One unfortunate side effect of being a person with breasts in the workplace is the unwanted attention they can get.
AnnaMarie Houlis, an author who has written about how her breast size has affected her career, recounts to HuffPost that she felt “absolutely mortified” when a male job interviewer once told her she looked “naughty” in her high-neckline dress – “a dress he said was driving him so crazy he wanted to ‘jump out the window.’”
“I have DDD breasts. No matter what I wear, they’re apparent. No matter what I wear, they’re neither an invitation nor a strategy to climb in my career,” Houlis says. “They’re just balls of fatty tissue attached to my chest, every day, whether I like it or not. And, to be fair, I love them, despite society’s ample efforts to turn me against my body.”
If you catch a colleague staring at your chest, it should not be up to you to address their inappropriate behaviour, but there are comebacks you can give in the moment to subtly (and not-so-subtly) call out the fact that your co-worker is looking where they should not.
Career experts shared their tips on how to do so – and gave advice about when to rope in reinforcements, such as your manager and human resources. Here are different strategies to try:
You can indirectly point out that your co-worker is looking somewhere they shouldn’t
Lawrese Brown, founder of C-Track Training, a workplace education company, notes that when you catch a colleague staring at your chest, it can be a delicate, difficult situation to know how to address.
“If you call the person or behaviour out directly – ‘Stop looking at my breasts’ – then the person is likely to become defensive, and once a person is defensive, reaching a constructive solution isn’t likely,” Brown said.
That’s why one of her indirect strategies is to bring it to the person’s attention by stating an observation, like “I noticed that when we speak you look down instead of looking me in the eyes. What’s the reason for that?”
Before you speak, you can guide their attention to what they are doing or just did. “If we are having a conversation and I notice that they keep looking down, then I will start to look down, too,” says Jacqueline M. Baker, founder of Scarlet Communications, a global leadership consultancy.
Then, Baker said, the person could bring up: “Is there something on my shirt or something?” This method is a subtle way of communicating: “I see you, and I want you to know that I see you,” she says.
Or you can point out the eye contact you prefer to have with your colleagues with a statement like, “My eyes are here, and I appreciate making eye contact with someone when I’m speaking,” says Gianna Driver, chief human resources officer at Exabeam.
“You could also say, 'I see you keep looking down. Is there something that I’m missing that’s here on my shirt area?'”
If staring continues to happen, you could also say, “I see you keep looking down. Is there something that I’m missing that’s here on my shirt area?” Baker suggests.
Alternatively, your arm movement can do the speaking for you. Alison Green, founder of the workplace advice website Ask a Manager, recommended to a reader dealing with a co-worker’s breast staring to fold her arms pointedly.
“I have sometimes pointedly crossed my arms across my chest, which kind of calls out the issue without explicitly calling it out, and usually they get the point,” Green wrote. “If they’re embarrassed afterward, so be it. Sometimes embarrassment is how people learn.”
You can directly confront your co-worker
Driver noted there is no right or wrong answer, but if you feel comfortable being direct, you can also simply say, “The way that you’re looking at me makes me feel uncomfortable. I’d appreciate it if you’d look at my eyes and not other parts of my body.”
You can escalate to your manager or HR
Feel free to call out unwanted behaviour when you see it, but understand that persistent, uncomfortable staring is an issue your manager or HR contact should be addressing, too.
“If someone [who is staring] is a manager or senior to the person, it can be really intimidating for the person who is uncomfortable to say something,” Driver says. “In those instances, it’s very appropriate to go to HR” so that you can report the issue and the HR team can address the complaint while keeping you anonymous, she noted.
In your conversation with HR, Driver suggests being upfront about what happened with language like “I met with person X. We were supposed to meet to talk about x, y and z, and during this conversation, I felt that they were staring at my breasts the entire time,” she says, noting that HR will typically ask follow-up questions like: Is this an isolated incident? Were you able to discuss the content or purpose of the meeting, or did your conversation digress in other ways? Do you and this individual have a relationship outside of work?
After it’s reported to HR, Driver says people in her role “have a legal obligation to do an investigation.”
Houlis says ultimately her advice for other women dealing with this kind of unwanted staring is to do whatever makes them feel safe, whether or not it means speaking up about it.
“If that means reporting it, I hope you choose to. But you don’t need to throw on a cape to smash the patriarchy if you have very valid concerns about how that could impact your career,” she said. “I, personally, now choose to be vocal. But you don’t need to do anything but what you know is right for you.”