This seems silly but it's a genuine issue.

Suppose, as a man, I am sitting next to a desk in which a young woman is seated.

I need to go under the desk to plug in a laptop/monitor/etc. The lady is wearing a dress of some sort.

What's the correct etiquette? Should I "just do it"? Or should I be a gentleman and say something like "Kind Lady, be advised I wish to go under the desk"? Or is that sexist?

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    Does it matter if it's a young lady or an old lady..? – Erik Jun 1 '20 at 14:29
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    @Erik We all know it does matter. – CaptainCodeman Jun 1 '20 at 16:34
  • @KillianDS: Why should it be on a daily base? – guest Jun 1 '20 at 20:29
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    Why would you address her as "Kind Lady"? I've never heard that before. Is that how you normally address her / women? How are women typically addressed in your office? Everywhere I've worked everyone (regardless of gender or seniority) is just on a first-name basis, but this may not be true everywhere. – NotThatGuy Jun 2 '20 at 1:16
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    @CaptainCodeman: You could edit the country information into the post as it is extremly important. Also the information if you usually call her "Kind Lady" and if this is normal in your language/region. – guest Jun 2 '20 at 8:49

I would suggest approaching this as if it was anyone else - regardless of gender or clothing:

Sorry to bother you, I need to duck under the desk for a second to plug in my laptop.

And wait for them to acknowledge you and/or get out of your way.

If this is something you need to do regularly, see about getting an extension lead or power block you can permanently plug in so that you can plug the laptop in without going under the desk every time.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Jun 2 '20 at 11:40
  • Could you tell the culture s/countries this answer refers to? My feeling is that the OP, because he adresses his female collegues by "Kind Lady", might be from a culture where there is really a difference how one is allowed to approach men and women (but I might be wrong). – guest Jun 3 '20 at 20:27

Unintended Sexism

Should I "just do it"?

Nope, never. If the person is not aware and you accidentally surprise them, it can lead to an awkward conversation that nobody wants.

Or should I be a gentleman and say something like "Kind Lady, be advised I wish to go under the desk"? Or is that sexist?

Using any term that refers to the person's gender in order to get that person's attention can be taken as being sexist. To get a person's attention and not someone else's attention it works best to use something that uniquely identifies them, like their name or job title. By using their gender it caries undertones that the speaker considers their gender a superior way of identifying that person and thus be interpreted as sexist.

Being Courteous Wins

HorusKol's answer nails this so I will not say anything else on it.

How to Handle Follow Up Questions

Odds are the coworker is not going to care that you are going under your desk to work, but will appreciate being informed even if they do not mention it. However, there is a rather slim possibility they may ask a question that might leave you in a tight spot like:

Why are you bothering to tell me?

At this point if one was to say something to the affect that they are trying to avoid the appearance of looking up someone's skirt would create unnecessary tension and awkwardness even when well worded. The best thing is to deflect any concerns with using an 'I' based explanation that has nothing to do with gender, and is fundamentally based on courtesy:

For me if someone was going to be crawling under their desk next to mine, I would want to know about it as a common courtesy. I also would want to save my work in case they accidentally bump the power switch on my power strip causing me to lose any unsaved work.

There are other things that can be used such as pointing out that COVID-19 has made people more sensitive about others getting within 6 feet of them without any kind of warning or getting permission. Also if their desk is an opposing desk. Then an additional statement about not wanting to accidentally get kicked while under the desk can also be used.

The most important part of the deflection is not to bring up gender. There are many reasons besides gender for informing the other person about going under one's desk. As such if the reason given is because of gender, that indirectly communicates that the speaker considers the other person's gender as more important than any other reason and thus can be construed as being sexist.

Other Options

Typically a person does not stay in their desk for 8 hours without getting up to take a break of some kind. If the work that needs to be done under the desk can be delayed to one of those times, the whole situation can be avoided.

HorusKol's answer about getting an extension lead or something similar is also a great option to help permanently solve this.

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    Caveat for sneaking under when the person is away: If the person leaves but comes back before one is done, a similarly awkward situation can arise. And if that leads to OP mentioning that they explicitly waited for the other person to leave that can become even more awkward. – Frank Hopkins Jun 3 '20 at 9:59

I feel like this question should be directed to HR. At my previous workplace, I recall you had to take a test that would ask very similar question. I remember questions like if you are in a hotel for a conference and you need collaborate with your coworker should you meet in your room? And they would provide a multiple choice question that you select.

I feel like this is a question that's in the same ball park. You are in a meeting, and you need to plug in a laptop by going under the desk. As an alternative, you can set up the meeting room prior to the meeting to avoid having to even wonder about this question. I feel like the most appropriate answer is to set up your conference prior to the meeting. Come into the room about 10 minutes prior, plug in your charger pack, keep your laptop at your desk if you need to work more then walk in, plug in the charger and start the meeting.

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    So you suggest to ask HR this question? – guest Jun 3 '20 at 9:52
  • @guest Yes, I feel like the would best answer this question. We have limited information on his situation and it sounds rather strange to me that he has to constantly go down under a table in front a woman with a skirt. – Dan Jun 3 '20 at 19:24
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    How do you see they have to do this constantly? Also, could to tell how to phrase the request? I would find it really weird (maybe cultural issue, I work in Europe) to go to HR or write an email to HR) before I plug in the cable. – guest Jun 3 '20 at 20:23
  • (For what it's worth, opposite of my desk sits a woman. Under my desk there are holes for the LAN cable, from time to time (maybe once a month) something is not working properly and I unplug them and plug them in again. I always just did it wirhout thinking twice about that there may be some issuem) – guest Jun 3 '20 at 20:25
  • @guest I'm not saying do it each time you go under a table. I'm not sure how you think that and you claim you do not make assumptions. No, there is nothing wrong with going to HR with the same exact question as the OP had. The OP could simply say that each day he has to go underneath a desk to plug in a cable and he is wondering what he can do about the situation since there are several people seated nearby and he is concerned about having to go under the desk. – Dan Jun 10 '20 at 13:50

Do whatever you would do if next to you sat a man wearing a dress, which likely means going under the desk, plugging the cable in and not looking back, over your shoulder and up the dress. If you want to give a heads-up you can announce "Whelp, can't help it, going under to plug the blasted screen in!" to no one in particular.

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    Invading someone's personal space deserves at the very least a polite, personal request. Courtesy shouldn't depend on gender or clothing in that case - even if the consequences of the lack thereof do. Additionally, having someone stand up and move their seat (not an unreasonable action to take given notice) will make life easier for everyone. – ptyx Jun 1 '20 at 17:09
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    It's getting downvotes because it reads as tone deaf and insensitive. – T.J.L. Jun 1 '20 at 18:02
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    This answer is literally the same, in principle, as the one with a zillion upvotes. For that reason I'm upvoting... – CaptainCodeman Jun 2 '20 at 7:17
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    @CaptainCodeman The difference is that the upvoted answer explicitly mentions to wait for the other party to acknowledge the comment (or get out of the way), whereas this one sounds very much like you wouldn't even look at the other person. – Llewellyn Jun 2 '20 at 10:51
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    @CaptainCodeman The upvoted answer says to make a polite request to the person who is potentially inconvenienced, this one says to you could optionally make an announcement "to no one in particular". Making a general announcement of information that is actually intended for a specific person, rather than just saying it to the person that needs to hear it, often comes across as a little rude, desk-ducking issues aside. – Meg Jun 2 '20 at 19:01

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