my female coworker keeps staring at my chest

Throwing this one out to the readers to help with. A (female) reader writes:

I’m currently tasked with training a young woman who will not stop starting at my chest. I don’t know how to deal with this. It seems compulsive and I don’t know if she’s aware that she’s doing it.

She’s very shy and already nervous enough, and to be honest, I don’t think I would usually address it, but it’s making me really uncomfortable.

To be clear, I wear incredibly boring and non-revealing work clothes, and I also have a pretty small chest region. I’ve covered myself up reflexively with my cardigan when this has happened, but it has continued to happen. Should I say something about this or not? Would that change if it were a man doing the staring? Does age make a difference?

In principle, I think it would be useful to say something to her. In reality, I doubt I would, or I’d just obviously move my arm across my chest (perhaps like this!). So let’s get advice from people better in these situations than me. What do others think?

{ 169 comments… read them below }

  1. TL

    You might just ask, “hey, is there something on my shirt?” and gesture in the general direction of your chest. Do this a couple of times over a period of days and she’ll probably stop.

      1. WorkingMom

        Agreed – I like that idea!

        Do you wear necklaces? Since you stated that you dress conservatively, no daring necklines… I can’t help but wonder if she is starting at a necklace rather than your actual chest. Maybe she just loves your jewelry and doesn’t realize she’s staring? A bit far-fetched, yes – but you never know!

        1. OP here

          Thanks for this! I should have added that I generally feel not very brave when it comes to pointing out awkward and potentially embarrassing things like this, but this seems doable. It makes me feel like

          RE: Jewelry — I hadn’t thought of that. I do occasionally wear a necklace, and I’m a fan of the benefit of the doubt, but my womanly intuition (read: experience being stared at) says that my lady parts are being stared at. Still not clear whether it’s a nervous thing or a body scrutinization thing — initially, it felt like the latter but after reading comments here, maybe it’s just more of a nervous tic.

          Thanks!

          1. OP here

            Oops! It makes me feel a little like I’m treating an adult like a child, but I enjoy politeness and indirectness for stuff that doesn’t justify a sit down straightforward conversation. Definitely see its merit.

            1. TL

              Something else you can do to “reinforce” the behavior is to stop talking to her whenever you notice her eyes have gone to her chest. Super abruptly – if you can stop in the middle of the sentence, that’s awesome – but with no inflection. Her eyes will probably go to your face automatically; resume talking as if nothing happened.
              (I do this all the time with people who get distracted while I talk to them, though usually after I’ve already been like, hey, you’re not paying attention to me. It does a great job of nonverbally reinforcing conversations.)

              1. OP here

                I also like that approach a lot — essentially saying, okay, let’s take a second here to recalibrate.

          2. Vicki

            If she’s shy and nervous, she probably doesn’t like to make eye contact. That leaves the choice of talking to your ear or over your head or, if one has downcast eyes, apparently ate your chest.

            She may not even realize she’s doing it if she’s actually not focusing on what she sees but is instead focusing on listening or speaking.

            1. Sarah

              This was exactly my thought! I was really shy when I was younger and hated making eye contact (I still avoid it) – now I wonder if I’ve made someone else think I was ogling them! :/

          3. anon..

            You said she’s very shy and nervous – could she just not be looking you in the eye because she’s shy and nervous and looking at your chest is a kind of ‘default’ position for her?

        2. Clever Name

          I tend to wear interesting necklaces (at least I think they are!) and sometimes when I think someone is looking at my chest I realize they’re just looking at my necklace.

      2. TheLost

        You guy should be ashamed! you’re all acting ignorant and misinformed. Social anxiety and OCD are very real things. I have to say at this point in my life am so beyond my limit, i’m considering suicide. I would say nothing & do nothing. You have no idea what is behind those eyes and what they’ve been through or going through.

        Shame!

    1. Bryan

      That was going to be my suggestion as well. Let her know that you have noticed she is looking. You could even go further by saying, I noticed you starting at my chest, is their a stain on my shirt?

    2. Ann O'Nemity

      Yes, I like this. And if it continues after a few days, I’d escalate to “hey, my eyes are up here.”

    3. Katie the Fed

      Yep. This is a face-saving option that puts someone on notice without making them super embarrassed.

    4. Shein

      Sensitive people who gets hurt again and again will be afraid to have eye contact.they will try to avoid people.tats her insecurity not to embarrass you.she will be crying inside for being like this. If u can….. just help he r get out of this. .donot condemn for they r already broken

  2. fposte

    I like TL’s suggestion. I’m also wondering if she’s not so much staring at your chest as avoiding looking you in the eye, given how you’ve described her shyness. Not that that changes the fact that she needs to stop doing it.

    1. Sascha

      I get that impression as well, and I have caught myself staring at someone’s torso or neck (male and female) while listening to them talk. Sometimes my gaze will wander and that’s just where it ends up, especially if I’m feeling particularly shy or anxious around that person. I just have to practice being aware and make the effort to maintain eye contact.

      I also wonder if the OP is sitting above the coworker (like on a desk or something) while training her, and this is why she keeps staring at her chest – she looks back at her and that’s just the first spot her eyes go.

    2. MousyNon

      That’s what I was thinking. I have difficulty with eye contact due to shyness and have found that staring at the space between someones eyes helps ‘mimic’ it enough not to make people feel uncomfortable. I’ve suggested this technique to other shy folks I’ve mentored, and they’ve loved it. OP, if you ever feel comfortable enough to point this out, she might find it helpful!

      1. OP here

        Thanks for that, I’m going to start thinking of a non confrontational way to add that to our training. (She’s a receptionist, so eye contact is definitely relevant).

        Sascha — nope, both standing. I am 5’10 and she’s definitely shorter, so potentially?

        fposte — I mentioned above that it initially felt a lot like my body was being scrutinized more than anything. I’m open to the possibility that it’s just shyness, though.

        Thanks!

        1. fposte

          I think a benign assumption is easier to deal with, initially, so it’s fine to use that as a hook to make the correction even if you don’t believe it. “I know it’s probably because you’re shy, but you need to make sure you’re looking not at chest level but at eye level.”

          While you want to stay polite, it’s okay if she’s a little embarrassed by it–she’s been doing something kind of embarrassing, and the goal is to ensure she stops making others uncomfortable, not that she’s never uncomfortable herself.

        2. TheSnarkyB

          OP, it’s interesting here that you use the word “scrutinized” – maybe that’s important information. For some reason, my first guess here was something that sounds a little unlikely but- maybe she’s insecure about her own chest and considering altering it physically? I had a friend who was planning a breast reduction and for like a year before she made her final decision and had saved up, she was looking at a lot of different chests- shape, size, etc. For her, it was a pain thing but I could see why a woman who didn’t like her own chest would be constantly looking at other women’s chests. Something should still be said/done because it is not ok and you shouldn’t be made to feel uncomfortable, but in terms of reasons, add this to the pile. :)

      2. Julie

        I feel like I should add here that I’ve been the recipient of the looking-between-the-eyes trick, and I completely understand it because I get uncomfortable with too much eye contact, but if the person is close enough to me, I can tell that they’re not looking at my eyes, and it feels weird. So I think this works if there’s a desk between you, but it might not if you’re closer than that. I hope this doesn’t make anyone reluctant to try this technique – I just thought it would be helpful to mention this caveat (and it’s my experience – YMMV).

    3. Caryn

      I do this all the time– instead of looking in peoples’ eyes I just focus on nothingness so I can concentrate on the words I am hearing, not realizing that occasionally I look like I am looking in an unfortunate direction!

  3. Anonymous

    I know it’s incredibly awkward but please say something. I also am a seemingly (female) compulsive chest starer. I think it’s because I have a hard time maintaining eye contact and this is just the region where my eyes naturally rest (based on my height and the natural inclination of my head). Honestly, I’m not really looking, it’s just where my eyes land but I know how it must come across so I make a concerted effort to not do this but I’m not sure I would have ever realized how often I did it (or how apparent it was to others) if someone hadn’t mentioned it to me. I think maybe TL’s suggestion would be a less direct way to bring it up but I hope you can find a way to point it out.

      1. OP here

        I can nearly guarantee it isn’t. :) Thanks for your perspective though — it’s good to know that someone in her position might like for the habit to be addressed.

    1. MadtownTanya

      I, too, can have trouble with eye contact, both when speaking and listening. I learned to focus on someone’s eyebrow, earlobe, or chin when I need to simulate eye contact. Those targets are close enough to be looking at, but not INTO the person’s face. Choosing one eye to look at is another option that’s successful for me.

    2. min

      I have the same problem with eye contact and I, too, have a terrible habit of talking to people’s torsos. On more than one occasion a coworker has pulled her cardigan closed and it’s so mortifying when that happens.

      I constantly try to force my eyes to people’s faces, but it is really uncomfortable for me so if I don’t concentrate on it constantly (sometimes to the detriment of my concentration on the conversation) my eyes inevitably end up back on the person’s torso.

      I fel for you, OP, because I’m sure it makes you very uncomfortable, but I feel for yor trainee, too!

      1. Editor

        Could you try focusing on the person’s mouth? It would at least look more like you are listening and you might learn some lip-reading skills or pick up on emotion more. I babysat a kid with some speech and hearing issues, and his mother told me he knew when people didn’t like him because he used lip-reading to supplement his hearing and thus picked up on facial emotional twitches, too. At least if someone asked why you were staring at their mouth, you could say you had been trying to learn to lip-read at one time and it had become a habit, although people will still wonder if they have something caught in their teeth. So shifting your view every once in a while would probably ease things up.

        I like to look at the bridge of the nose right below that spot between the eyes when I’m having trouble with eye contact. It is rare for me to need that crutch, but sometimes I lean on it. The person who noted it works best with the width of a desktop between people is right. Too close and there technique is more obvious.

  4. Kay

    Great suggestion about “is there something on my shirt?”.

    I also agree that she’s likely avoiding eye contact and doesn’t mean to stare at your chest.

    But it would definitely benefit all involved to bring this up sooner rather than later.

  5. Rob Bird

    One thing to consider is her culture. In some cultures they are taught not to make eye contact so I would take that into consideration as well.

    1. Chinook

      I swpent my early childhood years surrounded by friends raised in a culture where eye contact is considered rude. But, even those cultures don’t believe in staring at someone’s chest as an appropriate alternative. I second the earlier suggestion that those of us with the issue need to learn to mimic this culturally corretc behaviour by focusing on eyebrows or ear lobes (I don’t like the space between the eyes because I always start tow onder why they don’t pluck more often).

      1. boo

        I come from a culture where eye contact is rude…it took me forever to break that habit and sometimes I still forget in the corporate world.

        When I’m nervous or being scolded, I tend to look down and I never thought it could be taken as looking at someone’s chest. (I’m also a female). Maybe your co-worker is in the same boat?

        1. BeenThere

          Glad someone bought up the culture reason. One I was taught was that a particular culture will stare at the neck or thereabouts this could mis-interpreted as chest staring.

  6. Ahmed

    You said that she is shy I am a shy person too and shy people avoid eye-contact while someone is talking to them that happened to me too but it always worked when the person who is talking to me makes me start focusing on something esle ,Try to get her attention on something like while you are talking to her try to write down some points and ask her to look on what you are writing and notice if she will still look at your chest

  7. Ask a Manager Post author

    It’s so interesting to hear how our responses are different in this situation than if the coworker was a man! (And it’s probably useful for us to realize that some of the explanations here could also apply to men who stare.)

    The male version, 3 years ago:

    https://www.askamanager.org/2010/05/coworker-keeps-staring-at-my-chest.html

    And the update from that post:

    https://www.askamanager.org/2010/12/where-are-they-now-update-7-coworker.html

    1. Cat

      I do think that the fact that the letter writer specifically mentioned the new co-worker was shy and nervous affected reactions too.

      1. BCW

        Honestly though, do you think if the new co-worker was a super shy guy the responses would be the same as they are currently? I really don’t.

        1. Cat

          Precisely the same? Perhaps not. But I bet someone would have raised the possibility that he was avoiding making eye contact out of shyness; and certainly, I’ve met both men and women where I got the sense that’s what was going on when their eyes were generally in my chest region.

    2. BCW

      I was going to mention this (not the exact post). Its very much a double standard. If it was a guy I’m sure words like “leering”, “creepy” and other things would be being thrown around, even if it was a “shy” person. I think it should be handled the same way if it was a guy. Maybe she is a lesbian and is very attracted to the woman, maybe she is just obsessed with other peoples breasts, but honestly it should be the exact same response.

      1. Chinook

        I would be curious to know this from a lesbian’s perspective – do women who are attracted to women like to look at women’s breasts in the same way men do? If so, then I would treat this like I would with a man and ask if I had something on my shirt.

        1. Calla

          Generally, we don’t openly leer at women’s chests because a) we didn’t grow up feeling entitled to women’s bodies and b) we know what it feels like to be on the receiving end. Of course, that doesn’t rule out the possibility the coworker is checking out OP’s chest.

          1. BCW

            I think your wording is a bit harsh. Just because a guy might stare, doesn’t at all mean we feel that we are entitled to a woman’s body. Statements like that don’t really help matters.

            1. Calla

              I said raised to feel entitled, not that all men actually feel entitled. At least in the U.S., the culture encourages men to feel entitled to women’s bodies (whether it’s looking or touching). Reality can be harsh.

              1. TheSnarkyB

                Right exactly. And even in a culture where women are so objectified, the targets of that message are mostly men. Thankfully, women who are attracted to women are not raised, encouraged, incentivized, or socialized to objectify other women like that. Psh, lesbianism isn’t even accepted enough for marketing companies to be like, “I know, let’s tell the lesbians to start treating each other like inanimate play things.”

                And I think your wording above was right on point. Men in this culture (mainstream American, at the very least) are raised to and told to feel entitled to women’s bodies, and women just don’t receive that message in the same way, regardless of sexual orientation. And if you need more fodder for conversation, consider that gay men also exhibit tendencies towards presumptuous ownership of or access to women’s bodies without their permission- male privilege isn’t about who you’re attracted to.
                A link to a related article if you’re interested:
                http://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/gay-mens-sexism-and-womens-bodies/

                1. Calla

                  Thanks for linking to that article – that’s one thing (in addition to my own experiences) I was thinking about when I made that comment, but I didn’t think to link to the article!

            2. Anonymous

              OK. I am the anonymous poster above who has an issue with this due to challenges with making eye contact. I also happen to be a lesbian. I like to think that the majority of people who do this are like me and are not actually leering but I’m sure there are some people (both women and men) who do. I think we can probably all agree that we live in a society (speaking for the US here) that does have an ongoing history of objectifying women especially for the benefit of men. I think it’s that cultural context that often causes a much stronger emotional reaction to a man looking at a woman’s body than a woman looking.

        2. Del

          Absolutely not in the same way! Calla has a great point about not feeling entitled to women’s bodies in the same way that men are socialized to — and as well, there’s needing to stay at least somewhat discreet about being a lesbian, hence openly checking out coworkers is really not something I or any of the other queer ladies I’m familiar with would engage in, from a self-defense viewpoint as well as the actual inappropriateness of it. And since the OP describes this new coworker as seeming very shy and nervous, I wouldn’t think that “checking her out” is high on the list of possible explanations.

        3. TheSnarkyB

          Chinook, thank you for specifically asking this, because I was just about to respond to BCW that actually, it shouldn’t be the exact same response. For one thing, as a woman who is attracted to/dates/sexes women, being “very attracted to her” wouldn’t be an appropriate excuse. Just like it wouldn’t excuse an attracted man’s behavior.
          And in general- no, we do not look at other women’s breasts the same way men do. Some women-loving-women do, I’m sure, but it’s not nearly as much of a thing and is a pretty aggressive trait and a presumptuous/boundary-crossing thing to do.

          1. Emily K

            I think I’ve also seen some research that women tend to be more Gestalt in our sexual attraction–we’re more aroused and more enjoy looking at the whole picture, the way all the body parts add up to something greater than their sum and how they move together. When women view pornography they show a preference for full body shots and not extreme close-ups of genitals or breasts, and when they “check out” men or women they tend to scan the whole body and not leave their eyes fixed for an especially long time on the breasts or butt or anything else.

            1. TheSnarkyB

              Omg I had no idea, but this is so spot on. You’ve given words to my thoughts! Though I will stop officially bein a student in May (woot!), I will never enjoy that feeling – it’s the best part of learning. You made my day!

              1. TheSnarkyB

                Haha I was NOT just trying to sound cool: “bein” was a typo.
                And I was referring to the feeling of having someone put words to what’s inside my head.

    3. Ellie H.

      That’s a great point that this is useful to us to notice that these same more innocuous explanations can be the case for men as well.

      This actually ties into your post about how to be happier at work by first looking for explanations in error or accident, rather than ill intent! (Gretchen Rubin, author of my other favorite blog calls this “finding explanations in charity” after a Flannery O’Connor quotation: http://www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/2013/07/story-its-a-sign-of-maturity-not-to-be-scandalized/).

    4. Zahra

      For me, the main difference is that the male coworker seemed to do it to every woman in the office. In the present case, it seems to be a single person affected by it.

      However, and I’m not proud of it as a feminist, I give more leeway to same-sex staring. Which is stupid because, for all you know, the same-sex person is bi-sexual/homosexual. Chalk it up to cultural conditioning.

      1. Natalie

        I think there’s also some cultural conditioning at play for the stare-er. I’ve been hit on by women a lot (I have a lesbian vibe, I guess?) and I don’t recall ever being leered by a lesbian/bi woman the way I’ve been leered at by men.

      2. Ellie H.

        I would suspect that it’s the performance of leering behavior that is sex-linked, not the object of the leering. I.e., that gay men are equally likely to leer at men as straight men are to leer at women, and lesbian women are equally likely to leer at women as straight women are to leer at men. But I haven’t read a study on the issue!

        1. Steve

          I think gay men may have had too many years of “what are you looking at F****t?” to leer at men the same way that straight men leer at women.

            1. Steve

              I don’t suspect my boss is going to take me to a gay bar for a business lunch and then get upset because I’m leering at him (or NOT leering at him since he’s SO not my type :-D )

    5. Mike C.

      Given the things women have to deal with that many men aren’t even aware of, I’m not surprised or bothered by the responses at all.

      1. Joey

        What?! So since women have it harder in life they get leeway where a man probably wouldn’t.

        Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the equality we’re all striving for?

        1. TL

          The context of a man leering at a woman is quite different from a woman leering at a woman, unfortunately.

            1. BCW

              The reply you will get will be some combination of history, power differential, with a bit of “The Gift of Fear” and “Schrodingers Rapist” thrown in for good measure.

              1. Cat

                Here’s a question for you, BCW; I’m honestly curious in the response. Do you think your career has ever been harmed because a female superior was sexually objectifying you at work?

                1. BCW

                  No, I have not. While I get that it does happen to SOME women, I don’t think all women can say its happened to them. However the reaction of a man doing something is always going to go to what MAY be happening and he won’t necessarily be as quick to get the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, I’m a black man, and I don’t think my career has been harmed because of racism either, so I won’t jump to that. If every bad thing that happened to a black employee whose boss was white was blamed on systemic racism, I would have just as much of an issue.

                2. Mike C.

                  I’ve seen and heard cases where the opposite is true. Not just in the workplace, but in college as well.

                3. Cat

                  Of course not, Joey – there are people of all genders who abuse their power. What I’m suggesting is that there are sound statistical reasons for women to be more likely to assume a man who’s staring at their breasts is objectifying them than a woman.

                  Which isn’t to say you deal with the situation differently, or that you always assume anything regardless of the gender of the person involved. You make a judgment based on the facts on the ground and handle it accordingly. But that does not mean that women and men are equally likely to sexually harass or objectify, or to leer at, people in their employ.

                4. Chinook

                  Cat, as a woman I can honestly say that my career has never been harmed by anyone sexually objectifying me at work. Considering that part of my career was as a junior high teacher (i.e. a time when boys are learning to master their hormones) and I have DD breasts, I would think that I have had an occasion to be sexually objectified.

                  Then again, maybe my career, and life, have been negatively affected and I am just clueless to it because I expect to be treated like I treat others (and that is not meant to be snarky).

              2. khilde

                BCW – I like you. I’ve always liked you because you are bold with your points of view and are willing to engage in them sincerely when someone challenges you. And I appreciate that you are in minority situations and are willing to consider things objectively.

            2. TL

              No, because historically and currently, men are much more likely to abuse and objectify women sexually than women are and women are taught to fear men, especially when it comes to unwanted sexual attention. Also, there’s a power and size differential that tends to come into play – most men are stronger than most women and the majority of powerful people are men . I’ve had a lot more men try to physically intimidate me, often without even realizing it, than women.

        2. Mike C.

          No, women have to deal with a lot more sexual harassment in the workplace then men do, and staring at a woman’s chest is a common way for this to manifest.

        3. Mike C.

          My point is that I understand why there is a more visceral reaction to a man staring at a woman’s chest than a woman staring at a woman’s chest.

          I’m not saying that the behavior is any more acceptable coming from one group to another.

          1. TL

            Yes. Unacceptable behavior from any gender, but it’s unrealistic to say it’s the same thing from a man as from a woman.

          2. TheSnarkyB

            Mike C., thank you for making your points here the way you have and I’d just like to point out that you really seem to know what you’re talking about (in general). It seems like you very much try to have your male privilege in check or at least like you make a strong effort. It does not go unacknowledged, and I just wanted to let you know that. (And also to demonstrate that being a male posting on this thread does not mean being villified, and I for one am not lumping you in with the other male opinions. Given what I’m hearing that would be quite…. uncharitable and unreasonable.)

            1. BCW

              Of course he won’t be villified, he is agreeing with you. And thats not to say that I think everything he is saying is wrong, but its very easy to mention how much someone knows what they are talking about when they agree with your point of view.

              I acknowledge male privilege just fine, but I don’t think its an excuse for assuming all guys are out to do bad things to women.

              1. TheSnarkyB

                I actually think it’s quite problematic when a person of a dominant group decides that it is for them to decide and proclaim how well they’re doing re: not oppressing the marginalized group. I disagree about your acknowledgement of male privilege, given many comments you’ve made on here before, but I suppose we’re going to have to agree to disagree on that.

        4. Katie the Fed

          This is pretty simple, Joey. Men are more likely able to be physically threatening to women, because of their biological advantages in the strength category. Women are less potentially threatening, from a physical standpoint. That’s all. I am uncomfortable being leered at in general (and the OP didn’t make it sound like leering, but regardless…), but the male stare will feel more threatening than the female one.

            1. TL

              No, but you’re (general you) are more likely to be worried about receiving unwanted attention from someone who is significantly stronger than you are than from someone who is your size or smaller.

                1. Katie the Fed

                  I think you’re being deliberately daft here. You can write logical counterarguments to every single thing, but the point is that many women have a visceral reaction to feel threatened by certain behaviors from men. Those visceral reactions might not always be justified in every single case, but that doesn’t change the fact that the initial reaction is what it is.

                2. Joey

                  That’s my point- that frequently the fear is not justified and frequently based on stereotypes similar to the way men are stereotyped as better leaders than women.

      2. BCW

        I kind of think you are giving too much of a pass here. Inappropriate behavior is still the same regardless of who is doing it, their minority status, or who has had it harder. A black boss can’t treat employees worse based on race and then have it be ok because in general blacks have had to deal with things that white people aren’t aware of.

        1. Calla

          That’s not really an accurate comparison. It’s more like a black boss receiving a potentially insensitive comment from an employee (about something like, say, hair), and *initially* filtering it differently depending on who it comes from.

          1. BCW

            You are right, its not the exact same. My point though is that if certain behavior is inappropriate, its inappropriate regardless of who it comes from, and there really shouldn’t be a difference in how its handled.

            1. fposte

              That’s why I think starting with a benign assumption–or at least the pretense of a benign assumption–is a good all-purpose go-to regardless of the sex of the person. TL’s method works really well there. If the person goes on to be consciously obnoxious, you can then deal with that directly.

              1. BCW

                I agree with the benign assumption regardless of gender in theory, I just don’t think males would get the same benefit of the doubt in most situations.

                1. fposte

                  I’m not really giving it here either, but I think in either case the pretense that it’s benign is a good place to start.

                  I think also people are more forgiving of all genders for a one-off; it’s when you regularly engage in a behavior that makes people uncomfortable that the intentions become kind of a moot point, as the results aren’t benign and they matter more.

                2. BCW

                  @katie really? Thats your argument, that life isn’t fair sometimes? There are A LOT of work place situations that I could say that about, but it doesn’t really solve anything.

                3. Katie the Fed

                  Yep, it is. You don’t seem particularly interested in understanding WHY it’s not the same to women to be stared at by men vs women, but it’s explained pretty clearly above. It might not be fair to well-meaning men who get wrapped up in those preconceived ideas, but assumptions are an unfortunate part of life due to past experiences. Now if all men got fired or reprimanded about it while women got a free pass, that would be one thing. But we’re talking about the vague concept of “benefit of the doubt” and I’m not aware of any requirement that everybody gets the same benefit of the doubt for everything. The action is unwelcome whether from a man or a woman, but the context is very different.

                4. BCW

                  I get WHY there is a double standard, but it doesn’t make it right. But the “Life isn’t fair” argument is like me telling the OP to “Just get over it”. They both offer the exact same level of helpfulness in dealing with it.

                5. Katie the Fed

                  It’s actually not at all like telling the OP to get over it, because the employee’s actions were inappropriate.

                  But arguing that it’s not fair that men don’t get the benefit of the doubt, well, ok. It’s not. I’m admitting it’s not fair. But there are valid reasons that’s the case, and unless we can change the behavior of all men, we’re not going to make much headway saying the reactions are completely unjustified.

                6. BCW

                  Snarky, I didn’t say the person’s gender is irrelevant, I said the response to the behavior should be the same. I’m an average size guy. If I had a 5 ft, 100 lb woman say something aggressive or threatening to me and a 6’5 300 lb guy say the same thing, I acknowledge that there is a difference in how I’d feel about it. However I don’t think my response to it should be any different. Whether or not I feel like I’m in any real danger by the woman, she shouldn’t get a pass in this situation just because she most likely couldn’t really do me any harm. Whether I’d confront the guy or take his behavior to HR, I think that same thing should be done with the woman.

                  I feel like though based on a lot of these responses people are like “its a woman looking at the OPs chest, so the response should be different”. That is where my problem lies.

        2. Mike C.

          That’s a great point, and I should have made it clear that the behavior is unacceptable regardless of who is doing it.

  8. Clare

    I agree that it likely has to do with an uncomfortableness with eye contact. I’m one of those people that has a hard time looking in people’s faces for any prolonged period of time, and looking down comes more naturally than looking up. Probably having something to do with self-confidence, or wanting to show deference. Based on my personal feelings as a likely offender in this category, it might be best to approach it in a way that maybe asks her directly if she is nervous about eye contact, because it might make her feel more nervous if you call her out like she’s some sort of freak and make your future interactions with her even weirder.

    1. fposte

      But if you’re going to address it directly, you need to make the point that the behavior isn’t acceptable, too. She can stare at foreheads if she likes, but staring at chests has to stop.

  9. Rich

    I was initially inclined to agree with TL’s suggestion, but then I saw other posters talking about inability to make eye contact. Very interesting. I think the “is there something on my shirt” may be the way to go. She probably isn’t aware she’s doing it and may fess up to being shy and put the issue on the table. At that point you can joke and lighten things up.

    I do wonder what the responses would be if this scenario were about a dude.

    1. Chinook

      The inability to make eye contacat, whether from shyness or cultural indoctrination, is definitely something that your “average” N. American and European is not aware of. Heck, the only real reason I know it exists culturally is that I spent my first 6 years of life surrounded by Cree Indians (I went the band playschool and kindergarten.). Culturally, this makes me different from my parents, brother (who was 3 when we left) and sister (who wasn’t even 1). I didn’t realize I was more than “just odd” until in junior high we had classes that included the history of residential schools and all the culturally insensitive things that happenned there and they used the example of eye contact = disrespect vs. respect depending on culture.

      1. fposte

        Though we’re talking a cultural convention rather than a true inability, really–it’s not immutable.

  10. Katie the Fed

    Make sure you’re not accidentally showing more than you intended, especially if you’re wearing button-down shirts. I can’t really wear them because the gap between buttons can put on a show :/

    1. Laura

      Oh, to completely get away from the subject for a minute, I just discovered AJ Rumina that makes button down shirts based on your bust size, so no gap! I haven’t ordered one yet, so I can recommend them really, but I’m looking forward to finally being able to wear a nice button down shirt under my blazer again.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit

        Soooo doesn’t fix the problem. I can wear a button down several sizes too large and it still gaps. It’s just something about the shape of my chest, not the size of it.

        1. Anonymous

          Right – if the buttons are in the right places, then no gap. You have to either sew or find a good seamstress.

          1. Rana

            I have a friend who has this problem with practically every button-down shirt she owns. Her solution is to sew up the problem area, so gaping is no longer possible at all.

            1. Editor

              When the placket where the buttonholes are is multilayered and more rigid (stitched down on both sides of the buttonholes), I’ve been able to add snaps discreetly to supplement the buttons.

              I think commercial button-downs for women should have twice as many buttons so the gaps are smaller and the button placement is more likely to be effective. It would cost more, but a lot of women would think it was worth it.

        2. TootsNYC

          It’s the shape of the shirt, not just the size of it. You can’t just size up and fix the problem; you have to completely reshape the bodice–the armhole has to stay the same height and curve, and the fabric has to extend further back under the armpit. Basing it on the bust size is crucial.

          And yes, positioning is necessary as well, though if the shirt fits comfortably, and fits properly around the curves, there shouldn’t be pulling.

    2. Katie the Fed

      Also, none of this is to imply that it’s an any way the OP’s fault. But that can be distracting. I’ve noticed on other women and thought – “oooh honey, no! Get thee a safety pin!”

      1. Jen in RO

        I’m a straight woman and I definitely get distracted by boobs. I don’t know why – maybe because mine aren’t impressive? But I can really empathize with men – when I see a woman with a big cleavage, my eyes go straight down and it’s embarrassing!

        1. Chinook

          In the defence of those who are distracted by larger boobs – it is sometimes hard to fight the natural urge for our eyes to be drawn to the big, bouncy things that seem to be looking back at us. Heck, I have been known to be distracted by mine if I haven’t corralled them correctly (but only because I am worreid about them making their own entrance.).

        2. K in Canada

          You’re not the only one. Also when woman wear t-shirts with stuff written right across the chest. I really feel compelled to read what it says but I don’t want to stare but I have to read it! If it takes me too long to read the t-shirt I feel embarrassed for staring so long. I know this doesn’t pertain to the OP, but just felt so relieved that Jen in RO admitted that cleavage can be distracting for anyone, even straight women.

  11. Marissa

    I catch myself doing this all the time and I hate it. I do think it has something to do with nervousness or being uncomfortable holding eye contact for long periods of time.

    I’m always mortified when I realize it and wonder if I should apologize and explain myself or just pretend that it didn’t happen and continue to repeat “her eyes are up there” to myself internally…

    1. Marissa

      I would add that I would probably be relieved if someone brought it up to me. It would then open the door for said apology and explanation without me worrying that I was making things unnecessarily awkward.

  12. TLRoss

    The situation is exactly what my boss was speaking of the other day. He almost got slapped my a woman at a store while standing in line. He swears he was not looking at her chest, but she claimed he was and called him a few choice names and indicated if he didn’t stop she would slap him. However, I feel he does the same thing to me. After that story he told me, I’m wondering if his eyes just don’t divert down when thinking and it looks like he is starring at the chest area. I just let it go though because I don’t wear revealing clothes, so maybe it is not what it seems.

  13. PurpleChucks

    “I don’t want to embarrass you, but I have to let you know something potentially. I noticed that you don’t seem to make eye contact with me and I feel like you end up staring at my chest. I assume you’re not even aware you’re doing this, but it has been making me uncomfortable, so I wanted to let you know about it.”

    1. fposte

      “And you need to make sure that your eyes are focused in an appropriate direction.” You’re not just letting her know about it; you’re telling her she needs to amend her behavior.

      1. Ellie H.

        Hmm – to me “you need to make sure that your eyes are focused in an appropriate direction” sounds over the top controlling to me given that it is basically telling her how to conduct a certain function of human behavior (where to focus her eyes); it sounds to me precisely like something you would say to an elementary school kid.
        It may be helpful to indicate that she should change her behavior but unless she is atypically oblivious (and my guess is that if she is shy/self-conscious, this is definitely not the case) I would think that pointing out that she’s doing it will get the message across that she needs to stop doing it. If not, maybe to say something less forceful like “Just make sure that others don’t accidentally get the same impression.” ?

        1. fposte

          I’m fine with a different phraseology, but I also have no problem with sounding controlling–this is behavior that it’s appropriate to control. She doesn’t have the option to look at people’s chests, and it doesn’t matter what their impression is. To me, “Make sure that other people don’t accidentally get the same impression” isn’t clear enough that she needs to fix what she’s doing, because it’s wrong.

        2. fposte

          Augh. You know what? You’re right, because I got it into my head that the OP was the supervisor of the staring person, and that’s what my responses have been built on. You’re right; for a co-worker this is inappropriately directive (as have been most of my suggestions). TL’s suggestion, on the other hand, remains superb.

          1. fposte

            Though now I see she’s tasked with training this person, so there is room for her to be somewhat more directive.

          2. Ellie H.

            I actually had been under that impression too, that she was a direct supervisor. I don’t know, I understand that it’s helpful to get specific information about behaviors to change but it still seems overly explicit to me, in that it calls almost a humiliating level of attention to her behavior. I definitely get that we don’t need to fall all over ourselves to cater to shy people, but to me being told you’re staring at someone’s chest, if you’re doing it accidentally, is much more mortifying than having your chest stared at. Like how walking in on someone in the bathroom is more embarrassing than being walked in on. But maybe others disagree.

            It’s also that telling her it’s not appropriate to stare at people’s chests seems to me to be a ridiculous thing to say. Pretty much any person would agree that staring at a woman’s chest isn’t appropriate. (This is operating under the assumption that it’s not out of interest in the appearance of her chest, but is inadvertent due to avoiding eye contact or whatever else.)
            I like the wording PurpleChucks suggested below a lot – “I wanted to let you know about it so that it can stop” – without the reference to what is and isn’t appropriate to do, because presumably she already knows – or even better, “I wanted to let you know so that you can stop doing it.” Because that presents it more as helpful information, not like a strict instruction.

            1. fposte

              It was a tossed-off wording on my part, so I’m fine with an amendation–I like Purple’s below too. But I think (going with the pretend-it’s-a-manager vibe we’ve got now) you do have to be specific about the problem behavior and that it needs to stop; otherwise you’re committing the managerial sin of saying vaguely that somebody’s kind of off in a way that’s worth talking about but not specifying. (And I’m not convinced it’s accidental here anyway.)

              1. OP here

                Sorry, stepped out of this thread for a bit. Yes, I’m her manager.

                And actually, I didn’t initially find it relevant, but she was is in the equivalent position as mine at her former employer. Maybe she’s not shy but this is some sort of power asserting move?

                1. fposte

                  It’s the weirdest power move I’ve ever heard of, if so, and I think it’s spectacularly doomed to failure.

                  I wouldn’t worry a lot about the why at this stage anyway–pick one of the suggestions that you think would work for you to redirect her and do it.

      2. PurpleChucks

        ITA that it should clear the behavior needs to stop!

        “I don’t want to embarrass you, but I have to let you know something potentially awkward. I noticed that you don’t seem to make eye contact with me and I feel like you end up staring at my chest. I assume you’re not even aware you’re doing this, but it has been making me uncomfortable, so I wanted to let you know about it so that it can stop. Regardless of why it’s happening, it’s not appropriate to focus on people’s chests.”

        1. Kerr

          I like this wording, but minus the last sentence. I’d give her a chance to apologize first, and then (providing she actually gives a non-blase response), say that you understand it wasn’t intentional, but that it’s important to keep your eyes on someone’s face, and not on their chest. Maybe throw in a tip about looking at the “triangle” on peoples’ faces to make the eye-contact thing easier. Something about the “and it’s inappropriate” reiteration would seem very rebuking and presumptive to me, like the speaker thinks I’m stupid, and don’t understand that it’s not okay to stare at peoples’ chests.

          And include me in the category of Shy People Who Have Trouble Making Eye Contact. I’m sure I’ve done this without even thinking about it! (Note: I’m female.) Actually, a couple of times, I’ve realized that, hey, I’m looking at someone’s chest, and panicked. It doesn’t mentally register as “staring at someone’s chest”, just “not staring deeply into the other person’s eyes, and somehow my eyes ended up THERE”. Yikes!

  14. Mena

    I wonder if she isn’t looking at your chest at all, just avoiding making eye contact because she is uncomfortable, shy, nervous, etc. I suggest trying to ignore it; pointing it out to her will only make her more uncomfortable, shy, nervous.

    1. fposte

      But what she’s doing isn’t okay. If alerting her that she’s doing something not okay makes her more shy and nervous, that’s the way it goes–it doesn’t justify her doing something not okay.

    2. Kerr

      I’m shy and nervous, and it would probably embarrass me horribly. However, I’d much rather be told about it directly by a well-intentioned coworker than to be seen as that weird person who stares at people’s chests all the time! Because at some point, someone else is going to say something, and it’s going to be even more embarrassing – like “Hey! Eyes up here!” when I never had a clue.

  15. JenTheNiceHRGirl

    I had a male manager who used to do this and it drove me crazy. I could just cover my chest area with my arm, clear my throat, and just try to retain eye contact. If that doesn’t work, I would suggest when you catch her doing this, saying something like “oh, do you like my blouse, I just picked it up last week… or oh you noticed my new necklace”. That might make her realize that you are aware that she is looking in that area. Then if that doesn’t work, then I guess you will just have to come right out and ask her to please knock it off because it makes you feel uncomfortable. Good luck! I know how annoyed I was when this was happening to me.

  16. Lisa

    In my Muay Thai training we’re taught to look at the chest (because that gives you the most warning about what the feet and hands will be doing next). Which can feel awkward for awhile. Moreover, it’s become a bit instinctive in daily life,a nd I have to be careful of it.

    1. Chinook

      Lisa has the best comeback to “my eyes are up here” – sorry, I wasn’t looking at your breasts, just watching to see if you are are going to use your hands or feet to kill me.

      1. Sissa

        I think it can be seen as a habit though.. Anyone who learned to drive a manual transmission car will find it hard to not look for the clutch or change gears in an automatic car. It’s kind of funny trying to desperately look for the clutch, let me tell you :)

        In a case of chest-staring, I’d be pretty oblivious. I’m very short so people are looking down at me anyway!

  17. Christine

    Sometimes people who have a hard time with direct eye contact will look below the face (even mildly autistic people I have heard do this). So it’s not necessarily a “desire” to look at one’s chest, but an aversion to making eye contact. I suspect she doesn’t even know she’s doing it.

  18. JC

    I have a couple of close friends on the autism spectrum. My female friend with Asperger’s has told me that making eye contact is very difficult for her if she isn’t wearing her sunglasses. I gather that’s very common, as my other friend hasn’t said as much but he also will always avoid eye contact. It is possible this young woman might be on the spectrum and might have problems in keeping eye contact, especially if it feels confrontational. It should still be addressed – probably using some of the strategies above – but it might be good to realize she may not be at all aware she’s doing it.

  19. periwinkle

    A quick note about height differential – the OP is 5’10” and the new coworker is shorter (although the OP didn’t say how much shorter).

    I’m 4’10”. If I’m talking with a taller person (translation: pretty much every adult and quite a few children) and we’re both standing within normal conversational distance, that means I’m looking almost straight up. This is uncomfortable as is (my neck is perpetually achy), but in an office setting that means I am almost always looking straight into the overhead lighting.

    I’m not trying to avoid eye contact. I’m trying to avoid eye pain.

    (OTOH, I don’t relieve the pressure on my eyes and neck muscles by staring at someone’s chest… too creepy… unless that person is wearing a cool necklace or a splatter of mustard, of course)

    1. jmkenrick

      I thought of this too. I stare at my boyfriend’s chest a lot. But only cause he’s so much taller than I am and I get tired of craning my neck up. It’s an ongoing joke at this point.

    2. Collarbone High

      Was coming here to say this. I’m 5′ nothing, and having to maintain eye contact with someone a foot taller than me gets uncomfortable fast. It also creates a weird power imbalance, where I feel like a child looking up at an adult. So it’s possible the shorter employee isn’t so much staring as pulling her eyes back down to a spot that’s both physically and psychologically more comfortable for her, and unfortunately your chest is right in her line of vision.

      OP, if she’s a lot shorter, is there some way you can alleviate the height difference during the training period, like sitting on a stool?

  20. Anonymous

    I think this is really common with shy people; I’ve caught myself doing it. It’s not that I’m interested in someone’s boobs; I just have trouble making eye contact sometimes. I do it if I think about it, but if it’s a long conversation or I’m tired, my gaze tends to drop right about far enough to be looking at someone’s chest. It took me a long time to catch myself at it, so this woman might not even realize it’s happening.

    It’s something that I feel you should bring up, just very gently. If it’s an unconscious behavior she can work on changing it. But if I were hearing it, I’d receive it much better if the person was very understanding about it (probably) being an eye contact thing.

  21. Not So NewReader

    Is this her first job?
    I guess that does not really matter, OP, because you as a trainer do have in roads to this problem.

    My suggestion to you is that you remove yourself from the storyline when you open the subject.. so here goes:
    “Trainee, I have noticed sometimes when people are talking with you that you are staring at their chests. People really want eye contact- that is how they get to know and understand you. I can do the best job in the world training you, but if you can’t look people in the eyes you might have difficulty with misunderstandings, lack of trust, etc. Eye contact coveys confidence, professionalism, and it shows you are paying attention to what is being said.
    Now, we have lots of stuff to cover here, so I cannot keep talking about this one thing. But keep it in the back of your mind and keep working on having better eye contact with people. It will help you in your job a lot. [Then change the subject before she can say anything.] Today I want us to go over the XYZ report- this will be one of your weekly tasks.”

    The advantage here is that you do not have to mention your own discomfort or talk about your own body. And you do it like a “hit and run” conversation.

  22. Mary

    I am female and have had the same issue on two occasions. In both instances, the person
    was gay (not that there is anything wrong with that). On the other hand, I have never noticed a male staring at my chest. Go figure.

  23. Elizabeth West

    Maybe she’s looking at your clothes. I always end up looking at people’s shirts (and their shoes, for some reason). I usually say “Pretty shirt,” or whatever, but if she’s shy, it might be hard for her to say it. It probably seems like I’m looking at their chests, but honestly, I’m looking at the shirt and wondering would that look good on me, I like that color, could I sew a shirt like that, etc.

    If there is a slogan on the shirt, I just ask “What does your shirt say?”

  24. Short Attention Span

    Assuming the “starting at your chest” is the only (suggestive) behavior you are seeing from her that is making you uncomfortable, I would diagnose it as follows (I have experienced this myself and I am a shorter female).

    1. I am trying to listen, understand, visualize, learn, or articulate something (whatever it is I am in deep concentration/mental effort).
    2. My eyes go wherever they go; often I am mentally “looking” for something in my mind; my eyes sort of lose focus and I may have a blank stare kind of look or appear zoned out.
    3. Seconds/minutes later I realize later that my eyes are staring at someones chest, or somewhere else odd and I sort of wake up from my stare and move.

    -I am a short female (5’2″).
    -I happen to sit in a lower chair than others.
    -I get intensely focused mentally on whateer I am thinking about. Sort of hard to explain, but I am a deep-thinker type and get very locked into whatever my train of thought is.
    -This can happen to me with anyone male or female. The criteria is the person is taller. (Therefore, most of them do happen to be men). I just have to watch myself around everyone who is taller.
    -If I can’t make eye contact I try to look at the ground or my shoe or something.

    -Friends, not just coworkers (actually mainly just friends) have called me out on this. I make an effort to make as much eye contact as possible.

    – In line with another person’s suggestion, (is there somehting on my shirt) Before she does this next time put something on the floor (to set the stage) and when she does it, glance toward the object and say, “Is that a “(dollar, quarter, someone’s key, etc.)

  25. Shein

    It’s because of insecurity.she is been hurt and her spirit weighs her down.be kind and patient towards her.

  26. David

    Hi,

    I would just like to give a man’s point of view on this subject. Most people who are shy do tend to look down when they are talking to someone. She may not really be noticing your chest but just feels
    self conscious about talking to you. Being a man I try to look at a woman’s face al all times when I am talking to her because I know that if I look at her chest it will make her feel uncomfortable.

  27. Austin

    To the staring at the chest: I am a guy, a happily married one but I have always had a staring problem and stare at things for no reason; people, things, and sometimes things that if I were aware, I would not even look at. You see for example, my wife and I have another couple we are friends with and she wears low cut stuff (not obscenely low but low enough to see cleavage) and if I am not conscious about where my eyes are, she will be in my field of view and bend over (always) it’s like she does it on purpose but I know she don’t, and my eye’s will start staring. It’s annoying for me and I know she has caught me because she did the arm thing, but that only makes it worse, because when you cover or fight with your shirt, you draw more attention to it. So I say this to you; I feel that we as humans or maybe just us introverts, are naturally drawn to look at private areas. It definitely doesn’t mean that we are thinking inappropriately or anything at all. I would if I were you confront her about it, in a nice way, and just be honest and tell her that your not trying to embarrass her. Then whatever she says, you can tell her what makes you uncomfortable. I’m horribly self-conscious around women because of all the stereotypes attributed to men and it’s just not fair……I’m getting to the point that I hate to be around them at all. Honesty works, just don’t run people down. Hope this all helps.

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