I recently started working at a new job that I like a lot. I get to do a lot of things that make me really happy, and the outside of work demands on my time are much less than other jobs I've had. And, my coworkers are mostly really great.
There's one thing though, that has been bugging me and some of my female coworkers a bit lately.
I share a desk with a male coworker who has boobs all over his desk. Wooden boobs, plastic boobs, resin boobs, a little round box that looks like a boob, even a naked headless Barbie with boobs that’s pointed almost right at me.
Our workplace is the kind of place that talks the talk about being progressive and inclusive and anti-sexist and anti-racist, but a lot of the time, it doesn't feel like the institution walks the walk. Many of us feel like we've experienced a lot of sexism here. Plus, the place where we work is a place where you don't often find that many women, and fewer women in charge.
It's common for men to talk over us, interject when it's not their place, explain things to us that we are actually in charge of knowing, and for someone to ask me one thing, and then go to a male coworker to double check the answer I gave them.
I'm not sure how this connects to the boobs. Maybe the boobs feel like a physical representation of the objectification we feel? Don't get me wrong, I love boobs--they're great! And, I think he has these boobs and makes things that look like boobs because he loves boobs too. How can we explain all of this to him? Is it possible? Is there a positive outcome to this situation?
Thank you sincerely for your time and thoughts,
Not the boob police
Can I just say I love this question? I love you for asking it. Your situation is near and dear to my very own heart-- an organ that can be found (most typically) directly behind the boobs.
Firstly, I am so fucking sorry and believe me, I feel it, and I've lived it too. The sexism you are experiencing in your office is real, not your imagination, very typical and definitely connected to the boobs (the wooden boobs, the plastic boobs, the resin boobs, the little round box that looks like a boob, and most especially, the boobs of that headless Barbie).
One thing is abundantly clear: you and your female coworkers are living under bro rule, and are being asked-- well, instructed-- to live and die by the bro code.
Knowing this, your question about getting a “positive outcome” is exactly the right way to strategize when it comes to the workplace.
Isn’t Boob Bro’s shrine to boobs… funny? Um, yes, sort of? But “taking a joke” is really not fun when you are a member of a systematically disadvantaged party.
It is especially not fun from within a private institution that represents your career, your financial livelihood and everything that that entails-- including the self-worth stuff that gets wrapped up with “success” in the workplace.
It is especially not fun when the “joke” you are being asked to take smacks of precisely the reason you are disadvantaged in your place of employment, namely, that the hegemonic bro culture in your office views women as the real joke.
Boob Bro’s tableau implies absolute objecthood and palpable violence: apparently, women do not need heads. We just need boobs. Where is Barbie’s head, Boob Bro?! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH BARBIE’S HEAD??
I just… I just have so many questions. Who IS this man? Who is Boob Bro??!?????
Is he a company lifer, beta-bro-type who is considered sort of artsy compared with the rest of his bros but basic compared with anyone outside the brosphere? Did he peak in college and is just tragically out here in the adult world reliving that one, sad, theme night his frat hosted Sophomore year? Is he a simple stoner type whose deepest thought is literally just, “Heheh, I love boobs!” Is he a closeted gay or asexual bro that desperately wants everybody at the office to know he fucks girls as evidenced by his vast array of kitschy tittie tchochkis? Is he (and his questionable social skills) currently occupying the lowest rung on the bro social ladder in a sort of sad, butt of every joke kind of a way and he’s embraced being a bottom feeder completely unironically? Is he one of those ironic mustachioed Ron Swanson bros who affects "manliness" as a bizarre performance?
Did he purchase all of these breasts… himself? Like, *packs for first day of work at a new job* “Better bring all my titties!” Or are the boobs a mere prop in some sort of complex bro hazing ritual?
What a mystery!!!! The complexity of this man!!!! I don't say this often but I am shook.
In any case, I would say that you have two actionable options, the first of which is not an action, and the second of which has a few dropdown possibilities:
1.) Don’t say anything
2.) Say something to
a.) Boob Bro directly
b.) Boob Bro’s boss
The “Not saying anything” path is an attractive option. One might say more irresistibly attractive than a tig ole’ set o’ wooden bobs; more alluring, perhaps, than a bitty round box looking like a tittie, more enticing than some sweet, disembodied resin boons. Maybe even sexier than a decapitated Barbie’s xxxposed bobos.
Obviously, the pervasive bro culture at your workplace dictates that Boob Bro’s shrine to boobs is totally normal.
The boob shrine represents a challenge to you and to your female coworkers: you are being asked to prove that you are cool by acting like one of the boys, by reinforcing and participating in bro culture.
And, (eek!) sorry, but bro chicks and women pretending to be bro chicks are very successful in bro-dominated work cultures.
In many practical ways, it benefits you to play along, to beat the bros at their own game by letting them think they have the upper hand. Lean In feminism insists that working the existing system to one’s own advantage is a feminist action in and of itself.
In the words of Beyonce, “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”
Does Boob Bro hold any real power in your company? Official, work-related power, social currency, or otherwise? If he’s the nobody I suspect he might be, you could quietly let him bury himself, as he eventually will. You could wait and pick a more substantial feminist battle later down the line with a more worthy opponent, when you really need to do it.
But what are the attending negative outcomes of Option 1? Maintaining the position you currently hold within the ecosystem of your company, which is to say, a disempowered one; ignoring the red light flashing in your soul that’s telling you that you are in a toxic work environment; reinforcing Bro culture’s hegemonic grip on your workplace and its grip on office culture and business in general; participating in keeping a symbol of the very disempowerment you experience on a day-to-day basis in the visual landscape of your working environment, which will slowly drain you of confidence and of your work mojo.
I am, clearly, in favor of shutting this bro DOWN. Option 2, please!
If only because bro culture is bullshit!! I’m honestly furious at the women I’ve encountered in my career who happily reinforce bro bullshit by grabbing for male validation and power to the detriment of their female coworkers and subordinates, and it’s just so annoying that you are being asked to participate in this garbage of a work culture.
So, I’d assume that covering one’s desk with explicit and even violent imagery would fall squarely outside of any corporation’s sexual harassment policies; without knowing more about Boob Bro and without knowing more about your company, it’s ultimately up to you to game out exactly how to play this politically with the policies and the personalities involved.
As a general rule, I’d say best workplace practice is to confront the coworker with whom you have an issue before going above their head or going to HR. It makes you look capable and mature, it’s awkward, but ultimately best for interpersonal morale.
Your best bet is to start the conversation in writing. In the event that the bro culture is so toxic at your workplace that you become a target in any way after voicing your discomfort, at least you will have a record of correspondence to report to HR. If I were in your situation, my email would read something like this:
Hey Boob Bros Name,
I couldn’t help but notice that your desk is simply covered in images of boobs. Totally understand why collecting this stuff might be something you are interested in, and I get why it’s funny, but to be honest, I find this tableau more than a little tone- deaf with regards to the issues affecting women in the workplace (namely: sexism, sexual harassment, #metoo, the wage gap, the rampant lack of female leadership across basically all industries, including ours, etc.). It may not seem like a big deal to you, but having to sit right across from a naked, decapitated Barbie all day in my place of work communicates a certain devaluation and objectification of women, not to mention an unsubtle suggestion of violence. It doesn’t offer the best environment within which to succeed for me, nor for the other women in our office.
I think your boob collection is probably better suited to your home, rather than the office. Ultimately, it will probably serve you better in your career if you aren’t known around the office as “That Boob Guy.”
Would love to grab coffee and chat about this if you’d like to hear more about where I am coming from.
Is it insane that he needs this explained to him? UmmmmmFuckYes.
Are you being asked to do a lot of emotional labor here? Yes. But I think it’s the right thing to do.
It’s basically inexcusable, but it is possible that this bro honestly didn’t consider and doesn’t understand the implications of his boob shrine. It’s possible that he will feel badly and apologize, it’s possible he will respect you for speaking up, and that your confidence and social standing within the bro-dominated office will grow. Maybe you’ll really open his eyes, and the culture will shift. Just a bit.
It’s also very possible that he will mansplain to you why his boob shrine is, in fact, the opposite of sexist (“Because #freethenipple!” “Because I love women!” “This is censorship!”).
Get a coffee with him, and (respectfully, professionally) shut him down. I would do that part in person, and not in writing. Don’t let him leverage feminism and body positivity against you.
This is unprofessional. Period.
Ask him to look around the office and count the women. Ask him to look at the C-Suite and count the women. Tell him that the power dynamic between men and women in a work culture that so heavily favors men exempts him from being the one to determine what is or isn’t sexist.
If he ignores you, refuses to mastectomy his desk, or tries to retaliate in any way, I would email HR and put his immediate supervisor on cc. Look up your company's sexual harassment and desk decoration policies. Keep your email to HR super professional, short, and to-the-point:
Boob Bro's decoration on his desk strikes me as sexist and in violation of the following company policies (insert your research). I politely asked him to remove the items in question on such and such a date, and he retaliated/ ignored me/ etc. I’d like to resolve this without further escalation.
HR may not actually care about you and your feelings, but corporations live in fear of a lawsuit. HR’s big prerogative is to prevent sexual harassment for this very reason, so my guess is they will take action. And quickly.
My opinion is that this is a feminist battle worth fighting, and not just a goofy quirk to be ignored. Art and visual expression are important!!! And this bro has created a visual installation in your place of work that signifies the objectification of women, and reflects the toxic attitudes that permeate so many offices.
You're not the boob police! You're a feminist hero!!
Obviously, the bigger issue is bullshit bro culture, but rest assured that the Boob Bro of any office probably stays middling and doesn’t ever end up as ECD or CEO... I would guess... I would hope...
Otherwise you’re fucked and I’m fucked and we’re all fucking fucked.
All the love.