I woke up this morning and decided to take a shower and put on something other than yoga pants for work.
Today was an average Wednesday but I felt good about earning a gold star in #adulting and went on my merry way to work with a smile on my face. My morning routine isn’t unusual. I, like most other self respecting adults, do something similar every day. We put on uniforms and make ourselves look presentable because deep down we know that it makes us feel more confident and helps us professionally. Statements like “dress for success” and “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” exist for a reason. But that’s not what this blog is about. This blog is about another weirder, yet ever present experience, that I have had as a professional woman.
The other day I was having lunch in my husband’s office with a co-worker (disclaimer: we work together, and yes, we both think it’s a little odd). My personal relationship matters for the context of this story. My husband asked me a technical question and I started explaining the rationale for a business decision when our co-worker interrupted me, looked my husband squarely in the face and said, “Doesn’t it feel amazing that you are married to someone who is both beautiful and smart?” My husband and I shrugged it off and changed the subject. Still, I couldn’t shake the feelings of embarrassment and irritation and left his office to go back to my desk. Later that day when we were on our way home my husband brought up the conversation and asked how it made me feel. I was disappointed in myself and he too was disappointed that he didn’t stop the guy and say something. The worst part about it was we both agreed that the guy genuinely thought he was being nice by giving me a compliment and neither of us wanted to say something because we didn’t want HIM to feel uncomfortable. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been struggling about whether I should or shouldn’t write about this. Here we are in 2019 and me, the neo-feminist elder millennial, is afraid to talk publicly about a guy who objectified me in the workplace in front of my husband a few weeks ago. Get your shit together Brynn. Here’s the reality. Stuff like this happens all the time and it needs to be talked about. Words matter just as much as intent and sometimes even intent can be misplaced in the right context. My co-worker’s intent may have been to compliment me but my decision to not use my words to say anything had just as much an impact on how I felt about the situation and about myself after the experience.
I had another thing happen this morning. I was browsing my LinkedIn messages and got an InMail message from a guy named John who wanted to connect. John doesn’t know me, nor does John know that I am a little sensitive these days about how my appearance is used in a work context. John doesn’t know about the WTF panel we did at ITW last year where we talked about how our appearance and behavior has changed throughout the years so we could fit in in this industry. John doesn’t know that I, like a lot of women, am told to smile more.
John also doesn’t seem to know the difference between LinkedIn and Tinder.
John might think he was being nice. After all, who doesn’t like compliments? John even knew what he was doing probably crossed a line when he said “I know I should keep it professional here”. It must be my fault. I mean, my smile in my head shot is so attractive, and don’t even get me started on that blazer and work blouse. What dude can resist a strong smiling female in a pantsuit? I know if I was a guy I would find it irresistible to not reach out on the off chance my charm could score an opportunity to get to know a lady in private…
But enough with the sarcasm. Emails like this are the LinkedIn equivalent of a dick pic. It’s unwarranted, creepy, and made me feel extremely uncomfortable and self conscious. I actually asked myself, “do I need to change my LinkedIn photo now?” and “Is my photo not serious enough?” Now I’m not a woman who is generally afraid to use my words but like with the co-worker example I found myself feeling embarrassed and pretty vulnerable. I could go on and on about how looks shouldn’t matter in professional environments but I know that they do. Ask any economist who has studied how appearances impact behavior in the workplace and my feelings based argument about how I think the world should work gets shut down. Yet in a world where women more and more are speaking about their experiences I believe it is important to focus on how we can shift the narrative. We should create working conditions where all people can feel safe, comfortable, and can thrive.
Giving compliments should be like giving employee feedback. If you want a positive outcome and for that person to rely on you for your opinion and guidance then it helps to be specific. Instead of saying, “Jane is beautiful and smart” say something like…
"Your contribution to this project has been exceptional Jane. I really appreciate how you worked across multiple teams, aligned everyone on a common goal, and delivered on time and on budget.”
Instead of talking about Jane’s beautiful smile maybe try something like…
“Don’t take this the wrong way Jane but I think you have amazing teeth. My wife and I are looking for a new dentist for our kids. Can I get your dentist’s number?”
Or don’t say anything at all.
I know the line can be hard to see or even understand at times. We’re human and part of being sentient beings is that there is ample room for improvement and growth. I am sure there are going to be people out there who get frustrated or even offended by me writing a sarcastic blog about “compliments”, but it’s not the compliment, it’s the impact of the words that were used and the impact it had on my perception of myself at work.
I’ve focused on two blatant examples of where this is not ok but I have good examples too. At PTC this year I decided to go paddle boarding for an hour before my meetings and like most people on the beach in Hawaii I was wearing a bikini. About 50 yards out from shore I ran into a CEO of a well known data center company and the conversation went something like this:
CEO: Hey Brynn!
Me: Hey! What’s going on?
CEO: Fancy seeing you out here.
Me: <laughs> No kidding. I didn’t know you surfed.
CEO: I didn’t know you paddle boarded. Are you going to that thing at Tapa Bar later?
Me: Yep. I should get there around 10 or so.
CEO: Ok cool. Catch you later. Say hi to your husband for me.
That’s it. What could have been a totally weird situation given the circumstances was instead a non-event and a nice conversation that we both left feeling good about.
Words matter. It’s important to remember that feelings and perceptions matter too. With women leaving tech at a rate of 41% compared to 17% men according to data published in a 2016 study by the National Center for Women & Information Technology called Women in Tech: The Facts, it is critical for all of us to focus on the reasons why women feel the way we do in the workplace. We can all benefit from being more mindful of the language we use with all people of all backgrounds. We can all make an effort to create a better environment where we work because if we do that we’ll have a better opportunity to create a safe space where both women and men can thrive.
If you are interested in learning more about language and actions you can take to improve your culture and team check out some of the content we’ve found from organizations we respect.
If you want to continue the conversation about actions we can take to improve the culture across our industry then we want to hear from you. For us to truly make an impact and create lasting change then this needs to be a team effort where both men and women can partner together to find positive solutions.
*Photo credit from How to be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings