About lmdesser

Career Advisor, UC San Diego

Is it Inappropriate for Men to Ask Women Out at Work?

by Lee Desser

Comedian and late night television host, Samantha Bee, brought up something interesting on NPR’s Fresh Air about sexual harassment.

She started off with a couple of news stories of women facing discrimination for avoiding men’s sexual advances at work, and at the end of her segment she said, “Right now I’m actually picturing some guy saying, ‘Ugh! What do I have to do? Stop asking women out at work because it makes them uncomfortable?’ ” To which she replied, “Yes. You are at work.”

I’d always thought of sexual harassment as a habitual offense of great magnitude. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seems to agree: “…the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).” Yet,  ideally,  shouldn’t a woman  be able to go to work or school and not have to deal with the added pressures of  a man (or anyone) hitting on her? Shouldn’t work or school be a safe zone from sexual advances?

SNL did a skit on workplace relationships titled, “Sexual Harassment and You,” starring Tom Brady (Greg) and Fred Armison (Frank). In short, when the “average-looking” Frank asks a woman out to lunch she shuts him down, scoffing at “the ask,” and presumably calls human resources to report the incident. Then, when the “Adonis-looking” Greg asks the same woman out, she cheerfully agrees and doesn’t seem to mind him cupping her breast.

At the end of the segment, the narrator determines that ultimately, “You can have sex with women at work without losing your job by following a few simple rules: be handsome, be attractive, and don’t be unattractive.”

I realize that people  (including many women) are fiercely divided on this issue. One night I was at a woman’s book club and I  told an anecdote  about how, when I was taking a course at a community college, a man 30+ years my senior asked me if I wanted to “hang out this weekend” and how it made me feel incredibly awkward and uncomfortable.

“How dare he?” I thought. “Now I have to run into him Monday through Friday and avoid his advances. Will he ask again? How will I say no? Why is it that when a woman is nice to a man he assumes that she’s interested in him?” I complained to my girlfriends about this and, to my surprise, not everyone agreed. Some said he had every right to ask; he didn’t know I would say, no. “What about the age difference?” I said. To which one woman replied, “My uncle is 20 years older than my aunt. It happens.” This changed my mind a bit. Maybe it wasn’t so out of line?

If I had to draw a conclusion it would be that asking a woman out only makes  her uncomfortable if  she isn’t interested. Yet, a man  may not know if a woman is interested if he doesn’t ask her out, right?  In the end, Samantha Bee’s  statement at the end of her segment may be the only advice that people can agree on , “…if you must ask a colleague out at least learn to take no for an answer…” What do you think?

Lee DesserLee Desser, career and academic adviser, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lmdesser

 

Gender Pronouns and a Young Woman’s Career

Lee Desser

Lee Desser, career and academic adviser, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lmdesser

It all started with a post on the “Student Affairs Professionals” Facebook group. Chris Liebert of The University of Kansas wrote, “Today I began using a new e-mail signature that includes my gender pronouns. If anyone else has been considering the update, join me! Since my gender pronouns associate with the typical perception of cisgender-normativity (descriptor for those whose experiences of their own gender agree with the sex they were at birth), this public display of my pronouns cost me little to no social capital…If this small, cost-free adaptation makes even the slightest difference in how supported my students feel on campus, I should have a more substantial reason not to list my pronouns…”

After reading this, I visited the suggested Samuel Merritt page titled “Gender Pronoun Resources.” I liked the section on, “Why is it important for SMU faculty, staff, and students to respect gender pronouns?” I kept nodding my head reading, “Asking SMU community members what their preferred pronouns are and consistently using them correctly is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their gender identity,” and “Discussing and correctly using gender pronouns sets a tone of respect and allyship that trans and gender nonconforming people do not take for granted.”Gender neutral pronouns. Source: https://www.samuelmerritt.edu/pride/gender

Source: https://www.samuelmerritt.edu/pride/gender

Yet, some other parts about the page bothered me. Why does the masculine have “he, him, and his” and the feminine only “she, her, and her”? The singular, “they, them, and theirs” still throws me off. And one example e-mail signature included “hers” next to “her”—isn’t that implied? Why not simply put a more subtle “Mr.” or “Ms.” in front of an e-mail signature instead of including all of these pronouns?

Still, I immediately considered getting on board and changing my e-mail signature, but something was bothering me. I realized that in the 80s my mother named me, “Lee,” because she was a big fan of gender neutral names. My mom, Christine, always went by the gender neutral “Chris,” so that in written communication she could prove herself by her work ethic and skills instead of being judged by her gender. As a regional manager at a bank, this helped her communicate with other offices without the stigma of being one of the only women in the male-dominated workplace.

Fast forward to 2016: Now Chris’ grown-up daughter is thinking of purposefully adding her gender pronoun to her e-mail signature in order to show allyship for the trans and gender nonconforming community. What an interesting turn of events. Will I purposefully reject pronoun ambiguity and face possible discrimination for being a woman in order to show allyship for a different marginalized community? While I certainly don’t want gender imposed on others, I (perhaps selfishly) don’t want discrimination imposed on me, either.

After mulling this over I thought about resumes and all the studies out there that hiring managers discriminate based on “African-American sounding names” and on female students. I had a teaching assistant in college who assigned us a number and we were not allowed to write our name on papers. He determined that this would prevent discrimination. In the same way, why don’t employment applications bar applicants from writing their name on their resume? Instead, a number could be assigned and the individual would only be called in for an interview based on their qualifications and work experience. Having no gender and/or racial identity at all would be helpful in first-round screening processes…or would it?

In the end, though, I added gender pronouns to my e-mail signature in order to show allyship and if people judge me for my gender or my addition of pronouns, so be it. If, however, I were to publish a book I would create an unrecognizable gender-neutral pen name. Compromise?

Her e-mail signature:

Lee Desser (she, her)
Career & Academic Advisor
Middlebury Institute of International Studies
Contact Me

 

 

Appear More Confident and Approachable: Wear Makeup at Work?

Lee Desser

Lee Desser, career and academic adviser, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lmdesser

“Honey, can I ask you something and I promise I won’t get mad?” (This is always a risky starter sentence).

“Sure. What is it?” My significant other looks at me. What could it be? Is he in trouble?

“Can you tell whether or not I’m wearing makeup right now?” It’s brunch and I simply can’t fathom stroking my lashes with black mascara (at least not before my coffee).

“Honestly? No, I can’t.”

So there it is. After 10-plus years of wearing makeup, I guess it doesn’t make any difference. I looked at him wondering, “Does he really mean that or is he just trying to spare my feelings?” Futhermore, am I mad? Am I pleased? I can’t tell. Maybe I look like a washed-out “has-been actress” without makeup and he doesn’t want to be punished. But then I spend more time with him and realize something: he really could not tell. Shocker! He was telling the truth!

Since that time, I’ve been in a perpetual “should I or shouldn’t I” conflict with myself. Here’s the gist of it: is it really worth spending 10-plus minutes a day, hours watching YouTube makeup tutorial videos, and hundreds of dollars a year primping and priming when it doesn’t really matter? Or is it just that it didn’t really matter to him and other people can tell? Why should I bother highlighting this and concealing that when this is who I am and shouldn’t people be fine with that?

Two things: 1) How different do I actually look with and without makeup? and 2) Is there anything I really need to cover? Is there anything “wrong” with my face?

I remember I was shocked when I read a New York Times article a few years back about a study that came to the conclusion that makeup, “increases people’s perceptions of a woman’s likability, her competence, and (provided she does not overdo it) her trustworthiness, [and] also confirmed what is obvious: that cosmetics boost a woman’s attractiveness.” The strange thing is that I actually consider women who wear less makeup to be more confident, as they’re not trying to cover up anything.

A professor rebutted these findings (thankfully!): “’I don’t wear makeup, nor do I wish to spend 20 minutes applying it,’ said Deborah Rhode, a law professor at Stanford University who wrote The Beauty Bias (Oxford University Press, 2010), which details how appearance unjustly affects some workers. “The quality of my teaching shouldn’t depend on the color of my lipstick or whether I’ve got mascara on.” It seems obvious to me that the color of someone’s lipstick, or the amount of pigment in their cheeks, or the intensity of someone’s eyeshadow shouldn’t affect their performance, right? Yet, at the same time, apparently it does, so what are we to do about that?

I’m sick and tired of reading all these articles about all the things women should do or shouldn’t do: leave behind the upspeak, stop using the word “just” in e-mails, and negotiate their salary. It’s not so much that any of these are bad suggestions—to be clear they aren’t—it’s that there’s too many of them. There are so many demands placed on women about what they should do and shouldn’t do with their life (No kids after 35! Don’t wear form-fitting yoga pants at night!) and I don’t need Internet articles “shoulding” me! So for now I’m wearing makeup when I feel like it and not wearing it (surprise, surprise) when I don’t want to—that’s my liberation.

Note: “In a study, women were photographed wearing varying amounts of makeup. Viewers considered the women wearing more makeup to be more competent.” Read more here.

Are Happy Faces in Professional Communication So Bad?

Lee DesserLee Desser, career and academic adviser, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lmdesser

To smiley or not to smiley: that is the question. My first year out of graduate school I became involved in a heated debate around, of all things, smiley faces. As a summer program coordinator for George Mason University’s Social Innovation Program, I was in charge of overseeing ~25 students as they worked on consulting projects for various nonprofits in the northern Virginia area. As part of the program we held several sessions on professional communication.

We brought on a guest speaker who was serving as a consulting intern at Deloitte. She said, “There’s a space for happy faces in communication: texts, Facebook posts, and the like, but they should never be included in professional e-mails.” I had no idea the furry that would come as a result of this statement. One of our rowdy environmental studies students chimed in, “I disagree. Happy faces show approachability. They can help you connect with your colleagues and show appreciation of their hard work. There’s nothing unprofessional about them!” A public policy student said, “I agree! My teammates like a little winky. What’s the harm there?”

To this the consultant said, quite definitively, “No. Smileys shouldn’t be included in e-mails. It makes you look immature and unprofessional. It’s best not to include them.” At this point it was summertime in Virginia and about 80 degrees outside and we were drinking Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and eating white powdery donut holes. I thought they were going to fly across the room. OK maybe that’s an exaggeration! But I think both sides made solid points: Is it appropriate to include any emojis in e-mails? I wouldn’t want my lawyer to include them in briefs or my doctor in medical evaluations: Her cancer is in remission : ) That’s surely not appropriate…

However, I’ve struggled with this from time to time thinking, “Maybe it lessens my professional image by putting smileys in my e-mail” to “This e-mail totally calls for a smiley (maybe even two!).” What does it come down to? Ultimately, I think it’s somewhat industry (and office!) dependent. While certain conservative industries, such as finance and accounting, may be less accepting to a dose of smiley fun, other ones, especially creative and artistic industries and even education, are more accepting of personal vehicles of expression.

Ted Bouras, the Dean of Advising, Career, and Student Services at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, introduced me to the M.B.A. students in this way: “Lee’s first day was yesterday and she will shortly send a note to students about her availability on Zocalo. Until then you still have to put up with me as your adviser : ).” Notice the smiley? Was it absolutely necessary? No, but I thought it was a nice touch, especially for a summer e-mail.

So for me, to the question of whether to smiley or not to smiley to students in emails, I’ll smiley : )