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So, today a colleague of mine from Marketing came by my desk to ask for some input with regards to technical information about our products. This is not our first conversation - the previous ones have always been professional and cordial.

It so happens that I could not help noticing that her skirt for the day was quite short and tight. As she started the conversation standing (while I was seated), her hemline was close to my eye level and I have to admit that my gaze flickered that way once or twice although I was really trying my best to keep my eyes on her face.

I then suggested that she grab a chair from an empty, neighboring desk. It helped a little, but my gaze did flicker again as she crossed/ uncrossed her legs a few times, unconsciously I would guess.

In any case, I think the conversation was productive and she got the information she needed, but I can't help feeling guilty about my wandering gaze which she might have felt was offensive or made her feel uncomfortable. I don't know if she noticed but I am inclined to believe that she did.

My question is this: should I try to clear the air by apologizing to her for my possibly-unprofessional behavior, or simply ignore the incident and keep mum about it? If the former, how should I go about doing that?

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    I've put a cultural-sensitivity tag on this as I believe this is more of a cultural question than of sexual harassment. – Snow Mar 6 '17 at 8:39
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    I guess there is a reason why gentlemen should stand up when a lady enters the room... – mustaccio Mar 6 '17 at 23:54
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    If she is Czech she is quite likely to have either ignored it or found it a compliment. We're not quite as far in the de-humanization of human interaction as most of the west and sexual harassment still means actually harassing someone (catcalling, unwanted touching, abusing a position of power) as opposed to noticing a guy wore tight jeans that make his ass look good or a woman wore a short skirt. Don't leer and don't behave like a pig and you're most likely to be fine. – DRF Mar 7 '17 at 10:03
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    It interests me that the upshot of the responses is that any fault in a situation like this is 100% the bloke's fault for "being treated as a life support system for mammary glands:" the topmost upvoted answer does not recognize that the OP was trying to act appropriately in response to provocative dress, provocative even by the fellow employee's usual standard. – Christos Hayward Mar 7 '17 at 20:07
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    Woman here. If I wear a short skirt I know what effect it could have. If I dislike that effect too much, I will not wear it (unless forced to by uniform). If I wear it and feel uncomfortable with someones gazes I first see it as my responsibility to cover or make it less obvious, because I was the one putting it on in the morning. As long as you are not obnoxiously behaving like a hunter who just smelled prey I should be fine. – skymningen Mar 9 '17 at 8:41

11 Answers 11

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how do I not come off as a creep?

If your gaze-wandering was as minimal as you say, you probably didn't. This is especially true if you've already had "professional and cordial" interactions with her, so she knows you as more than that guy who kept looking at my legs.

I don't know if she noticed but I am inclined to believe that she did.

You're right; she probably did, but she could probably also tell if you were "really trying [your] best to keep [your] eyes on her face," which reduces the chances that you made her uncomfortable.

Asking her to pull up a chair was a good idea in any case--if nothing else, it's generally easier to have a conversation with someone at the same height as you.

I can't help feeling guilty about my wandering gaze

Kudos to you for noticing you do this and trying to stop! You should carry that laudable effort into the rest of your life--keep doing this when you're interacting with women at the store, on the bus, on the sidewalk, in the rest of the office, etc.

Not only is it good to treat non-colleagues as respectfully as you treat your colleagues, but with things like this, it's important to train yourself in the habits of keeping your gaze in check. You're not going to be able to always look your colleagues in the face if you're ogling every woman you see on the street, so if you have been doing that, this is your reason to cut it out.

should I try to clear the air by apologizing to her for my possibly-unprofessional behavior, or simply ignore the incident and keep mum about it?

Definitely keep mum. If you were honestly working to keep looking her in the face, you didn't do anything wrong. If she did feel uncomfortable, I don't think bringing it up will make her more comfortable. The way to do that is to just go ahead and be impeccably respectful and professional in the future.

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To give a woman's perspective, I have had anything from occasional glances to out and out staring at my chest while talking to male colleagues or clients in a professional setting. I don't enjoy being treated as a life support system for mammary glands. But as long as it is only the occasional involuntary glance and are paying attention to what I am saying, respecting my skills and experience and not making me uncomfortable by spending more time looking at my body than my face, then I don't take offence.

Of course, each woman is different, but it's usually a matter of respecting us as professionals, not as an object. If you were treating this woman as a valuable colleague and have done so during your working relationship, then I'm sure it was fine :)

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Mar 6 '17 at 20:11
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    "should I try to clear the air by apologizing to her" - in this situation is the answer no? Otherwise a very complete answer. – Brandin Mar 7 '17 at 13:42
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    @Brandin If the situation is as the OP describes, he has nothing to apologise for. – Jane S Mar 7 '17 at 13:48
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Definitely do not go to HR and create a problem where there isn't one.

Free life advice: I would urge you to train yourself to be respectful in the workplace and focus on looking a woman in the eye.

For some, eye contact is uncomfortable and in that case, focus on the area between her eyes (this worked for me as an awkward young man).

As a side note, if a woman is uncomfortable with the occasional glances, a minor adjustment to a professional conservative work attire usually can fix this.

Maintaining Eye Contact

Although the standard advice is to maintain good eye contact throughout the conversation, don’t take this to mean that you should stare fixedly at the other person. Maintain eye contact in a natural and friendly manner, which means that there are brief breaks and reconnections. For instance, it would seem natural to look away briefly if you have to pause to think about your answer. Then reconnect strongly as you begin to speak.

The advice above references an interview, the same concept can be used here too.

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    I'm not your down-voter but your last sentence is troublesome in that you place responsibility on the woman for how men will behave. One is responsible for one's own behavior and response to others in every situation. – M.Mat Mar 6 '17 at 18:50
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    @M.Mat I mis-spelled a word, and it was too late to correct it, so here goes: Well, if a person ( forget about gender ) decides to wear provocative / revealing clothing, you are going to generate more glances your way --period. I don't see how my last sentence implies any blame -- its just reality. – Mister Positive Mar 6 '17 at 19:11
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    Constant unbroken eye contact is unusual and unnerving, whether real or "feigned" (ie: looking at the top of their nose). It's normal to continually make and break eye contact during a conversation. – Grimm The Opiner Mar 7 '17 at 10:31
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    @M.Mat To a degree, but if a man or woman came into an office naked, they'd probably get lots of stares. The level of staring will decrease in proportion to the amount of clothing worn. I don't think there's a man in the world who could stop his gaze from flicking to the hemline of a woman in a short skirt two feet away from him, even if it's just for a moment. Most women would probably be distracted by a well toned man in a muscle shirt. It's just biology at play, not the end of the world. What's inappropriate is letting that gaze linger, and that's where the self control comes in. – SethWhite Mar 7 '17 at 20:44
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    @M.Mat Yes, if a man gazes, he's responsible for gazing. But if a woman wears provocative clothing, she's responsible for doing something provocative. Neither one is okay in the workplace. Why does a woman get a pass for choosing not to dress modestly but the man can't be excused for an inappropriate response? This constitutes a double standard. Either they're both excusable or they're both not. – jpmc26 Mar 8 '17 at 1:22
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Don't worry about it. Sometimes it would be almost rude NOT to notice after a woman has gone to a lot of effort to make herself look great. It doesn't have to have any sexual connotations at all. Although happily married I quite openly comment positively on women's looks, clothing and even hairdo's. They invariably take it in the way it was meant, as a compliment.

But in any case you did nothing untoward and there is no apology necessary.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about sexual harassment and related issues has been moved to chat. Continue the discussion there, not here. The two undeleted comments above provide an overview. – Monica Cellio Mar 7 '17 at 3:21
  • Take discussion to chat. Comments that do not request clarification or otherwise try to directly improve the post will be deleted. – Monica Cellio Mar 7 '17 at 3:34
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    It was always about keeping the main site tidy. I was going to purge them when I saw all the flags but moved them to chat as a favor to the people having the discussion. – Monica Cellio Mar 7 '17 at 3:40
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    The way to pass a compliment without being creepy is to be sincere and disinterested. I picture Kilisi complimenting a coworker's looks while coming by in a hallway or at the water cooler, then walking away like nothing happened. If you do not show second intentions with body language and do not send down a barrage of compliments, it will not be misunderstood. – Mindwin Mar 9 '17 at 14:03
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Give yourself a little more credit here. At a basic functional level she was comfortable in that attire around you, which all else being equal is a sign that she trusts you enough for you to not be a creep around her wearing a skirt. It doesn't matter to her whether you glanced at all, and it doesn't matter whether it was accidental or intentional. She was probably expecting a glance, and it doesn't mean she's flattered or wants the attention, just that a glance was not going to ruin her day.

But, what will make her panic is if you do pretty much any of the following:

  • try apologizing to her 7 times
  • and then ask 14 more times if your apology was properly accepted
  • think you're friends now, now that she was near you in a skirt
  • ask her out on a date because she was near you in a skirt
  • act overly cold around her to prove your lack of attraction (...and therefore become a colleague who is impossible to function with)
  • go to other coworkers, boss, HR, etc. making it out to be some spectacle or disaster that her skirt was attractive to you

Is a glance okay?

Honestly I think so, and for what it's worth I'm pretty much a feminist card-carrying SJW (political campaigning, rallies, fundraisers for Planned Parenthood, arguing on the internet...)

One reason women like dressing like this is because sometimes women like working for companies where they can wear what they are just most comfortable in. This means if you work at a somewhat progressive company you're going to deal with guys being comfortable wearing t-shirts and girls being comfortable wearing skirts. You're also going to deal with some guys who look damn good wearing a suit and some women who look damn good in a form-fitting business outfit. There is a line culturally (no speedos or bikinis at present) but the trend right now might be for short skirts to be no big deal, and if it means she doesn't have to change to go out that night then I'm sure she appreciates it.

A woman is going to expect glances from time to time. I would not say she is "flattered" or "complimented" but just that a glance from a colleague of the respective gender and orientation is going to be part of her life sometimes. You can do her a favor by just handling it when you do.

You can handle glancing at a woman's chest/butt/etc. with the following three easy steps:

  1. Feel a little embarrassed or ashamed. (But not too much, you're going to put this all behind you very soon.)
  2. Say nothing or possibly give a micro-apology like "my bad" or "sorry can we go over that one more time?" [implying you dozed off and were not being intentional]
  3. Return to the topic at hand while making eye contact.

This is important: leering, gawking, staring, etc. are not okay. You have "permission" to glance at a colleague because you weren't paying attention for 2 seconds, or something. You do not at all have permission to knowingly look, or to communicate to her that you feel comfortable looking. Roughly speaking if it wasn't intentional it's fine, but that's more because doing so intentionally is quite a strong statement to make to her, and one that you do not want to be making.

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    I think there's a difference between taking a peek and accidentally glancing. Taking a peek sounds more intentional. – Tiny Giant Mar 7 '17 at 1:39
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    There's a big difference between "Oh look a short skit, let me just take a peek", and "Oh darn, I accidentally glanced at how short her skirt was". I think it definitely does matter how intentional something is. – Tiny Giant Mar 7 '17 at 1:47
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    It's not about showing the person how accidental it is. It's about portraying here how accidental it was. What you're saying here makes it seem like more than what the OP makes it seem. There is a difference between what an accidental glance and an intentional peek look like. Taking a peek would be a bad thing, accidentally glancing would not be as bad if the person was making an effort not to and it just happened. – Tiny Giant Mar 7 '17 at 1:56
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    "You had some mutual comfort in how she dressed" sorry, but no, no no. The OP obviously had extreme discomfort, he got put on a guilt trip strong enough to post his question here. – AnoE Mar 7 '17 at 12:02
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    @AnoE had time so gave it another rewrite. more honest about the fact that OP probably does not feel much comfort when it happened – user42272 Mar 8 '17 at 4:32
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As long as you acted professionally, there is nothing wrong with "appreciating" an attractive member of the opposite sex.

So don't apologize. You did nothing wrong.

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It sounds like it was an awkward moment. Just put it behind you, but next time stand up instead of asking her to sit. Out of view, out of sight.

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I would not do anything, as others have answered. This seems like a one-off event. It sounds like you're mildly attracted to her, which is to be expected at some point in your many years of work. Just don't make people feel uncomfortable. Fashion, especially women's fashion, can be unintentionally revealing, even when the wearer is innocent. And for the record, women can stare at men, just as much as men can stare at women.

The only reason I would suggest going to HR is if this woman has a habit of wearing too short, too tight skirts that don't fit the company dress code. Or she regularly wears clothes that are objectively more revealing than what other women (or men) at the company wear.

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You need to keep shtumm and work on your self-control, but it sounds like you're in the clear based on the effort you say you made. BUT, why was her hemline at your eye-level?? In the future step up and suggest a change of venue. Or simply stand up. And of course get used to the fact that short skirts and marketing go hand in hand. And it's not your place to go to HR about her skirt length. Do not do that.

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    Can you clarify that first sentence? I was not able to understand enough to even make a meaningful edit. – JasonJ Mar 29 '17 at 17:46
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While other answers suggest not to do anything, I would suggest a different approach: gently tell her that her outfit is not appropriate for the office. Of course, that's assuming that her dress was too short.

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    I don't think this answer is helpful or fair. "Appropriate" dress code could depend on the job type (ex: police person) but it should certainly not depend on arbitrary opinions from a colleague at the office. – armatita Mar 6 '17 at 13:36
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    I mean, employers can "forbid t-shirts, eccentric haircuts, piercings, tattoos, sandals," or whatever attire they like. If someone is violating whatever dress code your office has, their manager should tell them. Whether or not they are, it's not for a peer to tell them. – MissMonicaE Mar 6 '17 at 14:07
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    This would benefit greatly from an explanation as to how to tell the colleague. Especially considering how sensitive of a subject this often is in many cultures. – enderland Mar 6 '17 at 14:28
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    This is way too sensitive for a co-worker to bring up, her manager or an HR person needs to handle this conversation. – Mister Positive Mar 6 '17 at 16:10
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    @BЈовић "Coming to work wearing flip flops, mini skirt, or similar shit, is simply inappropriate" Except flip flops, and super casual work attire is an integral part of the culture of many work places. Especially in the tech industry – Cruncher Mar 6 '17 at 16:25
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I am baffled by most of the answers on this question. Most of the answers and comments seem to be blaming the woman for what she chose to wear. Unless she is violating some company dress code, she did nothing but try to do her job and probably has no idea what was going on in your head. The problem is with a man who can't seem to control himself. If the workplace, you need to be able to control yourself and realize that a coworker is a coworker.

There has been an assertion that my answer above did not answer the question, so I will pull out the answer more directly. The question is

should I try to clear the air by apologizing to her for my possibly-unprofessional behavior, or simply ignore the incident and keep mum about it?

My answer is, I don't believe there is any reason to apologize because unless you were drooling or making some lewd comments, I seriously doubt she knows what you were thinking. The issue seems to be entirely in your head. Again, unless she is in violation of a dress code, I don't see how this has anything to do with her.

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    No one is blaming her for what she chose to wear; you and others are suggesting that he has no right to look upon her. (Although so far only you have resorted to accusing him of being "unable to control himself".) – Beta Mar 6 '17 at 15:58
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    As a female, I would think you bear some of the burden. If you are coming into a professional work place showing a lot of cleavage and thigh, you are definitely inviting more glances than one who dresses more conservatively. This is a fact. – Mister Positive Mar 6 '17 at 16:02
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    This doesn't really answer the question and would be better as a comment. – David K Mar 6 '17 at 16:09
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    @bluegreen no. it doesn't. It's an observation. Where in the question did he state that he thought she was wrong for dressing like that? – Cruncher Mar 6 '17 at 16:23
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    @bluegreen I couldn't help but notice that your name is bluegreen. Did I just blame you for your name? – Cruncher Mar 6 '17 at 16:26

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