(By the way, I am male...)

My male boss was recently seriously berated at work for some sexist comments he had made to a female colleague of mine, which turned into quite a scandal. He was almost fired from his job, and sent on some equality training course.

Now, as part of the investigation, I was called in and interviewed by a team from human resources. I was asked to confirm or deny whether I had heard him say any of the things which he was accused of saying. There were three things, and if I remember correctly, they were: calling her "darling", telling her that she had "beautiful hair", and saying that all of the male employees "probably want to date her". The only complaints were about things he had said -- there was nothing about physical contact etc.

I told them that I hadn't heard him say any of these things, and then they moved onto asking me about sexism generally at my work. They asked me if I was aware of anything at all involving people other than this boss and this female colleague. It then dawned on me that my other boss, who is female (I kind of have two bosses), often says similar things to me. She certainly regularly calls me "darling" too, and she often comments on how she thinks I am good looking, and that I must be very popular with female employees. At a work party, she even once told me that if she wasn't married, then she would "fancy me".

I had never thought twice about these comments made to me, but seeing as I was being asked, I told all this during the interview. I then told them that I saw it as pretty much the same level of comments as have been directed to my female colleague. In return, they said that this was fine, because I hadn't previously made a complaint about it. I thought this was odd, given that these rules should probably apply regardless of whether a complaint is made.

Anyway, I then asked them what would happen, if I did make a complaint about these comments to me (just out of curiosity, I didn't actually want to make this complaint). They then told me that because it was a woman saying these things to a man, then it was "less harmful", whereas from a man these comments "come across as sleazier". They then explained that for a woman saying things to a man, the comments would have to be significantly more provocative and sexual for it to be taken seriously as a complaint, when these comments would be taken seriously if it was a man saying it to a woman. They said that comments like this from a man are usually interpreted as "oppressive and objectifying", whereas from a woman they are usually interpreted as "friendly and complementary".

This really shocked me, because it is such an obvious double standard. Everything else was equal about this -- the types of comments made to each other, and the ages of everyone (both bosses ~40, both me and my colleague ~30) -- and the only different was the gender. So my company effectively have a policy that makes it a much worse offence for a man to be sexist than for a woman to be sexist.

  • Is there a way to raise the awareness of female colleagues that sexism works in both ways? Should one be calm and objective or more emotional when arguing about it?
  • How to overcome the problem that it may be perceived as not so serious if female superiors make compliments to male colleagues? Just approach them directly? How does HR react, given that HR is sometimes dominantly female?
  • How to react if a female colleague state that "women are better at ..." (usually claiming better social skills)?
  • 6
    what should I do about it Join an MRA forum (kidding). That depends on your end-goal, which is missing from your question. Do you want to update your company policy for gender blindness? Or perhaps have the female boss get the same treatment?
    – rath
    Sep 24, 2016 at 10:45
  • 54
    "They then told me that because it was a woman saying these things to a man, then it was "less harmful"' Oooh boy. Are you by chance part of a large organization and do the people you spoke with from HR have anyone managing them? This is the kind of thing HR people lose their jobs over, assuming your company cares, which they might not. That said, I'm not actually seeing an answerable question here. Can I assume that your question is "if this is odd, how can I make it clear that I'm very uncomfortable with HR displaying this kind of bias?".
    – Lilienthal
    Sep 24, 2016 at 12:11
  • 9
    The statements by your bosses qualify as sexual harassment but I don't think those are in any way sexist. That statement by HR however? That's not just double standards that is some top-notch sexism right there.
    – limdaepl
    Sep 24, 2016 at 13:32
  • 30
    Am I the only one for whom this reads like obvious agenda-driven baiting? HR's response is such an oblivious and self-destructive liability as to be implausible.
    – benxyzzy
    Sep 24, 2016 at 15:38
  • 10
    @benxyzzy You seem to be a tad ignorant on the current narrative of gender relations in the workplace, particularly in North America. This situation is more common than sexual harassment being treated equally. Anyway, for OP, you cannot win in these situations. Not at this stage of the narrative. Hopefully things will get better, but for now, they run the show in the workplace, and you're safest walking on eggshells right now.
    – pay
    Sep 27, 2016 at 14:38

4 Answers 4


Why do anything?

I don't see any reason for you to jeapordise working relationships, stir the pot and make trouble over relatively innocuous remarks.

It's best not to get involved in anything but your actual work unless there is a serious issue affecting you personally which interferes with your primary objective of making money and rising in your career. Especially when it is a manager you would be complaining about.

Double standards are everywhere from politics to small group dynamics, they're a fact of social interaction that people deal with all the time. They're even enshrined in law.

A general rule of thumb is not to get involved with anyone else's disciplinary measures unless it's your role, you have a professional stake in its outcome, or you have the leverage to force the issue without repercussions to yourself.

  • 20
    +1 - I'm a great believer in picking your battles wisely, and there's no benefit whatsoever to be gained from picking this one.
    – berry120
    Sep 24, 2016 at 11:05
  • 9
    Why do anything? Because it's creating a hostile environment. No one ever had any hostile intentions, but one group has some more degree of freedom in their communication. I would certainly not want to work in conditions like these. @berry120 The benefit is that you are not the next one at the gallow for trying to be nice and polite. I find complimenting outfit, or looks, carrying the same meaning as legendary americam dinner invitations, they don't carry any, except maybe a complimentary. If the rules are unreasonable, they should be at least equally unreasonable for everyone.
    – luk32
    Sep 24, 2016 at 15:54
  • 5
    @luk32 Yeah, life is often unfair, but this is minor compared to a lot of things, can whinge about every little thing or get ahead, life's too short. If you want to be a bit of an activist and take the high ground then there's plenty of much bigger worthier causes.
    – Kilisi
    Sep 25, 2016 at 9:36
  • 3
    Your male boss is about to have his ass handed to him for the exact same thing your female boss is allowed to get away with, and the best voted answer is ‘dont rock the boat’ and the question gets closed?! This is infuriating. (I don’t mean it personally towards Kilisi, but in general towards out society.)
    – nl-x
    Nov 7, 2018 at 22:36
  • 3
    @nl-x reality can be pretty frustrating and unfair
    – Kilisi
    Nov 8, 2018 at 1:44

Feelings matter. The exact same words delivered between two different people can evoke different feelings. If the person hearing it is vulnerable and has been harassed before, the words can bring up fear and worry, reminding them of a previous experience that started similarly. Since there's no business need for comments like these, they are best avoided. If the person hearing it is privileged and doesn't believe they would ever be harassed, the words don't bring up those kinds of feelings and the person hearing them knows they can safely be ignored.

This isn't a double standard. It is the HR people caring about the impact of the words on the hearer more than the actual words. You have said to us and to them that you didn't care, weren't hurt, had forgotten, and so on. I wouldn't expect anyone to pursue action in that case. Your colleague did care, was hurt, and went to the HR people for help. I hope her boss learns how not to hurt her, or others, in the future.

In the meantime please avoid strutting around saying "I don't get it. My boss says all that to me and it doesn't bother me at all, and nobody tells her not to." That will only upset your colleague, your boss, and your colleagues boss as well.

  • 8
    If the person hearing them [...] started similarly Totally true. Unfortunately that wasn't HR's position, who did not consider who was hurt and who wasn't, but rather who was male and female.
    – rath
    Sep 24, 2016 at 11:10
  • 10
    how can you say they didn't consider who was hurt? Someone complained. Someone else didn't complain and told HR they didn't consider the comments hurtful or problematic. HR specifically mentioned that the OP didn't complain. And yes, the context - who the comments were directed to - was also mentioned. I think their explanation to the OP was somewhat clumsy, and assumed a lot of background that OP clearly doesn't have, but that's not the question here. Sep 24, 2016 at 11:20
  • 13
    But since there's no reasonable way to tell who is and is not vulnerable, the only logical solution would be to ban it on both sides, right? If it's allowed only in one direction, that sounds like the default assumption is "all women are vulnerable and all men are not", which sounds exactly like a double standard.
    – Erik
    Sep 24, 2016 at 17:15
  • 3
    @Erik the only logical behavior for a person considering calling their direct report "darling" or the like is not to do it. Absolutely correct. You can't know how such things will feel to the hearer and there's no good reason to say them. When things have been said, HR can consider the actual impact of the actual words. The part where they carried on to generalize about men and women was clumsy at best, possibly worse. Sep 24, 2016 at 18:38
  • 4
    Yes, and I would be fine if that is the complainant testimony was the standard for measuring impact, but it's not. Because if it was, the stance would be that for a guy, it would also depend on how that particular guy is effected by those words, not what the general opinion of men is. HR would have asked how much he was hurt by his boss's actions rather than telling him it's complimentary. He might not (and it sounds like he would not) file a complaint but HR's double standard shows that even if he was hurt enough to complain, he would not be taken seriously. Sep 24, 2016 at 21:28

A male boss saying "darling" to a female employee

The statements made by your male boss is a typical first step of a courtship ritual for a man. Any woman who has been the target of unwanted attention a couple of times will recognize it. It may look perfectly civilized on the surface, and it probably feels this way to the boss too. It is still a signal that the boss would very much like to create more intimacy. Even if he does not plan to act on that desire, it is still extremely uncomfortable for the targeted woman. It legitimately creeps her out.

A very devious thing here is that men tend to overestimate the reciprocity of attraction. If he sends a mild signal of attraction and the woman does not immediately act with aversion but simply takes it with embarrassed silence, he sees this as acceptance enough to press a bit more if the situation presents itself. If the woman is too shy to openly rebuff him for whatever reason, this creates a very awkward situation. And the fewest people are brave enough to openly confront their boss, especially when it comes to personal matters.

Woman -> man sexual harassment

Now you are asking, what about the reverse situation? Well, if we have a woman boss signalling her sexual attraction to a male employee, then you are correct. This is as much of a sexism issue as the other way around. Maybe men are wired in a way that they are less likely to perceive attention from a woman as unwanted, but it still can happen. And when it happens, they are entitled to be taken seriously, and to receive support in dealing with it.

A female boss calling a male employee "darling"

Statements like "you have nice hair" or calling someone "darling" are not connected to sexual attraction for women the way they are for men. Women frequently use them with people to whom they are not attracted, and rarely make them part of their courtship ritual. While they are statements whose relationship aspect dominates their factual information aspect, they do not establish an admirer/pursued relationship when used by women. Conversely, you will not hear a straight man calling their male employee "darling", because that would imply such a relationship. Human language is complex like that.

It is difficult to define what statements made by a woman would be equivalent to those made by your male boss. This is because women tend to use more nonverbal behavior at the early steps of the courtship ritual. If you were to notice that your female boss is wearing lipstick only on days when she has a meeting scheduled with you, this would be a comparable signal to a man's "you have nice hair".

Is this an example of double standard?

I am not denying that a double standard exists, with men having it hard to convince people that they can be the target of sexism. But the situation you describe is not an example of the double standard. It is a sensible policy which does take into account the intricacies of human communication. The words uttered may be the same, but the real signal behind them is quite different.

The fine print - please read if you disagree with the above

To preempt critics, because it's a rather sensitive topic: please do not try to draw too broad generalizations from this post. I am perfectly aware that there are courtship behaviors which men and women have in common. A woman patting a man's bum is just as inappropriate as a man patting a woman's bum. The post focuses on the exact kind of statement noted in the question.

Also, I am aware that there are individual differences. There can be women who send early verbal signals of attraction, or men who manage to use "darling" without being sleazy. Still, the answer above covers the average situation pretty well. The policy exists to establish the standard operation procedure for the average situation, but in the individual case, it matters whether the target is creeped out or not.

I am also sure that I will get comments saying that the differences I described above shouldn't exist, are not natural, describe a patriarchal norm, etc. A debate over nature vs. nurture would be irrelevant here. Fact is, we are living in a world in which the difference exists. Targets of sexual harassment should be given support based on the reality they live in and not on "if women behaved exactly as men and reacted to external stimuli exactly as men, the world would be simpler and we'd have real equality".

Another topic I didn't touch on is that same-gender harassment also exists, that transgender harassment is different from harassment between cisgendered people, etc. I kept the answer heteronormative, because it is complex enough without me addressing issues with which I have little experience and which are not relevant for the concrete situation experienced by the OP.

  • 4
    I don't necessarily disagree with your answer. It does show, however, that sometimes when you aim for equality you still need to recognize and acknowledge the differences that exist between genders. Sep 24, 2016 at 16:30
  • 2
    (cont). Second, HR departments have caught up on the man->woman harassment but the other way round is still not widely recognized and addressed, partly because of the first point (it is rarer, so people conveniently forget that it can happen). Third, proving nonverbal courtship behavior in a legally convincing way is much harder than proving verbal behavior ("your honor, she shakes her hips when she passes me"). So HR acts on the man's flirts but not the woman's flirts. Which is, again, a description of the status quo, without commenting on whether this is how it should be.
    – rumtscho
    Sep 24, 2016 at 21:53
  • 3
    But what about the part where she says he "must be very popular with female employees" and that "if she wasn't married, then she would fancy him". Surely that is significantly more explicit than "darling".
    – KPM
    Sep 24, 2016 at 23:14
  • 1
    So yes, if a man does feel discomfort, he should confront the woman and ask her to stop. If he feels more than discomfort, he should report it and is entitled to being taken seriously. Even if he misinterpreted the woman's intent. But women tend to separate "you are attractive" and "I am attracted to you" more than men do, they need more reasons than attraction to pursue a mate, and so this kind of signal is not as much of a signal as it would have been if said by a man. Whenever I heard a woman say "I would have dated you but for X", then she seriously would not date the person.
    – rumtscho
    Sep 25, 2016 at 19:42
  • 5
    Downvoted for making a wide range of very odd, completely biased statements and generalizations about men and women's behaviour for which there is no evidence. If you're going to make such large generalizations about men and women I would suggest providing some research pointing to your conclusions.
    – pay
    Sep 27, 2016 at 14:49

It's not an obvious double standard because you are not in the same position to begin with, being male. You just wrote you hadn't actually thought about it before, that's a luxury women don't have in general. That's just a fact. That's why it makes perfect sense to consider that the exact same words don't have the same meaning when uttered by a woman. That context makes all the difference.

From that perspective, what you should do about the whole situation is educated yourself about the issues and focus on the more pressing problem (it's not men's rights or your boss relatively minor inconvenience…).

  • 21
    It's not an obvious double standard because you are not in the same position to begin with, being {black / jewish / foreign} You're saying it's OK to treat people differently because they're born a certain way. Rules apply to people, not genders (or races etc.). Therefore it's a double-standard.
    – rath
    Sep 24, 2016 at 10:51
  • 5
    @rath That's not really the point, the point is that language has meaning in context. It's obviously stupid to pretend that both uses of the word “darling“ have the same implications or consequences, ergo the difference lies in the act itself, not in the people (or gender, etc.) committing it. Also, it's just silly to consider that caring about sexism means I would condone racism. There is a larger debate about the best way to address it but it's not what's at stake here.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 24, 2016 at 11:00
  • 9
    And it's always funny to see people suddenly care deeply about equality and gender-blindness and act as if being forced to attend a training was a major human rights' violation, while a very real case of harassment does not seem to bother them too much. That, to me, is infinitely more important than theoretical points about double standards.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 24, 2016 at 11:03
  • 17
    @Relaxed It's obviously stupid to pretend that both uses of the word “darling“ have the same implications or consequences and you being present when this word was uttered know which context was it? Or are you imply that independently of the context if a male call a female darling then it must be sexual harassment, while a female calling a male darling cannot be it? If your answer is "it depends on the context, and if you are male the context is this one" then you are sexist. Sure you have to take into account the context, but genders themselves are not enough context to judge.
    – Bakuriu
    Sep 24, 2016 at 13:42
  • 2
    I think neither you nor Kate are seeing the 'whole' picture and are looking at it through a (female) sexist 'lense' -- in this case sexist against men. It is still 'sexist' and your explanation is 'sexist'. Maybe the OP (and you and Kate) 'hadn't actually thought about it' because it doesn't get enough attention. Your lack of sensitivity surprises (and concerns) me. Apparently you believe 'sexism' is only a domain for women. It is not. Please reread the top comment/response to your answer again from user rath. That user is correct is her/his statement.
    – tale852150
    Oct 3, 2016 at 18:07

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