Episode 77: Don't Call Me Sweetie

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, there’s outright sexual harassment and there are the subtler forms of being put in your place as a woman…

We talked for probably about 40 minutes, and at the end of the conversation he says, OK my dear, talk to you later, and hangs up. And I was stunned.”

Then there’s the question of what to do about it…

“I think it’s important to speak up, because a lot of it comes out very unconsciously. I don’t know that they spend a lot of time thinking I’m going to demean that woman over there, I think it’s just automatic.”

Coming up, the first of two shows on sex and power in the 21st century workplace.

I was at a birthday dinner in December and the hostess said ‘have you ever done a show on sexual harassment?’ She’s a lawyer and she talked about how this one judge always talks about her looks or the way she’s dressed – but simply does not take her seriously as an attorney. He always addresses his business questions to her male colleague. Now to a lot of people that’s not quite sexual harassment, but it’s certainly related, and so many women face this kind of thing in their daily lives.

I’m going to start the show by talking about something some people think of as totally innocuous: terms of endearment. I heard from a listener last year saying I’m in my mid-20s -- how are women like me meant to be taken seriously as professionals when vendors, clients, colleagues – they call us things like sweetheart and honey?

Ibby Caputo faced a similar problem recently. She’s a freelance journalist, she lives in Boston.  She works in radio like me. And not long ago she was hired to work with a guy on his audio project. She was brought on as his editor.

“I was excited about this job but there were these red flags that stared coming up…we were talking on the phone and working out an episode of his podcast. We talked for probably about 40 minutes, and at the end of the conversation he says, OK my dear, talk to you later, and hangs up. And I was stunned. And as the editor, the editor is person who guides the story, shapes the story, who has some authority – so I felt in that moment he took everything away. I am my husband’s dear, I am my father and mother’s dear but I am not the person I work for’s dear.”

AM-T: So did you address it right away – how did you deal with it?

“I did address it right away and I’m looking up the text I sent right now. I addressed it, not in the most direct way…I did not call him back or anything…let’s see here.”

She admits she took the easier route by sending a text rather than bringing it up in a phone conversation. And she lived miles away from him so this whole job was done over the phone and by email. In her text she said, she had to put this out there, that he’d called her ‘my dear’ and it was, she said, ‘a big no-no’…

“So that’s what I said. And then I wrote, OK? And he did not reply. And I sent that at 4.08p.m. And then I got an email from him about future work. So he just ignored it. And I called up a friend and asked her if my reaction was -- because I started doubting myself, and I asked her if my reaction was legit, and she confirmed my reaction was legit. So I sent a second text, again, not the most direct way of doing it, and I said, ‘I got your email about the episode, I really need you to acknowledge my text about terms of endearment…I need to make sure we are square on that before we move on.’ Then he wrote back, ‘Sorry for the delayed reply, I was making dinner, and sorry for the term of endearment, it won’t happen again, OK?’”

So she thought, great, that went well. But it wasn’t really over. Over the next little while there were some difficulties with the show they were working on – the usual work stuff, and then in a phone call he brought up her manner…

“He said, ‘your edits are awesome, I love what you’re doing for the show. But the direct way you talk to me makes me scared to talk to you. My last editor was a really nice person.’ So my stomach just kind of sank because I’m a really nice person too, I think, but that has nothing to do with anything.”

And that other editor, that nice person – she was a woman too. And as a society we still largely expect women to be nice, to tread carefully around others. Ibby was busting that gender stereotype by being straightforward. And suddenly she found herself on the phone, on the defensive…

“You know, so it was this really weird situation, right, because at least when something like that happens over email you have time to think and digest but all of a sudden I felt like I had to defend myself because of the direct way I talk, or what he perceives as direct speech, which in my understanding is a great quality for an editor to have, you don’t want to waste anyone’s time, you want to be clear. So I started defending myself – I said, ‘I’m very literal and direct and it’s about the work.’ And I said, ‘I’m all business, it’s about the work.’ And then he laughed and he said, ‘yeah, you are all business’ – you know, as if it was a bad thing.”

Ibby began to go over everything that had happened in this back and forth that had started with that first text…and wonder…

“I just wonder, a lot of times I ask myself, well if I had a penis what would be different about this situation? If I were a man, would I be coming up against these things?”

Would a man who was direct with another man be told he was ‘scary to talk to’ – doubtful.

“I think the thing that is the most damaging is I have to question myself – is there something wrong with me? And of course I questioned, is there something wrong with me, what is wrong with me. And fortunately there was a social gathering that night with people in the industry so I was able to talk about it, to men and women, and get feedback on the situation, which helped to restore my confidence. But I feel like without that feedback the easiest route is to question yourself and question what you could be doing differently.”

And of course that is a big part of this – feeling isolated, like you can’t talk about it or you’re afraid of being judged. We’re going to come back to Ibby in a later show.

I also spoke to Kathi Elster and Katherine Crowley for this show. They run a business together where they focus on workplace relationships, and have done for 26 years. So they’ve had their share of demeaning comments – including quite recently when the publisher of one of their books announced, ‘you ladies have worked your panties off on this one.’ But some of their clients – they’ve had much worse experiences. Two female clients lost their jobs recently after refusing the advances of male colleagues. Katherine says this stuff often starts slowly…

KC: “When a young employee first experiences a boss sitting on their desk, leaning closely, arranging to go on a business trip in a very intimate setting – usually what the employee tells herself is nothing is really happening here, or he is just friendly to me, or this is just part of moving my career forward. It tends to build over time where there are a few gestures and you then find yourself in a fully compromised situation…I was thinking of the car ride back to the hotel where the boss suddenly is assuming she will be sleeping with him, and that’s further on in the relationship, that’s not the first blink.

KE: So that was in the financial industry, the company was bought by a London company, she was brought over to do some business with a guy… the gentleman was much older than her, I’m going to call him grandpa…I think there are a lot of dirty grandpas in the workplace. He took her home, back to her hotel, gave her a ride, and assumed he was going to be invited up and brought into her room. She couldn’t believe it. She turned him down and she did OK, there were no repercussions from that…but she was really embarrassed, and put in a horrendous position.”

KC: “And that’s the other part, I think often women wonder if they’ve done something to bring it on. So when it starts to happen they’re not just feeling angry and insulted, they’re feeling ashamed and embarrassed and very confused…so finding the words to say in that moment I think is very challenging.”

This kind of predatory behavior is something I’m going to discuss more in the next show.

For now I want to focus on the smaller things – things some people find flattering, others less so – a nickname here, a touch during a meeting there.

I put a call out on Facebook to see what you had experienced in the way of terms of endearment. And I got quite a few replies. I read some of them out to Kathi and Katherine…

AM-T: “One male supervisor called me kiddo for almost 8 years. That and ‘buckaroo’ she’s had to put up with…Then one of my Danish listeners said a senior male colleague called her ‘little friend’, and she pointed out that she’s a lot taller than he is. And then somebody wrote I worked with someone at a global nonprofit agency the whole world has heard of who told me he was going to spank me if I filled out a form incorrectly…”

Then there’s Ibby’s ‘my dear’ issue and the listener in her 20s who said, how am I meant to progress when colleagues keep using these terms? How am I meant to discourage them while maintaining the relationship?

Many of us either grin or grit our teeth and bear it.

AM-T: “With these little things this is so tricky for women to deal with – because depending who is in the room you’re afraid of looking like quote ‘that woman’ of upsetting the dynamics in the room and coming out of it looking bad. In 2016 what are we supposed to do about this?”

KE: “It’s a really good question. If it works for her to laugh back and say, OK honey – basically make it into a joke, so that it’s not ugh, there’s a girl in the room, and then all the men start looking at her as less than…but sometimes it doesn’t work and you have to let it go and you can say something at another time if you’re alone with that person…you can say I’d prefer if you refer to me by my name, use my name, the endearments are lovely, but you can just say my name.’ I think it’s important to speak up, because a lot of it comes out very unconsciously. I don’t know that they spend a lot of time thinking I’m doing to demean that woman over there, I think it’s just automatic. You don’t have to call them on it, I think when women get really angry in the moment that makes them look bad.”

That’s unfair, but it seems to be true. There’s academic research to back it up – men and women do not respond well to angry women at work.

And we’ll come back to that idea of the endearments being lovely – or not – a bit later.

I’m part of a women’s journalism organization called JAWS – it stands for Journalism and Women’s Symposium. And there was a big discussion on the listserve recently because of one woman’s experience. She was a board member at a non-profit. They were having a meeting. She was the only woman in the room. And the guy next to her – he kept touching her during the meeting. He sort of stroked her arm when he met her, then he poked her a few times when he was making points. She hated it but she kept her mouth shut. But she felt bad about that afterwards.

KC: “I think we all need a list of terms to say in those moments, right. I will say I think everyone has their own response to moments like that. So there are people who shut down, if you tend to shut down, that’s one thing, then there are people who become furious, that’s another, so it would almost be worth it to be prepared with how do you want to respond…

KE: I mean one of the things you could say if someone’s poking you is I don’t love being touched so keep your hands somewhere else, so you’re not bringing attention to your reaction, you’re bringing the attention more to him, or you can subtly change your seat, and then that will show people.”

We talked a lot about an idea Ibby raised with me – that women need some kind of online toolkit we could all refer to. It would be full of responses to use in these kinds of situations, and they could vary depending on different people’s personalities and comfort levels with being direct. But at least we’d have a resource.

I’m also keen to hear from you about your experiences with unwanted attention at work – have you taken action in the moment and if so, how did it go?

Next I brought up Ibby’s  ‘my dear’ episode. She did stand up for herself, she said something, but then the man she was working with told her he was intimidated by her…

AM-T: “So she felt that after all that she had hurt the relationship by saying something…”

KE: “You see I think it was the text…anything that’s written, a text or an email, can be read incorrectly, but if you were to go to the person to say I’m sure you didn’t mean it, it was very sweet of you to use an endearment, but I’d prefer you to use my name going forward, then he knows it’s not coming out of anything that’s going to make him scared of you, it’s just your preference.”

AM-T: “But why do we have to say it’s sweet of you to use it? I don’t think it is sweet, it’s really annoying. It’s 2016!”

KE: “Yeah, I understand, but we haven’t evolved, the human being hasn’t evolved, we’re still humans and the male ego is such we want to get along with them and enlighten them and bring them forward, not make them the enemy.

KC: Actually I would like to go back to what he said, which I think is a very honest statement. I think most men are terrified of women, and so a lot of those terms are for them to manage their fears and insecurities about working with women. In one of our books we have a category called the unconscious discriminator. And that’s one of my favorite categories, because I think if you want to be inflamed you can, but this is a professional situation. Even if you say, it may not have been your intention but I’m not comfortable with those terms, you can give the person the benefit of the doubt without saying they’re lovely, but still address it and try to nip it in the bud. And it’s not like every sexual harassing person is a lovely guy at the core, but addressing it in a non-inflammatory way is your best way out.”

KE: “Unless it’s one of those dirty grandpas, if it’s one of the older men, who really, you could be their granddaughter, or even their daughter, to me that’s a little gross. If they come on and they’re really lecherous you do have to right to their face say that is not allowed…you can’t speak to me that way, I don’t appreciate that, and I am not going to have a sexual relationship with you. I mean I think you have to be more direct with those types.”

AM-T: “Just referring back to what you were saying Katherine…one of the responses on this women’s journalism list thread to the problem of, ‘I was at a nonprofit meeting and the guy was touching me,’ one women wrote, it aggravated her she said that ‘we’re trained to tiptoe around men’s feelings even as they’re stepping on our own.’ And I think that does annoys a lot of people – they’re like, why should I respond in a soft way…why should we do that when they don’t do that to us?”

KE: “Well why are we that way with children? We don’t get angry and yell at children either when we’re educating them or teaching them something because it wouldn’t get through. But we do it in a more sympathetic way and show them how to do it. If you want to assume the superior of the sexes you have to educate, you can’t fight your way through that. We’ve seen people do that and that usually backfires. They’ll just stay away from you and you won’t get what you want. I think the more you want to be insulted by this and it is very insulting, I’m not saying it’s not, but the response doesn’t have to be hate to hate, it doesn’t have to be equal.

KC: Yeah, I have all sorts of opinions about this because by the way I don’t think it’s just men that harass, there are plenty of women who use their sexuality to get ahead. And to understand that while we want to be professional that the workplace does have two genders, and that there is going to be sexual tension…and some people are not going to be as smart as others in terms of the proper boundaries. So I’m an older person, relative to someone 20 or 30. I’ve come to that decision. When I was in my 20s or 30s I hated it when someone made sexual advances to me. I was realizing when I did the Peace Corps, there I was the minority American woman and men would shout obscenities at me because they assumed American women were slutty so they felt they had free license to say whatever they wanted to me. And I did not take the high road, so I shouted back because I didn’t know what to do, and that’s part of it. So to just accept and have awareness…even though it isn’t fair this is part of one’s professional development. You don’t have to embrace it and say that is fabulous…just say this is part of your reality.”

I don’t think it should be part of our reality at this point in time. But the evidence all around me shows it is. And I also want to talk about that men comment Kathi made, about treating men like children. On the one hand, I get it – some older men stuck in the past may need educating. And anyone who’s been in the workplace for a while knows diplomacy is a big part of the game. 

On the other hand if we take this approach aren’t we’re infantilizing men? And aren’t we letting them off the hook in all sorts of ways? That’s a tough one for me.

Katherine says she knows a 50-something guy who landed a big job at a nonprofit – but not long after starting he was taken aside by HR and told to nix what he thought were harmless comments, because the women in the office found them insulting. Things like ’you look lovely’ or ‘got a date tonight?’

“…and he curtailed his behavior but he was not aware of it…for many men, and because the level of sensitivity varies so much from woman to woman and workplace to workplace, it’s confusing to them. And with the sexual revolution it’s even more confusing. If you think about the access men have to images and to sex and to women of all shapes and sizes I think a tendency to objectify women is there, and so the need to correct and instruct and inform and educate men about what is appropriate language and behavior remains a big job for all companies.”

At this point I’m dying to hear from male listeners – if you have thoughts about any of this either write to me or even better send me a voice memo from your phone so I can include you as part of the next show – that’ll come out on February 22nd – I’m at ashley at thebroadexperience dot com.

Here’s what I’ll say in closing. Cultural change takes a long time. Women have risen relatively quickly in the workplace during the past few decades…but society is still catching up. You can see it in the way the media portrays women – yes, it’s got better, especially on TV, but still, look at the ads around you. I mean on the New York subway they still have breast enlargement ads with women holding melons up their chests. This kind of thing is not helping us. And it’s everywhere.

I used to think millennial men were models of enlightenment…but I’ve heard a few things since I’ve been doing the show that have made me less sure. Again I’d love to hear your views on that by email, voicemail or just a comment on the website.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

If you haven’t given the podcast a review on iTunes I would love it if you did. And if you’d like to support this one-woman show go to the support tab at TheBroadExperience.com – you can find out more about the official show T-shirt there as well.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.