A couple of months ago I landed a job after sending thousands of emails with my resume attached. My boss is incredible, the work is fulfilling, and the people at the office are great. It is the first job in a long time where I look forward to going into work every day. Really.
Then, I was asked to work on a project with two new clients I had never met. Within the initial meeting, after the first man introduced himself and asked me my name, the second one simply addressed me as “sweetheart.”
For the rest of the meeting I brushed it aside, figuring that next time the guy would just call me by my name. A few days later, he passed my desk and said, “Hello, sweetheart.” I could feel my blood start to simmer. I worked too hard and put up with too much shit from past jobs to deal with this again.
Growing up, my mom told me stories from when she worked as a nurse and how it was common for a doctor to grab her ass in the hallway, or even in front of a patient.
It’s Not OK to Call Me ‘Sweetheart’ at Work
If this seems like I may be over-blowing what may be perceived as mildly old-fashioned, let me explain. At work, if a man calls a woman “sugar, honey,” or “sweetheart,” in his mind he is simply being polite. Usually these are older men, like the second client, who grew up when working women were less common and were often teachers, nurses, or secretaries. This was also back when there was segregation, no laws against sexual harassment, and homosexuality was viewed as a mental illness. Growing up, my mom told me stories from when she worked as a nurse and how it was common for a doctor to grab her ass in the hallway, or even in front of a patient. But she would tell me, there was nothing she could do and no one to complain to, so it simply continued.
Today, women still face challenges at work that most men will not. We are often paid less, are promoted less, and can be seen as “bossy” or “bitchy” if we try to speak our minds. In the engineering field I work in, there is a 37 percent pay gap between men and women, and very few women in senior positions.
Now, while I am thankful that I most likely will never have to worry about a coworker deciding to grab my ass as I walk by, I still have to deal with men calling me pet names. A pet name is just that, a name for a pet. When you call a coworker by this instead of their name or a polite title like Mister or Miss, you are separating them into a different category (at least in your head). Consider the fact that a man at work will almost never be called these names, and will almost never have to worry about the negative effects of a gender pay gap (there are exceptions, of course, such as modeling). While these names do not constitute sexual harassment by themselves, it can leave a woman feeling thoroughly creeped out, which can affect how she behaves in the future at work. For myself, I began avoiding this guy whenever I saw him, and tried to keep any conversation extremely short, which is problematic if you’re supposed to be working on something in the same group.
We are often paid less, are promoted less, and can be seen as ‘bossy’ or ‘bitchy’ if we try to speak our minds too freely. In the field I work in, there is a 37 percent pay gap between men and women, and very few women in senior engineering positions.
These titles may seem harmless, but they are an archaic behavior that needs to grow up. Unfortunately, since many women still feel the pressure to “not stir up trouble at work” (including myself sometimes), this behavior often goes unchecked, which only makes it worse for both parties.
In my case, I know that change does not happen by simply hoping for it. So when I had a meeting with a few senior leaders and my boss, I brought up the topic of women in our industry. I carefully explained the issues women face in engineering today and specifically talked about how women, even in senior positions, can still be referred to as “sweetheart” at work. Immediately, the people in the room were aghast that things like that still occur. Then I brought up how it still happens, even within our company and that I had been called “sweetheart” myself. My boss, was perhaps the most pissed off of the group and said he’d have a talk with my coworker. He agreed, along with everyone else, that the days of using pet names at work were long dead and that it’s time for all employees to work in the same century.
And since many women still feel pressure to ‘not stir up trouble at work’ (including myself at times), this behavior often goes unchecked, which only makes it worse for both parties.
To date, I have not been called “sweetheart” at work.
In the past I’ve been the person at the office who avoided the possibility of negative attention. However, the reality is that you can’t just hope for a situation to solve itself. As millenials continue to navigate their careers, some of us may run into these generational divides. There will be bosses or supervisors who may not think a woman is smart enough for a job, should be paid less, or may stare at your chest every time you talk with them (another problem I’ve faced).
The only way to bring about change is to speak up when it happens to you. If you bring up your concerns in a professional manner to someone you trust will listen, then chances are that they will. “Sweetheart” just won’t cut it at the office these days.