I'm a PhD candidate from Asia currently visiting a prestigious university in Europe. Recently I've noticed quite some "strange" behaviours of male "colleagues" around me (by "colleagues", I don't mean that we work on the same projects or from the same office. They are just people who work at or visit this place: faculty members, PhDs, or research staff).

For example, these gentlemen seem to be giving me a bit of extra attention: following me to the pantry; "appearing" several times at the same time at the place that I'd show up; or even try to wait for me when I leave. (Please don't suggest that I might be overreacting - I am quite confident that I'm not exaggerating here.)

Honestly, I am more annoyed than flattered. I want to focus on my research and want to be able to have healthy, normal, constructive working relationships with these people. I don't want any extra attention other than that I am a dedicated and capable researcher, and a nice person in general. However, because of these strange behaviours, I have to try to distance myself from some of them who I have had some friendly exchanges before. I've become a bit cold and unapproachable to them - I guess I am trying to say that I am not interested in anything romantic, and I don't want any attention in that matter. I guess some people might say, well, just tell them openly that you are not interested. I simply am not able to do that: first, they don't say anything or do anything that would allow me to bring up this topic; second, some of them might not even really want to pursue a relationship (they are married, or too young/too old for me anyway), but just kind of show some sort of admiration I guess.

However, I also feel very uncomfortable about that. I am by nature a nice and friendly person. I really feel bad about being cold and unfriendly to other people. Also, I want to have a circle of contacts that I can talk with about my research and their research, and get feedback and/or inspiration from that. I am not sure how I am able to have that type of positive working relationships in this kind of situation.

To clarify a few things...

  1. These male colleagues are decent, respectable, and in some cases, brilliant and achieved people. There is no inappropriate advance from them or anything creepy in this (or it would be rather easy to handle the situation). It is just the continued, affectionate attention that is making me uncomfortable.

  2. I am not sure this is associated with my newness or novelty. I have been here for eight months now and I did not notice this kind of attention at the beginning. Instead, I noticed the association with me slowly building up myself professionally here. I'd assume these male colleagues are slightly more refined than the general public and would look a bit further than a pretty face for a pretty mind (not that I am suggesting I am any or both of these). If this is true, then I would assume this issue would not go away as time goes by, but might hang around or even intensify as I become more established as a capable researcher. In that case I would have to find a solution for myself in the long term.

  3. After second thought, I guess I wouldn't be able to take the "dressing down" advice. I like to dress in a classy and elegant way and that makes me feel good (it is like I enjoy making my room clean and nice and that makes me feel good). I don't see anything wrong with it and don't want to punish myself with other people's reactions to me. In fact, I have become more convinced that the solution to this type of issue is not to make women less feminine/attractive. There should be other solutions where we can be ourselves and still be comfortable around male colleagues. I don't know what those solutions are though.

Please give me some advice on how to handle a situation like this.

  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Oct 19 at 20:13

14 Answers 14

I will answer here because it may help to have a female perspective. I will note that most of my points are covered by the male answers. The thing that is missing is a firsthand perspective, which I can bring.

First, the thing you are experiencing is very common for women in your position. Many, many women who are youngish, attractive-ish, and pleasant have this problem with men in their departments or cohorts. It is important to acknowledge this because I am not sure if that is commonly known among male academics.

Second, this tends to get better with time. Over time, people will get used to you and your appearance. They will notice that you are focused on research not relationships (especially not on relationships with them). I had this problem in my PhD program to a certain extent. I would say by the end of my first year this became a much lesser problem, and by the end of my second year this had gone away.

Third, you can employ some basic strategies if you want the attention to dissipate faster. It is ridiculous that you might need to change from a perfectly appropriate style of dress to one that is dowdy, but it might help. Many of my female colleagues have found that wearing glasses, particularly rather nerdy ones, helps men to take them more seriously. I myself did this. I also dyed my hair darker and stopped wearing makeup on a regular basis. Finally, it can help to dress less femininely. For instance, avoiding skirts, ruffles, flowers, happy colors, etc. Note that I am not saying that there is anything wrong with the way you dress or with wearing these things in a professional setting. I am merely saying you may be able to manipulate the visual cues and get the desired result.

I do believe this strategy has some substantial drawbacks. One drawback is that I typically feel better when I look put together, and it is grating to have to make these changes. It is totally unfair that the men’s behavior becomes your problem. However, these strategies do sometimes help.


Edit: I've thought a bit about your update, which states that the behaviors you are concerned about have grown over time. In this story, the colleagues’ intentions seem more ambiguous. As a foreigner, you could perhaps get away with asking a naive question which gets at the intentions of the parties involved. You could say something like, "I have noticed that people often wait to walk with me to the pantry or lunch. Is that a professional custom here or should I read something else into this? Is that something I should be doing for others as a professional courtesy?"

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Oct 24 at 18:36

If there are any female faculty that you trust, I would go and talk with them about the situation. This would accomplish a few things.

  1. Documents your concerns if anything ever escalates.

  2. Allows for you to share your concerns with another person, who may be able to give you insight specific to your situation.

  3. Allows you to verify if your colleagues are indeed being more than "just friendly." (As in, a third party may be able to silently observe some of the behavior and verify what is happening).

  4. May open avenues administratively for departmental intervention such as a general email about sexual harassment or the like.

You do not even need to mention specific people in your conversations. This faculty member does not even need to be in your direct department.

I also would be prepared to "friend zone" these men if necessary. One challenge with female/male relationships is that it can be very difficult to read soft signals. There were girls I knew in school (I am male) that I wanted to get to know better. I would chat them up after class. And, I'll admit, I even went walking by their apartments a few time in hopes that they would be outside and we could talk. I did not have any nefarious intentions; I just wanted to make them like me. Even if they brushed me off a bit, I was not always really fast at taking a hint. I would just think they were having a rough day, or were busy. (Sometimes this actually made me want to stick around them more to make them feel better—I was naive). However, when one girl directly told me "I am only interesting in being your friend" that is when I realized that I was bothering her. We went on to have a congenial relationship at school, but did not do anything outside of school. Be prepared to directly tell your colleagues that you are only interested in keeping your relationship professional.

While you may not really want to directly tell these men that their attention in not wanted, that will honestly be the most effective way at fixing the situation I feel. This is especially true if you do not want to radically alter your lifestyle (e.g. leaving school at 2 a.m. so that they cannot wait for you).

If your colleagues are decent guys, they will not ignore stronger signals that you are not interested in their attention in they way they have been giving it.

If your colleagues are still too dense to take a clue (or blatantly ignore it), this is when it could be helpful to have an established dialogue with a female faculty member. You may need to initiate an administrative intervention.

Do not be afraid to sever a relationship if you have to. No one does themselves any service by trying to be friends with someone while simultaneously trying to keep their distance from them.

The clothes thing is odd, but I'm honestly not sure what you could do about that. The department cannot begin sending out emails saying "No one may dress like Lily." If you see someone that is blatantly copying you, I would call them out on it. Perhaps if they see that, yes, you did notice their clothes, and that, no, you were not amused, they will stop matching your clothes. This could be done in a joking manner if that makes it easier:

Woah Jim, you are wearing the exact shirt I was wearing yesterday! Have you been in my house? (said while chuckling and in the presence of other people)

I see you're wearing plaid. I have one ugly plaid shirt that I only wear on laundry day. Do you like wearing plaid? It makes me sort of dizzy! (Ha ha ha.)

In closing, the fastest way to get this unwanted attention to end is to end it directly, either by telling the men themselves, or getting a person in authority to do so.

  • 10
    Thank you Vladhagen for your comment. I appreciate that you share your own experience from a male perspective. Yes, maybe some of my male colleagues are simply just wanting to have some friendly and professional interaction, but they might not know very well how to do that. I will be more careful to filter out this type of interest and respond accordingly. – LilyOfTheEast Oct 19 at 15:57
  • 11
    +1 for talking to colleagues, but -1 for quotes making fun of fashion. Banter can be associated with romance or close friendship, promoting the behavior. Additionally, copying fashion, alone, is not bad. People copy their friends and colleagues fashion all the time. It's the following and lingering that seems more problematic. Your suggestion about saying something emphasizing "professional" is good. E.g. "I've noticed you near me a lot, It's probably a coincidence, but I just want to clarify that our relationship is and will always be purely professional." It is direct, but non-accusatory. – WetlabStudent Oct 19 at 20:35
  • 8
    @Vladhagen that's valid for your personal preference. But if anyone, male or female,jokingly made fun of my fashion in public, I personally would take that as banter and it would draw me closer to them - I'm just warning that this suggestion could have an unintended consequence for those who are not like you (and there are many). – WetlabStudent Oct 19 at 20:48
  • 22
    The fact that this question (by a person who is obviously confused by what most people would consider as a form of politeness) led to an answer that immediately mentions "sexual harassment" is appalling, at least. It seems like this rabbit hole can only be avoided by fostering a clear segregation of men and women in the workplace. Let's see how this sorts itself out. – Marco13 Oct 20 at 9:55
  • 5
    @HagenvonEitzen The OP has edited her question since I wrote my answer. She originally spoke of men copying her style of dress. – Vladhagen Oct 20 at 14:07

The reality is that as an Asian female in a European research group, you can't avoid being "different" from the typical member of the group you are in. You physically look different, you probably dress different, you have a different accent, and you probably have different social norms.

As such, some of your work colleagues will be trying to hide the fact that they are terrified of you, and some will be strongly attracted to you. And some may be both of the above simultaneously!

The best strategy here is to figure out which people are neither of the above, and start by developing good working relationships with them. As your "novelty factor" wears off over time, your problems with the others will diminish.

Note, I haven't mentioned the gender of the other group members here, and that was deliberate. In my experience (as a male!) interpersonal conflicts between two females can be much worse than between either male and female, or male and male. If that has not been your experience so far, living and working in a non-European culture, be warned!

  • 1
    I don’t think this is true man because of multiculturalism in western European cities you often see Asian people. It’s not that special. – BigChief Oct 25 at 11:45

I am a male researcher who has worked alongside attractive female colleagues from different countries. I come from a sexist culture, where casual relationships are common. I think I can provide some general advice.

First and foremost, you have to understand the "fresh meat" physiological phenomenon. You're new to the place, and people are still checking you out (literally) and getting used to your presence. Men are particularly struck by attractive new comers in the scene. This effect should subside after some 2-3 months after they get used to seeing you around, and others arrive to divert their attention.

Furthermore you perhaps fit in some mode of local fetishist stereotype. Asian ladies are frequently a fetish in western societies. In this case I recommend you do not reinforce the fetish by avoiding behaviours and displays associated with the idea. If you think this is the case, and you correctly identify what they're fantasising about when you flutter around.

Finally, just manage your own circle of friends and learn to deal with physical attraction as a background noise to building up a true friendship with someone who's attracted to you. With time, people will appreciate you for what you are instead for what you look like.

Anyway, don't worry. Your aura should be weaker soon enough, naturally.

  • 18
    @LilyOfTheEast My understanding is that part of the "asian fetish" is the idea that asian women are meek and submissive. Therefore, being more assertive in pointing out and shutting down this behavior could be doubly effective at discouraging it – divibisan Oct 19 at 16:34
  • 9
    Ugh, the phrase "new meat" is terrible. But I think you are right about the newness phenomenon. – Dawn Oct 19 at 17:59
  • 7
    OP, might be a regional variant, but "fresh meat" is more common than "new meat." @Dawn I'm not sure "newness" actually does convey the same meaning though - I'm struggling to think of a less blunt and colloquial term though. There might be something in the feminist literature but nothing really comes to mind. – anonymous Oct 19 at 18:35
  • 9
    @StrongBad I understand this community is to specifically advise question openers, and not to draw or merchandise some ideal world. Surely you can advise the OP to lecture her colleagues good manners on a separate answer. – Scientist Oct 19 at 18:38
  • 9
    @StrongBad Are they? Some of the OP's examples of behavior could also just be a Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (ex. fashion), or locally "correct" behavior of a man trying to court a woman given that the OP is in Europe (ex. waiting at the end of the day). Following someone to a pantry is pretty universality unusual though, but so far I'm still not sure how much is just culture shock. Practically speaking, none of the advice given so far is any good given that Europe is a big place with lots of cultural variation. – anonymous Oct 19 at 18:45

I can understand that this is a very annoying problem, and I am truly sorry that you have to deal with that.

Order of business number one is probably to make sure that you are not reinforcing this kind of behavior - it's ok to be a bit cold when people "randomly" drop in on you whenever you happen to get a cup of coffee, and don't even appear to be charmed when they start imitating your style of clothing. In short, try to hang out with the people who act naturally and don't make you feel uncomfortable, and be a bit chilly towards the ones that do. Nothing at all wrong with that. Note that I am not suggesting to be actively unfriendly towards them, just keep your distance and most people will get the message soon enough. Unfortunately, some may not, and in these cases remaining distant is probably the best option.

However, even more importantly than that, I would suggest to find allies. Surely, you are not the only decent-looking girl in the entire organisational unit? Be proactive about this and try to befriend other people in a situation similar to yours. This has two advantages: firstly, you can be fairly certain about their intentions, and secondly you can share and validate your concerns, and discuss how they deal with this behavior. Find a trusted person, and talk openly to them about the behavior of your co-workers. Maybe some of the people that you have seen as creepy are in fact just friendly and/or weird towards all new hires? Having allies is also really important if the problems escalate to a level where you feel you need to report it - if other people have also observed that A, B, and C are acting really strangely towards you, it is much easier to make a case that you are not just imagining it.

Finally - and I understand that this may be little consolation right now - I would assume that the novelty factor of having you around will cool off sooner or later. At that time it should become easier to develop normal workplace relationships with your colleagues (although I understand that by this time you may not really want to have too much of a relationship to some of these guys anymore).

  • Thank you for your advice xLeitix. I unfortunately am one of the very few female researchers here - this field is rather masculine and male-dominated. Also, I've been here for a few good months now, but it is only recently that this becomes so obvious that it annoys me. I am sure most of these people are harmless (only 1 of the, ergh, old, faculty members who asking me out for dinner via work email who I rejected clearly, twice) - that is what makes the situation difficult. I really want to be nice and gentle to them without causing too much hard feelings. – LilyOfTheEast Oct 19 at 15:24
  • 1
    @LilyOfTheEast In the entire department / company? Maybe you need to look a bit further out of your immediate surroundings. I also work in a very male-dominated field (CS), but there are still at least a dozen or two women in our entire department. – xLeitix Oct 19 at 15:26
  • 2
    @LilyOfTheEast Still, raise the issue with him if you feel comfortable doing so. He should be aware how you feel, even if he can't immediately do anything about it. – xLeitix Oct 19 at 15:46
  • 3
    "Surely, you are not the only decent-looking girl in the entire organisational unit?" Why should the appearance of your allies make any difference whatsoever? – Buffy Oct 19 at 18:51
  • 3
    @Buffy Lived experience? – anonymous Oct 19 at 18:52

This answer will be very different, I hope, from the others here. It is based on a different assumption. I assume that you want to be a success in this place and want to actually work with your male colleagues, not just to avoid their, possibly improper, advances. This advice should apply not only to women, of whatever physical appearance, but also to minorities in the workplace, whether racial, ethnic, religious, or whatever.

For some balance, go watch the movie Hidden Figures about a group of women who made the US Space program work by doing the computations needed to get to space in the age before computers existed. They where called "computers" actually, and had very low status, though many of them were brilliant mathematicians.

The way to succeed is to be better than everyone else. At least 25% better. Maybe more. Outshine everyone. Become the person that other go to for answers and solutions. Become the resource that everyone needs.

Interestingly, you don't need to be the best at everything. But if you are the one everyone goes to for some small but essential part of the common work, it can be enough.

Again, it is unfortunate that the world seems to be wired in such a way as to make that necessary, but it generally is. Furthermore, though you need to work harder than everyone else to do this, it can be the path to success. Even then, it isn't guaranteed. As I noted in a comment here, in at least one case the scientific work of a woman led to a Nobel Prize for her male advisor. The world isn't especially fair, it seems.

Defer to no-one in scientific skill or knowledge. Help those people you work with so that they have a vested interest in your success.

But also, and this is essential, don't try to work alone. Fine allies to work with and protect you as needed. Those allies can make your life easier, but can also help make the world into a better place so that advice like this isn't necessary in the future. Nor the advice given in other answers. here.

  • 4
    Great answer. I think people starting to pay attention to your expertise over your physical appearance is the crux of why this dissipates over time. My only critique is that you seem to assume/imply that OP is not already working as hard as she can. I don’t have any evidence of that. – Dawn Oct 19 at 20:55
  • 1
    I love your answer Buffy. This is a great answer, as Dawn has mentioned Thank you. – LilyOfTheEast Oct 19 at 21:01
  • 5
    @Dawn, Actually, you may not need to actually work any harder, but simply share the expertise you have already gained more widely. Become more visible. But no, I seldom make such assumptions. But, as a woman yourself, I'm guessing that you already know about the "be better than everyone" idea. It isn't subtle. – Buffy Oct 19 at 21:36
  • 1
    Fine words, but it still seems so wrong that one should have to work at being perceived as better at something in order to be treated as an equal. – beldaz Oct 19 at 22:30
  • 4
    @beldaz, you are right of course. Somehow the world got wired up wrong. – Buffy Oct 19 at 22:36

It might actually be good if your colleagues see this and come to realize that you aren't interested and that you find it awkward. I don't doubt that this is happening to you, males can be that way (nope I'm not saying it is okay, just that it is common)

Some of the attention should wear off when you aren't as new, and haven't responded in an encouraging way to any of it. You might try shortening your answers instead of being intentionally cold since you say you want to be seen as friendly. (Keep being cold to the ones you've already started down that path with, or they may take it as encouragement)

I guess some people might say, well, just tell them openly that you are not interested.
I simply am not able to do that

If you don't want to say anything to them, I guess about the only thing you can do is dress in a way that is less flattering to your body style.

Please note that:

  • I am not saying or trying to imply that "you asked for it" because of how you dressed
  • Nor am I saying/impling that you should have to put up with it.

You asked for help and constrained my advice by saying you didn't want to be blunt, so this is what I have.

I'm not familiar enough with your culture or your university's, but there is a small chance that something you're doing is being perceived as encouraging and you aren't aware of it.
Speaking to a female colleague (another candidate or faculty member, not a female researcher or administrative staff person) could help with this.
You could also speak to someone (female; preferably attractive) from your culture and ask for ideas.


P.S.

... some of them might not even really want to pursue a relationship (they are married, or too young/too old for me anyway), but just kind of show some sort of admiration I guess

Yes, some of them are just being nice, they want to be friendly with the 'pretty girl'. If you can "talk shop" with them and they speak to you as equals, it is a good indicator that it is okay to be pleasant to them.

Don't assume that all of the ones who are "too old" or "too young" know that fact.

  • @Dawn I didn't mind your first comment - just explaining :–) – J. Chris Compton Oct 19 at 19:08
  • 2
    I actually don’t know what happened to my first comment. Maybe I was censored for being sexist. – Dawn Oct 20 at 3:49
  • @dawn Don't know how to find out. I deleted mine as it makes no sense without yours in front of it. – J. Chris Compton Oct 22 at 18:17

Please give me some advice on how to handle a situation like this.

I note that you just ask how to "handle" the situation. You don't ask us how to make them go away (but if that is what you are interested in, feel free to update or comment).

These male colleagues are decent, respectable, and in some cases, brilliant and achieved people. There is no inappropriate advance from them or anything creepy in this (or it would be rather easy to handle the situation). It is just the continued, affectionate attention that is making me uncomfortable.

Aside from measures to stop the males from their behaviour, how about re-framing for yourself, by looking to how this behaviour comes to be (and I notice specifically that you say that those guys are good-natured and not creepy; this answer only makes sense if everything is good-natured, not overtly sexual, and not a power-play).

Evolution turned out so that for most mammals, it is the male that has the job of actively finding, proposing to, and winning a female to produce offspring. Females, instead, usually have the job of trying their best to keep males away. This must be this way as the female can biologically only produce the offspring for one male at a time - the male obviously does not have this limitation, instead it must get as many offspring on the way as it can, to increase the chances of distributing its genes.

So far, so good, this at least tells it that both the behaviour of the males in your vincinity (reacting to your presence) and your own instinct (trying to get them away) is, biologically speaking, perfectly normal and to be expected. The fact that they are still gentlemen (not creepy, not actually "doing" anything untoward) also tells us that they are quite able to suppress their instincts in your institution, to keep them from acting in any way more uncomfortable or unacceptable - so society and its constraints absolutely do seem to work quite well.

However, I also feel very uncomfortable about that.

There is still that. You already got a lot of answers which tell you ways to change the behaviour of your colleagues (dressing down, being 25% better than them, lying about being in a relationship etc.). Those probably work in some way or other to change the colleagues, but they require you to lie or change your outward behaviour; depending on your disposition, this may be even more uncomfortable for you, and would be a very straight way into unhappiness for me.

So, another possibility is to make yourself not feeling very uncomfortable about it is to see how it is:

  • It is normal behaviour for a mammalian species.
  • It is sufficiently curbed by society so that you are neither in danger, not have to fend off actually creeping advances.
  • It shows you that you are - speaking objectively/statistically - a very nice person. Don't change that!

I know an example in my company who has your "problem" - very friendly, charismatic, intelligent, knowledgeable, with a huge network of people. You can imagine what happens if he enters a room; everybody (male and female) zooms in on him.

I've known him from the time when he obviously could not really handle it; it was a huge burden (and not in a sexual way, all work related). Everybody was heaping a lot on him - because he could and would do anything that everybody else just couldn't. At the end, he radically changed. He is still all that I listed above, but now he just does not accept advances (like being asked for help, being asked to do jobs, being asked to speak with XYZ, and so on) at all. Zero. He still does his job (which is on the C-level of the company), but he goes out to people, not the other way 'round. You can see how it worked wonders, he looks more healthy and relaxed than ever, the stress level has gone down a lot, and he still performs as well as before.

So: pick your fights. Yes, they happen to appear where you are, but so what. As long as they do literally nothing but indirectly let you know that you are probably the greatest being in their lives, just ignore it. Be glad, smile (just not at them specifically). You're probably making their day.

I am by nature a nice and friendly person. I really feel bad about being cold and unfriendly to other people.

Whatever they actually ask of you, deny (in a friendly way). I.e., if they want to hold open doors for you, or pay your meals, or go with you anywhere, or whatever; just deny it. I can't tell you how because you haven't really given examples. Ignore them as if they were air, even after noticing them, but not turning yourself into something unfriendly that you do not wish to be. If your sights cross, give them the same small nod you would give everybody else, and then simply go on with whatever it has been you've been doing.

At the end, they will either lose interest, or they will actually talk to you (in which case you can tell them in friendly but firm terms that you are not available), or, if they keep doing what they're doing, they will reduce themselves to clowns of the evolution, which you can maybe handle with humour.

This is quite difficult, and admittedly more a journey than a quick fix; but if you can get yourself to make it a fun journey (play with their reactions, objectify them in a good-natured way), then it can be a fine thing and much easier than trying to change their behaviour without changing yours in a way you do not wish to.

All this is fine:

"I wouldn't be able to take the 'dressing down' advice. I like to dress in a classy and elegant way and that makes me feel good ... I don't see anything wrong with it and don't want to punish myself with other people's reactions to me. I have become more convinced that the solution to this type of issue is not to make women less feminine/attractive."

... but you have to expect that if you are conventionally attractive, you will attract the masculine gaze. That is also normal. Particularly with elevated hemlines. You can tell someone who hits on you to "beat it". If they come back for more, tell them to leave you alone. And if that doesn't stop it, find out who their supervisor or department head is.

You have every right to dress in a tasteful, elegant, and feminine manner and you have every right to be treated with professional dignity and respect. Personally, I like it that attractive women appear as such in the workplace and I don't hit on them (my wife might not approve if I did). But you cannot expect that if you are attractive and dress attractively, that you will not catch men's gazes. But they should respect you and your position enough not to hit on you at work.

  • Being/dressing attractively "attracts" attention. Who knew!? Ha! May I suggest a little more content in the "building healthy working relationships" part of your answer? – Physics-Compute Oct 23 at 23:52
  • 1
    i didn't know i was addressing "building healthy working relationships". i was telling Lily that she has a right to both wear a cute mini and be treated with respect and safety in her academic workplace. but she has to expect the occasional masculine gaze if she does. – robert bristow-johnson Oct 24 at 1:01
  • 3
    "Personally, I like it that attractive women appear as such in the workplace and I don't hit on them (my wife might not approve if I did)." But you would treat women inappropriately in the workplace if it were okay with your wife? (I have heard this sort of "my wife says..." comment many times over the years. I think it used to come off much better than it does in 2018.) – Pete L. Clark Oct 24 at 12:59
  • 1
    @PeteL.Clark, no one should be "treat[ing] women inappropriately" at all. nor men. at the workplace or anywhere else. we should always treat everybody we come in contact with appropriately. are we all agreed about what is "appropriate"? consider an unmarried and unattached person of either gender that may be attracted to another person that one learns is also unmarried and unattached. are both persons simply forbidden to flirt or "make a pass" or inquire about a social date simply because they both work? must one of them quit the job so that the relationship that comes out of it is legit? – robert bristow-johnson Oct 24 at 19:56
  • 1
    @robert: I did not say or mean to imply that there can be no legitimate workplace romances. Upon reflection, the term "hit on" is quite ambiguous. I took it to mean "Flirt aggressively, signalling sexual intent." It doesn't have to mean that, and in many workplaces there are acceptably mild ways to flirt with certain coworkers...but you yourself seem to suggest the above meaning with the line "But they should respect you and your position enough not to hit on you at work." So I confess I am a bit confused as to what you mean and why your wife is relevant to the OP's question. – Pete L. Clark Oct 26 at 0:01

This answer might be a little bit to pragmatic, but I think it will bring about the desired effect.

Basically, find a way to tell these men that you are in a relationship and are not currently looking for a man, regardless of whether it is true or not. If they are as polite and kind as you are saying in your question, this should get them to back off.

As to how to get this point across, there are a variety of ways it can be done. An easy way is to get a picture of a man, and stick it on your desk, where these guys can see it. Even better if you can pose with a friend at a restaurant.

Of course, it is unfortunate that you would need to do any of this subterfuge at all, and I have certain ideological issues with this plan. However, it is pragmatic and efficient.

I know this feeling very well and I actually think this is in many cases not purely related to romantic/sexual interest (as suggested in many answers so I will focus on a different aspect and based on the additions to the question). In my personal experience many guys are just trying to build a friendly relationship (even if they wouldn't mind more) but with so much effort that it becomes unnatural and annoying.

If you want to have a purely work based relationship with someone, try to keep the conversations in this direction. Do not answer non-work related questions at length and do not show much interest in their stories. This doesn't mean you have to become cold or rude to them. Maybe think about a collection of research topics/questions that you can bring up if the conversation becomes personal and then you can change the topic without seeming distant. (This has the additional positive effect that people will probably think you are really smart and a dedicated researcher.)

If you are getting any "special" treatment (anything, like being invited to coffee), try to bring other people into it or share. This can always be seen as humble/social but diffuses any intimate atmosphere.

The average person will stop certain behaviors after some time if they are not reproduced at all. If they do not, this is normally a big red flag.

I have to try to distance myself from some of them who I have had some friendly exchanges before. I've become a bit cold and unapproachable to them.

I suspect that this tactic will probably be enough to work - it is likely that this will put them off from continued interest. Indeed, I suspect that even if you backed it off from "cold" to just neutral, that would be enough to dissuade continuing pursuit after a period of non-reciprocation of interest. With most men, I think you will find that if they are interested in you then they will try their luck for a period of time after they first meet you, and if that interest is not reciprocated after a reasonable period of time, they will accept that and get on with other pursuits. If there is a continuing problem after a longer period then you might need to escalate to some greater response, but you can probably just wait it out.

(American dude with a PhD here)

One subtle way you might indicate that you're open to professional and maybe friendly connections with these fellows, but not interested in romance with any one of them, would be to find moments where you can invite a group of them to get lunch, coffee, dinner, whatever together, or even ask them to attend a practice run for a presentation you're preparing. This establishes a sense of camaraderie, while putting it in a clearly communal rather than diadic context.

For the ones who either don't realize they're subconsciously acting out an attraction to you, or who are maybe consciously interested but decently aware of social cues, this will steer them toward the kind of interaction you'd welcome with them. Sustained interaction with these guys will likely yield some friendships as well if desired.

Unfortunately, there may be at least some of these guys who are oblivious to your disinterest, or (the creep case) aren't interested in leaving you alone just because you haven't shown any reciprocal interest. My suggested approach might kinda help with them, in that it cuts down on time they're spending around just you. Ultimately, if they end up still being a big presence, the advice given by others here will be more applicable.

Most answers so far seem to address the question at a level where they silently assume that there is a problematic behavior. Maybe I'm insensitive (and being a nerd, this is even very likely), but let's dissect the points that you mentioned:

For example, these gentlemen seem to be giving me a bit of extra attention:

Others already mentioned that being "the new one" may cause some curiosity in any case. Beyond that, you did not clearly say in how far this "attention" goes further than the usual attention that "seniors" tend to show towards "juniors": There is often the feeling of being in the role of an "advisor", even when this is formally and technically not the case.

So I have to assume that this refers to what you described next:

following me to the pantry;

When one of my colleagues grabs his mug and walks towards the pantry, I'd likely say: "Having a coffee break? Wait a minute, I also need one...", or just follow them silently. (Male colleagues. And I'm not gay, for that matter...)

"appearing" several times at the same time at the place that I'd show up;

You are working together. If "(randomly) being at the same place as other people" is problematic, you should consider remote work. (That's not meant to be cynical. That's really an option to consider for someone who is lacking certain social skills. Note that this would not improve your social skills, though. I can tell that for sure...)

or even try to wait for me when I leave.

When I'm about to leave and ready to go, and notice that one of my colleagues shuts down his PC, I'd wait for him, to maybe have a short chit-chat on our way out.

(Please don't suggest that I might be overreacting - I am quite confident that I'm not exaggerating here.)

I do suggest that. When you feel "uncomfortable" in a social environment or during normal social interaction, you cannot simply accuse others of misbehavior and attribute this to your "young-ish"-ness, "attactive-ish"-ness, "asian-ish"-ness or "woman-ish"-ness. Sometimes, feeling uncomfortable, insecure, annoyed or even anxious among others has other reasons. I feel this all the time, and I'm an old, ugly, caucasian man.

So, this is certainly going to be downvoted a lot. I know that when a question comes up here on stackexchange that says nothing more than "I'm a woman and feel uncomfortable, what should I do?", some people hastily start talking about the oppressive sexually discriminatory misbehavior of men, up to a point where any answer that even dares to ask where the actual problem is will be downvoted into oblivion. But seriously: We have to figure out where the limit is, and whether there are reasons for feeling uncomfortable that other people can not be blamed for.

protected by eykanal Oct 19 at 20:18

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.