman if she’d like to get a drink, then kissing her at the end of what was, we can assume, a night with charged chemistry?

If Benedikt’s husband had, as she describes in the third question, kissed her and she wasn’t into it, and they left it at that, it may have been uncomfortable and frustrating and anxiety-inducing for the 23-year-old fact-checker. But chances are she would have blamed herself, as we are conditioned to do. She would have gone home to her roommates and said, “I’m so stupid, going out for a drink with my boss, thinking it could just be friendly.” She would have been wrong for beating herself up, and hopefully her boss would have told her as much.

The questions Benedikt asks are flawed because they are not descriptive enough. What is meant by “comes on to her”? We all know people who met their partners through work. A friend of mine has been dating a man for four years who was her intern. She never acted on her attraction to him while he worked for her. Another friend is married to a woman he interviewed for freelance work. Again, their courtship did not start in that interview. He didn’t simply look at her resume, then drop his pants.

Benedikt is sympathetic to men who “express confusion about where the lines are” and “have largely been met with derision”:

When one guy told the New York Times that workplaces should cancel their holiday parties “until it has been figured out how men and women should interact,” he was dismissed in my work Slack. When a sheriff in Texas wrote on Facebook that he would no longer be hugging his colleagues, because he’s worried that now hugs will be taken as threatening behavior, the Twitterati laughed. “I have an idea! How about just not harassing women?” the flippant response goes. But that reaction is too simplistic. The sheriff and the guy who talked to the New York Times are telling us that there is confusion in the culture about what is and isn’t OK. We certainly shouldn’t elevate those concerns over the need to protect women, but why ignore that confusion with an eye-roll?

Yes, there is confusion in the culture. Laurie Penny wrote about that well for this website in her essay “The Horizon of Desire.” In a perfect world, we would all have limitless patience to hold these men’s hands and walk them through this reckoning, educating them.

But we are tired, and that is understandable. We have been shouldering responsibility for things that weren’t our fault for so long, and it is sometimes a little unimaginable to be kind to people who would foist more responsibility onto our shoulders in this moment. And it is aggravating to see men casting about for some sort of explanation that exempts them from responsibility. The problem is not holiday parties. It is the colleagues who would use alcohol and festivity as a cover for violating boundaries.

No one is saying that romance must die. No one is saying that it is impossible to meet someone at work — a place we spend the majority of our waking hours — and feel a spark. What we are asking in this moment is to be respectful, to be mindful, to consider how your actions and words impact people with less power than you. I am glad that things worked out for Benedikt and her husband and their three children. But I also want things to work out for the countless young women who go into work every day feeling tense and full of self-doubt because they don’t know if their boss really respects their work or hired them so he could look down the back of their jeans.