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


6 thoughts on “Is it Inappropriate for Men to Ask Women Out at Work?

  1. It is uncomfortable if you there is no reason for the person asking to assume you are interested as well. I would think the person asking would be able to pick up on cues of whether or not they are interested. Yes, being nice can be confused as being interested but that is just the way it is whether in our out of the workplace. The person being asked just has to clarify right off the bat and hope the situation is not too embarrassing. For some it takes a lot of effort and mental preparedness to ask and when it is shot down it is troublesome for both parties involved. The professional code would be for both to move on without placing too much importance on such incident to lessen awkwardness and avoid disruptions on job productivity.

  2. I noticed that when I had customer service jobs, men would ask me out even more frequently. I was so surprised and uncomfortable. Yes, it was my job to greet you at a desk, smile, and chit chat, but that doesn’t mean I’m interested. Also, it makes me concerned that my boss will overhear and think I’M behaving unprofessionally.

    I see what you mean about “he doesn’t know until he asks,” but still I think– read the signs! If you’re already hanging out in groups outside of the office and you talk a lot one on one and have a lot in common, that’s a different story than sitting in a neighborly cubicle and you think she’s cute. Or she’s the receptionist at your doctor’s office and you think she’s cute. Or she’s your barista and you think she’s cute. Then no! It’s awkward, uncomfortable, and unprofessional.

  3. @William. Well said: “The professional code would be for both to move on without placing too much importance on such incident to lessen awkwardness and avoid disruptions on job productivity.”

  4. @Lena. I absolutely agree that reading the signs is crucial. Some people are better at this than others and that’s when I think it gets complicated. In this particular blog entry I was considering office relationships with co-workers. Personally, I think it’s inappropriate with customer service positions. You barely know the person and it’s your job to be friendly. Say you’re a waitress and you politely decline a customer’s advances. Unfortunately, you may not be tipped the same way as if you said, “yes!”.

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