my coworker keeps criticizing the way I talk to male colleagues

A reader writes:

I’m a college student, currently working in a university office as an assistant. The office has three advisors who do different jobs: Adam, Brenda, and Chris. I report to all of them, and I sit at the front desk to the office to do light filing and answer the phones. It can be a pretty slow job, depending on the time of year, so it’s a relaxed atmosphere. Everyone’s “offices” (cubicles) are close together and open, so there’s a lot of conversation back and forth, and no real secrets.

Adam is a nice guy in his mid-thirties, recently married, very silly and funny. He’s very entertaining, but is out of the office a lot.

Brenda, is older, widowed, and very bossy. She reminds me of every busybody neighbor from a movie or sitcom, and everyone else avoids her whenever possible.

Chris is a single guy in his early thirties, finishing up his degree. His desk is closest to mine, and we’ve become friendly through conversations about books, movies, television, etc.

Last fall, Brenda pulled me out into the hallway for a lecture after she observed me “flirting” (having a conversation about movies) with a grad student who she knows is married. She told me that I’m being naive, said I need to pay more attention to my actions and whether or not someone is wearing a wedding ring, and told that student (a doctoral candidate in his late twenties) that he was not to return to the office when I’m working.

After that, she took an issue with how I treat Chris. I don’t see him as a romantic interest, but as a role model; an example of how someone like me could end up in a good job like his some day.

We chat and joke around, and he gave me his cell phone number so that if something is happening in the office while he’s out at lunch or something, I can get in touch with him. He’s also teaching me to do some of the functions of his job, because he plans on leaving in the next year or two and he wants someone to be able to pick up the slack. We’ve texted on non-work things a few times — I watched a movie he recommended and told him what I thought, etc. and once or twice we’ve grabbed lunch or dinner together after leaving work.

A few weeks ago, Brenda pulled me out into the hallway for another lecture. She told me that the way I’m mooning over Chris is inappropriate. She asked if I thought it would be professional if she started texting the dean of her department, and brought up the “suggestive” way I’d been sitting next to him in his office the other day (I pulled up a chair because he wanted me to watch a video on his computer).

She told me that if Chris and I were friends outside of the office, it would be okay, but because we’re not, I shouldn’t be trying to be friendly with him at work. She commented on how Chris was having a “flirty” conversation with a grad student the other day, and I walked into his office to ask a question, and didn’t leave right away, and it “made Chris really uncomfortable.”

At that point I was mortified, because I realized that Chris must have asked her to talk to me about it. I apologized, and went back to my desk. The next day I approached Chris to apologize, and also to ask that he come to me directly in the future if he ever has any issues, because being lectured by Brenda is humiliating. He seemed confused — he’d never said anything to Brenda. He doesn’t like her, and there’s no way he’d involve her in something if he didn’t have to. I’m inclined to believe him, because he’s a very direct and sometimes brutally honest person.

I’ve never made any romantic overtures toward Chris, nor he to me. We’ve been working together for a year now, and I feel like if that kind of thing were going to develop, it would have by now. Moreover, it’s not like I’m starting my career here. It’s a work-study job to help pay my tuition, and there’s no room for advancement.

I’m not sure what to do at this point. Brenda seems determined to “mother” me, but I’m 24 years old. Even my own mother doesn’t pry into my life to this extent. I don’t know if I can continue to work this job if behavior that has no bearing on my work is going to be called into question all the time.

More importantly, does she have a point? Is it inappropriate to text my superior after he’s given me his phone number for that purpose? Should I not be friendly and try to learn from Chris simply because he’s of the opposite sex? Should I stop trying to have interesting conversations with him even though we share similar interests?

She does not have a point. She is being weird and sexist and a busybody, and you do not need to listen to her.

You are allowed to be friendly with people of the opposite sex. You do not have to confine yourself to only building work relationships with people of your same sex — and imagine how constricting and bad for women’s networking and mentoring and general advancement it would be if you did. And no, it is not inappropriate to occasionally text your supervisor when he’s given you his number for that express purpose.

To be clear, it is possible to be overly chatty or inappropriately flirty at work. But there’s nothing here that indicates that you’re doing that.

What there is a lot of evidence for here is that Brenda is being weirdly judgmental about your interactions with men and is overstepping her bounds.

It sounds like Brenda has some supervisory authority over you, which means that you probably need to address this somewhat respectfully. If she didn’t, then you could be very blunt and simply say, “Please stop telling me how I should and shouldn’t interact with colleagues. I’m going to manage my interactions myself and I’m not seeking your input about it.”

But since she has some authority over you, you probably need to soften the language slightly — but not the message itself, which can still be very direct. For example, the next time she tries to have one of these conversations with you, you could say, “You’ve misinterpreted my actions. I’m not flirting with anyone at work, and it’s strange that you keep saying otherwise.  I’m uncomfortable with your focus on my conversations with people who happen to be men, and I’m asking you to stop.”

If that feels too direct given the power dynamics, you could soften it to something like: “I appreciate that you’re giving me input that you think will be helpful, but I’m not comfortable having my conversations with coworkers monitored in this way. If you have concerns about my work, I of course want to hear them, but I really don’t want to discuss these sorts of interactions. Again, thank you for the concern, but I will manage my work relationships myself.”

There’s also the option of just cutting her off the next time she starts and saying, “I actually don’t want to discuss my interactions with colleagues with you, so let me stop you there. I appreciate your concern, but I don’t need this kind of guidance.”

Or you could turn it around on her: “Brenda, your focus on sex is making me really uncomfortable. I’m surprised that you’re talking to me about such sexually-charged things at work, and I don’t want to hear about this kind of thing anymore.”

Brenda probably won’t like you much after this, so you’ll want to be prepared for that. But what she’s doing is out of line and gross, and it’s worth standing up to her if you’re comfortable doing it.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 647 comments… read them below }

  1. Jake*

    Wow. It’s amazing how uncomfortable a friendly conversation can turn when a third party injects sexuality into a situation where it previously wasn’t.

    Now both parties are going to be self conscience moving forward for no reason.

    1. Luna*

      Seriously. And I can’t believe this woman told one of the students to not come back when OP was there! Given it’s a university I’m assuming the office OP works in is there for the sole purpose of advising or providing service to the students- so Brenda is not only accusing OP of inappropriate behavior but also the students coming there for help?!

    2. Allison*

      I mean, we’re in a society where moms will say that little Braydn has a girlfriend after seeing him playing in the sandbox with a girl at daycare, and all the other moms will ooh and aah over it and then laugh. We condition kids from a young age to view opposite-sex friendships as potential relationships, and we encourage adults to project that potential romance onto every opposite-sex friendship they see, so yeah, this isn’t surprising. Twice I’ve had an older female coworker tell me that a dude at work had a crush on me, and if I told her “oh, well I’m not into him like that” she’ll just keep encourage him to talk to me, orchestrate moments where we can be alone together, etc. as though my feelings on the subject didn’t matter, or I was clearly in denial since after all I was *gasp* talking to him at work.

      1. Emily Spinach*

        That’s a good point, about how from childhood we turn opposite sex friendships into sexual/romantic relationships in ways that manifest later in life as problems! People often used to accuse me of flirting when I did not intend that, and now I find myself quite guarded in conversations with men, especially younger men, at work. Which isn’t the end of the world, obviously, but it can limit some kinds of opportunities for mentorship, collaboration, and advancement in some cases, as Alison rightly notes.

        1. AnonEMoose*

          All of this. And besides this, don’t get me started on the “he’s mean to you/teases you/pulls your hair because he likes you” stuff. Way to teach girls that boys/men acting like jerks to them is, in some way, a good thing.

          1. Triumphant Fox*

            If he’s teasing you because he likes you, it’s because he hasn’t developed the emotional maturity and skills to process his feelings and act accordingly. Understandable in a 10-year-old, less so in a 30-something. We do boys a disservice by not teaching them strategies to understand and channel their feelings – instead shrugging the hair tugging off as “boys will be boys.”

            1. AnonEMoose*

              Agreed. It’s a big disservice to both boys and girls. Boys should be taught how to manage their emotions, and girls shouldn’t have to bear the burden of being “understanding,” because “that’s just how boys are.”

      2. Agatha_31*

        I’m 40 years old and because I’m single, I STILL get this shit. Usually I end up having to go all the way to an outright “FUCK. OFF.NOW.” before they cut it out. Worse, they often like to go to the other person as well. I’ve lost several male friendships this way, because soon after I started getting “hints” about our “relationship” from some busybody, suddenly he ghosts. I’m never sure who to be madder at in that case, the guy or the busybody. Actually it’s the busybody. Because I know full well that they’re still Barbie-dolling me in their head, casting me in the role of a tragic “missed connection” love story and them in the role of “bff who totally will bring these two together and they will get married and I will be the maid of honor and then they will have children and I will be the godmother and…” Ugh, now I’m twitchy again.

        1. Allison*

          And I wonder if women do this thinking they’re helping us. “Poor single girl, she needs a nice husband . . . I know, I’ll set her up with Mark in marketing, they’d be great together!”

        2. Plague of frogs*

          When I was single, I hated the frigging bouquet throw at weddings. I mean, I was fine with the concept for anyone who wanted to participate, but I didn’t want to participate. If I resisted, I was publicly humiliated. If I timed a trip to the bathroom to miss it, they might wait for me–and publicly humiliate me even more. When I got married, we didn’t do the stupid bouquet toss.

          1. Nolan*

            I caught the bouquet *once*. It was my cousin’s wedding when I was 12, and in addition to the bouquet toss, they also did the garter toss. I was not familiar with the garter toss, but my 10 year old cousin caught it, and then we both faced incredible embarrassment with what came next.

            If you’re not familiar, the groom takes the garter off the bride and then shoots it off his thumb into a crowd of single men. Then, whoever catches the garter puts it on whoever caught the bouquet, and every inch over the knee is supposed to be a decade of happy marriage.

            I was mortified at the time, having no idea what was happening in advance and then having my cousin touching me like that, in the middle of a huge crowd who thought it was hilarious. Looking back, it would have been worse if some older stranger had caught it. But since then I get in the crowd and then don’t actually make an effort to catch the bouquet. If I have a wedding, it will be skipped entirely.

            1. Panda Bandit*

              I never knew there was a second part to the bouquet and garter toss! Every wedding I’ve been to skipped it. They’d always toss the bouquet, sometimes they’d toss the garter but not that frequently, and that was the end of it. Nobody ever made the garter catcher put it on the bouquet catcher.

            2. Jen*

              Wow, I’ve never heard of the knee part. The tradition I’d always heard was that the two who caught the accessories were supposed to dance with one another.

              I threw a stuffed cat toy at my wedding instead of my bouquet, and my husband threw one of my two garters. I don’t know if the two catchers danced together, though!

            3. Rachel Paterson*

              Jesus tapdancing christ.
              1, who thought that patriarchal bs up? 2, who the hell thinks it’s appropriate to push two pre-teen
              children into participating in the inappropriate touching part?!?
              I am shuddering in horror over here!

          2. Kali*

            At the last wedding I went to, I was one of only two unmarried women. We agreed to let the groomsmen fight for the bouquet (they have a full-on bromance). Luckily the bride wanted to keep her flowers, so there was no toss in the end.

          3. SimonTheGreyWarden*

            Right? I carried a single orchid stem instead of a bouquet expressly to get out of that stupid archaic tradition.

            1. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

              My bouquet was fake! LOL! My best friends put it together to match the wedding colors (yellow & turquoise.)

          4. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

            I always hid, or stood so far behind or away from the other participants that it was unlikely it would come my way. And if it did, I ran the OPPOSITE way.
            And no I didn’t do one at my wedding either.

      3. Old Jules*

        I crush that kind of conversation about my daughter really quickly with the adults around her. It’s inappropriate. They are friends and they should be comfortable with each other without gender being brought into the conversation.

    3. VerySleepyPregnantLady*

      A couple months back, I traveled back to my home city for the last time before baby. I got dinner, alone, with one of my close male friends. I met him at his office and then we headed out together.

      He texted me the next day and said “OMG, my whole office thinks I’m gonna be a dad!” Me: “?!?” Him: “I got dinner with a pregnant woman. Apparently that means I’m the dad?”

      I mean, I get that dinner is sometimes taken to be more of a romantic meal than lunch, but WTF?! It’s awkward when it happens socially, and so much worse when it happens professionally.

      1. Agatha_31*

        Man, if I were him, I would have been so insanely tempted just responding with a casual “oh! It’s not mine” and then excusing myself and slipping away before they could demand (oh sorry I mean HINT AT) any details. Trying to interpret that would drive them CRAZY.

        1. VerySleepyPregnantLady*

          He said he was just very confused! People were asking him if he had something to tell them, anything exciting coming up, and then finally someone asked, “Who is that chick from last night and when is your little bundle of joy going to be here?” The hints went over his head, and he was too flummoxed to be witty when someone was finally blunt (around 3pm, after people hinting about it all day).

          1. mdv*

            I’m the type whose head that would totally go over, too… In his place, at that point, I’d be all “are you f’ing kidding me?!” (bad language and all!) and then I’d be going back to each and every person who hinted all day long and giving them the dressing down of their lives.

    4. Media Monkey*

      totally. this happened to me in my first job out of university. it was a really gossipy agency – weirdly it was very much a “don’t pork the payroll” place and if there had been anything going on it would not have been OK.

      One of them was in a relationship and had a newborn baby. we were (and are) good friends who liked to socialise together. i was reminded several times of his relationship status (i know, what do you think we talk about?).

      the other was single and apparently (according to the gossipmongers) liked me. i saw him as a friend. cue really awkward conversations and a friendship that trailed off into nothing as a result.

  2. Murphy*

    I’m with Alison. OP, it doesn’t sound like you’re doing anything wrong at all. There’s nothing wrong with being friendly and occasionally discussing non-work topics with colleagues of any gender. Brenda has a weird perspective on this.

    1. Samata*

      Right? I have gotten some of my best book suggestions, movie suggestions, dining, etc. from people at work because we (mostly) come from different areas of town or are drawn to different things. This seems so odd to me to get hung up on this – and what’s this strange twist about: She told me that if Chris and I were friends outside of the office, it would be okay, but because we’re not, I shouldn’t be trying to be friendly with him at work.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        Yeah, because nobody in the history of ever has started real friendships at work, that last beyond employment there.

        Plus, shouldn’t everyone be “friendly” at work? Oh wait, that’s not how she’s using that word… feh.

    2. Higher Ed Database Dork*

      Right, I mean I’ve been keeping my all-male team up to date on my kitchen remodeling, at their request. My job would be boring, isolating, and with zero growth potential if I followed Brenda’s rules!

      1. Oryx*

        How weird would it be if you happen to sit right in front of me? ‘Cause I hear those same conversations from my coworker!

    3. MashaKasha*

      I have been the only woman on my team (in the office, at least – remembered as I typed this, that I have female teammates in other offices whom I never met in person) for the last 10+ years and two jobs. If I followed Brenda’s rules, I would have no career, and no interactions with my teammates.

  3. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Ew Ew Ew

    It sounds like Brenda is ‘old school’ and doesn’t believe that men and women can be just friends.

    I will say that I’m impressed that you wrote in for advice though. When I was in college, I was pretty impulsive and probably would have done something really petty instead of being mature about it.

    1. Anony*

      I was thinking the same thing. That mindset drives me crazy. It is especially annoying that she is focusing so much on the OPs appearing to flirt. If a conversation is slightly flirty or appears to be it doesn’t seem like it should rise to the level of taking the OP out into the hall to correct her behavior.

      1. LittleRedRidingHuh?*

        What annoys me even more is that Brenda puts all the “blame” ( not that there is any) firmly in the female corner. This is some misogynistic crap right there and especially bad coming from another female. Wtf ?!?

        1. Luna*

          Right, it appears Brenda is not giving the same lectures to the male boss, who should be the one getting the blame if there was any inappropriate behavior going on (which clearly there isn’t).

        2. Alli525*

          AND, OP was reprimanded for poking her head in on a meeting where Chris was (according to Brenda) trying to have a flirty conversation with someone else, but THAT conversation was apparently fine. So it’s ok to be flirty in the workplace, just not for OP? Ugh and ew.

          1. lulu*

            that part was super weird… “you got in the way of your colleague flirting with a student, shame on you!”

        3. Nolan*

          Seriously, these lectures are reminding me of the “sex talk” (aka “don’t get raped talk”) my mom gave me in middle school. The same talk where I found out she’s a survivor who, in her mind, was too flirty. Who apparently had been told by multiple people in her life that she was the kind of girl that would happen to. Because she was too flirty. Not because some people are scumbags. Because she was seen as flirty.

    2. EA*

      Brenda is ‘old school’

      Brenda is also a busy-body. This combined has caused the issue.

      My mother is sort of like Brenda. My husband travels for work frequently, and sometimes his one(!) female coworker goes as well (he is an engineer for context on the lack of women). My mom always asks if I am okay with it. Which is hilarious, not only cause I would never care, but because if I was a lunatic and did, should she like never be allowed to travel with the boys?

      1. Savannnah*

        Sadly some of that isn’t even old school. My husband travels a ton for work and my female friends, who are all in their late 20’s, ask me all the time if I ever feel uneasy about his work travel and if he’s meeting other women. Always surprised by that type of question. Now I have heard crazy stories about my husband’s 60 year old coworkers who do engage in that type of work travel perk, but I didn’t marry those men.

        1. Elsewhere1010*

          You might consider mentioning to these “friends” (who seem to want to discuss the likelihood of your husband’s infidelity while traveling on business) that affairs can occur very, very, VERY close to home.

          Or in the case of one law firm I once worked for, on one of the sofas in the main lobby after regular business hours. Talk about walking into the middle of an “ooopsie”…

          1. Detective Amy Santiago*

            This is so very true. I know one married couple who take international trips separately with friends of the opposite sex on a regular basis. I know another couple who always did everything together and it turned out he was cheating with her best friend.

          2. LadyL*

            Oh yeah, in today’s world my partner could literally be holding me in one arm and swiping “yes” on tinder with the other. There is no way to guarantee your partner won’t cheat on you, no matter how closely you monitor them. Date trustworthy people/be a trustworthy person, it’s all you got.

        2. MashaKasha*

          Not at all. My mother is 80 and she was never a Brenda in her long professional career. Now that I think of it, my mom would’ve horrified poor Brenda.

          It’s a mindset. I don’t know where this mindset comes from. I don’t want to know.

          1. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

            My mom would now be 89, and she didn’t think like that either.
            I’m 51 and I’d be hard pressed to find anyone my age who thinks like that. It seems like thinking from the 1800s to me!

      2. Naptime Enthusiast*

        Female engineer here, can confirm – if I’m not willing to travel with my male counterparts, I will not be travelling anywhere. That would be incredibly limiting on my growth. Luckily all of my coworkers’ partners are very okay when I travel with them for work, and even when we go out for dinner or drinks at the end of the day.

        1. thePM*

          + 1

          I’m not an engineer but am a woman on a team with almost all men, in a male dominated field. I literally would have no one to eat with, socialize with, etc., while I was on the road if I didn’t go out with my male colleagues. I’m even, gasp, friends with them outside of work and we even have drinks (sometimes a lot of them), text back and forth and…gasp, share bad jokes and pictures of our kids.

          Op – you’re doing all the right stuff.

        2. Engineer Woman*

          Agree!! As my name indicates… and if I were to limit my contact and conversations and business travel with the opposite gender, well, I would be severely limiting my career!

          I once worked in a lab at grad school with all male colleagues. They became great friends and friends of my husband (whom I was dating at that time). And we chat about movies, books and even gossip!

          I agree with turning this around to Brenda’s weirdness about this if she continues with her behaviour.

        3. Plague of frogs*

          Another female engineer here. I have a male coworker/friend who had to take me out to dinner because of a bet he lost with me. I was telling my grandma about it because I thought it was a funny story, and her response was to purse up her lips and say, “What does Mr Plague think about that?” It took me a while to even figure out what she meant. Some people have dirty minds, and apparently my grandma is one of them.

          1. Bigglesworth*

            I think my response would have been either, “He’s hoping I have lots of fun.” or “It’s dinner without the sex, Grandma. It can happen.” Some people…

        4. Arya Parya*

          Yep, woman in IT here. I work with mostly men. In my previous job I worked with all men. We would occassionally all go out together, have drinks, sometimes dinner. My boyfriend never minded that I did and would sometimes join us. Just as the girlfriend of one of my colleageas.

      3. Engineer Girl*

        This is not old school. It is petty, small minded, and unprofessional. It is an evil catty mind.
        This type of thinking really hinders women in the workplace. It also shows you the mind of the accuser. When someone makes weird accusations then it is what they would do in that situation. So we are getting insight into Brenda’s character.
        Brenda is in a supervisory role so I’d be inclined to rope HR into this. This is clear gender based discrimination. And then be prepared for passive agressive retaliation because that is what this type does.
        OP, I would make a list of incidents and take it to HR. Brenda is actually using gender discrimination to interfere with you doing your job.

        1. Former Hoosier*

          I strongly agree with this. It is also a kind of weird age discrimination as if she thinks a younger person can’t set appropriate boundaries. Brenda is kind of whack

        2. Julia the Survivor*

          This is ringing a faraway bell which seems like Brenda is more than just discriminating, she’s assuming the worst about OP. I would gather some evidence – for example screen shots of the texts, maybe memos or testimony from the men OP is friendly with – before Brenda goes mental and starts accusing OP of really crazy things. It’s all in her mind, and she’s nuts.

        3. RUKiddingMe*

          Agree with all of this. One thing jumped out at me though…your use of “catty.” That’s very gendered and in a negative way. I’m not judging, we all do/say stuff because we’ve been socialized by the patriarchy…I just like to shine a light on it when I notice these things. Likewise I appreciate when someone points out to me when I am channeling patriarchal gender norms.

      4. Cringing 24/7*

        Fun fact: If you’re bi you’re required to travel alone at all times.
        Advantage: Plane all to yourself.
        Disadvantage: You have to fly it yourself. Alone means alone.

          1. SpiderLadyCEO*

            I think I’ll need a self-flying plane – do AIs count as people or are you still alone?

        1. Tiny Soprano*

          And that rules out staying at any hotels either, because there might be *gasp* people of any gender present with whom you might flirt! I guess I’ll just book myself into the cattery for my next work trip then…

      5. SignalLost*

        My nephew’s employer functionally won’t hire women drivers because all their trainers are men and their training involves several weeks of very close quarters, since it’s long-haul trucking. They excuse it by saying they would hire one of the trainers’ wives, none of whom are truck drivers or want to be. But unless you’re married to the trainer, you’d better be the same gender because otherwise sexual hijinks will ensue!

        There is no possibility I could work at this company without being super uncomfortable.

        1. Bagpuss*

          have they heard of gay people? Or, y’know, legality and professional behaviour and self control?

          1. SignalLost*

            Pretty sure they are trying not to have heard of gay people, given my nephew’s ideological beliefs and that he really likes this company.

        2. palomar*

          Does your nephew work for CR England? They’re the only long-haul company I know of that won’t allow mixed-gender driving teams unless it’s a husband and wife. I think they used to allow father/daughter or sibling teams, but it’s been a long time since I knew anyone working there.

      6. Stranger than fiction*

        So is mine! I had a beer with a male coworker/friend last week and she was like “gasp, does (bf) know?” And I’m like “of course”.

      1. Julia the Survivor*

        I’m not quiet, but nice – and me too! I doubt I’d have the self-control not to tell her to leave me the hell alone, and I’m much older than OP!

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I think Brenda is a plain old busy-body sexist who spends way too much time worrying about her coworkers’ potential sex lives than about her job. I’ve met plenty of “old school” folks who are more evolved than she is; it’s not like OP is living out When Harry Met Sally.

      OP, you sound really self aware and professional. It doesn’t sound like you’re doing anything inappropriate. Brenda needs to redirect her lascivious focus elsewhere. (Obviously follow Alison’s advice—I’m just steamed that you have to deal with someone who makes you doubt very normal and perfectly ok interactions with coworkers).

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Your use of “lascivious” makes me think the OP could also say something like, “Brenda, your focus on sex is making me really uncomfortable. I’m surprised that you’re talking to me about such sexually-charged things at work, and I don’t want to hear about this kind of thing anymore.” Turn it around on her.

          1. Jesca*

            It is, because she is literally sexualizing all interactions between men and women. And she is a raging sexist too because, unless I am reading this wrong, she told one student to stay away while the female was working because her “flirting” was so inappropriate, but then chastised the same female for “interrupting” a “flirtatious” moment between a male coworker and a female student. I mean sure you can make the “but married” argument here, but its too thin an excuse. I would likely go with “could you please stop sexualizing the work place? Your behavior is coming across as sexist, and I am sure you do not mean to.”

            1. AllDogsArePuppies*

              YES! This got me to. Why can Chris flirt (though he probably wasn’t) AND it’s OP’s job now to make sure he is able to by not bothering him with work so he can. – Palm to Face.

              1. Mike C.*

                Because when women are attractive they are distracting, but when men respond to it they just can’t help themselves.

                1. Oranges*

                  And getting “flirted with” never interrupts our work because silly women your work isn’t as important.

                2. Jesca*

                  LOL there is just so many things wrong with what this woman is doing trying to “mentor” this women into “professionalism”.

              2. Allison*

                Because it’s “natural” and “fun” when men flirt with women in the workplace, of course.

          2. Stranger than fiction*

            I’m wondering, too, though if Brenda is just super lonely and jealous, since Op said she’s widowed.

            1. Elizabeth West*

              I thought the same, but it doesn’t make her behavior at work any less problematic. It might change how a manager deals with it, i.e. referring her to an EAP, etc.

          3. MashaKasha*

            YES!! This exactly!

            Sorry, I’m reading this thread fuming at Brenda and looking for a place to let off steam, and your comment seemed perfect. Agree 100%, Brenda isn’t even in the same universe with “professional behavior”. Who brings THIS much sex into a workplace?

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          This is beautiful.

          “Brenda, you’re talking to me about sex again. Please stop that.” Loudly.

          1. Bigglesworth*

            Yes, please! This needs to be a part of your vocabulary, OP! Trust all of us, she’s the weird one – not you.

        2. Parenthetically*

          Yeah, this was definitely my read of the situation as well — Brenda thinks she’s watching a soap opera and she needs to be sternly reminded that she is not.

        3. Elizabeth*

          I also came up with “I find it disturbing that you see something sexual in all of my interactions with colleagues. Why would you do that? Please stop.”

          1. Bostonian*

            Glad you did! It was my favorite script in the answer because it so clearly re-frames it to being Brenda’s issue and shows it’s Brenda who’s being inappropriate here.

        4. JB (not in Houston)*

          THIS THIS THIS. OP, when I was in my early 20s, I worked in the corporate office for a company that made accessories (most belts and handbags, that kind of thing). One day I wore a perfectly appropriate skirt that came down to just above my knees and some perfectly work-appropriate boots. My previously always-appropriate mid-50s male manager pulled me aside and told me not to wear that outfit again because it might prompt the men to talk about me inappropriately. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say. I have always, always regretted not saying that my outfit was appropriate and within the dress code and that if he overheard male coworkers talking inappropriately about me, he should tell them to stop instead of telling me to change my wardrobe. He was my boss, but I still could have pointed out what he was asking of me.

          People need to be shut down when they are policing women’s perfectly appropriate work behavior out of the mistaken notion that it’s for their own good so people don’t get the wrong idea. I hope you feel empowered to take Alison’s advice.

          1. Detective Amy Santiago*

            Well, duh. Men cannot be accountable for their reactions to attractive women. That would require them to be reasonable and admit that women are not simply objects for them to admire.

          2. Clever Name*

            People in that age range have some interesting ideas about boots and shoes. I used to work at a shoe store, and there were people who would see knee-high boots and say things like “I can’t believe they sell those!” And I had one customer who bought a pair of red, knee-high boots and told me that she had always wanted red shoes, but her mother had told her only prostitutes wore red shoes. She was in her mid-50s and was buying red shoes for the first time in her life. She said that, growing up, she actually believed anyone in red shoes was “for hire!” It wasn’t until she was 50 she realized how ridiculous that was.

            1. Oranges*

              That’s so sad. It’s the little things that hit me for some odd reason. I think because it underlines how much we contort our everyday wants in order to not be shamed.

            2. Engineer Girl*

              I used to have a hard time with red shoes because of the fairy tale “The Red Shoes”. It had a horrid ending. I’m not a fan of German fairy tales.

            3. voluptuousfire*

              I have to giggle at this because a few years ago I went as Rizzo from Grease for Halloween and I wore a pair of red, patent leather kitten heeled flats as part of the costume. I wonder what this woman’s mother would have made of that. LOL

            4. Alienor*

              That’s so sad! I hope she enjoyed her red shoes. I just bought my 19 y.o. daughter a pair of thigh-high silver lamé boots to wear to a Rocky Horror screening, so things are looking up for the younger generations.

              1. Julia the Survivor*

                I love boots because they’re warm, and I currently have two pairs of knee-high boots because they’ve been in style. I don’t particularly care about them being knee-high, but I like at least calf high to keep me warm!
                One of them has black laces in front. Let’s go around some old-people hangouts and watch them have fits…
                So sad and discouraging that people project such things.

                1. RUKiddingMe*

                  Define “old people.” I’m 55 (or will be next month) and have 24 pairs of boots in all different styles/colors (several of them in red). I love them. Fortunately I live in an area where I can make use (Seattle) a good part of the year.

            5. RosyPosy*

              Ooh, reminds me of when I was a teenager. I have blonde hair and blue eyes, and my father would never let me wear red because “the only blonde, blue-eyed women who wear red are prostitutes.” It took me a LOOOONG time to be able to comfortably wear red!

              1. Plague of frogs*

                “You seem to know a lot about prostitutes” is the only possible response to a statement like that. And then let the awkward sit there.

                1. Hildegard Vonbingen*

                  That made me laugh out loud. And bonus points if you mom’s in the room when you say it…

            6. Former Hoosier*

              I once wore a very conservative gray suit with a pair of conservative black knee high boots (not over the knee but up to with a slight heel) and I was told it was inappropriate. I had a turtleneck sweater on underneath the suit jacket. And the suit skirt came just below my knees

            7. JennyFair*

              I am wearing purple boots that come just below my knee, and I am now quite curious as to what people might be thinking they say about me.

            8. Cristina in England*

              I had a friend at university who called knee high boots “f@@@ me boots”. He works for his country’s government now, as a diplomat. I really hope he has dropped that phrase!

              1. Tiny Soprano*

                I can only imagine the interesting feelings he’s confronted with every time he sees a WWII documentary….

            9. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

              My grandmother was a flapper in the 1920s, her mom told her she’d be going to hell for wearing red high heels and blue nail polish! (My grandma did not listen, and dressed fabulously her entire life.)

        5. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

          This would TOTALLY be my go to answer! Even better if they get confused or pearl clutchy over it…it’s just putting the awkward where it belongs!

      2. Observer*

        So much this. Brenda is WAY to invested in your relationships. This has nothing to do with “old school”- I know plenty of “old school” types who would be horrified that she’s so busy with everyone’s personal lives. VERY not “correct”.

        She’s not just monitoring the OP’s interactions, but Chris’ too. It’s just gross.

    4. broadcastlady*

      We have an employee that will not ride in a car with a female other than his wife. We promotional events where we may need two people to take two cars to the event, and come back together, and he will not do it if the other person going is female. Total pain in the rear, but he’s 86 and isn’t changing his ways.

      1. Eplawyer*

        Guess he’s walking back. Or not going to the event. Sucks to lose out on opportunities doesn’t it?

        1. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

          That’s how I’d answer him! So sorry you decided to give up on these professional opportunities, dood!

      2. Former Hoosier*

        I don’t think this should be allowed. By giving in to this guy, the employer is creating a gender based difference. And it isn’t the female employees’ fault that they are in fact women and also trying to do the job. He should be told that it is a job requirement to occasionally ride in a car with a co worker who may also be female. If he cadnnot comply then he should be let go.

        And being 86 does not excuse sexist treatment.

      3. Yet Even Another Alison*

        This is over the top. If this guy’s issues with women and traveling alone with them forced me as an employer to get another rental car or otherwise resulted in an increased expense, I would show him the door or HE could fit the bill for his hangups.

      4. Jo*

        Okay, this must be said: I used to work in Afghanistan in a local NGO full of conservative Pashtun men from the provinces. When we drove to meetings outside the office, the one concession they would make would be to have me sit in the front passenger seat next to the driver so I wasn’t directly touching/sitting next to an Afghan man (because in Afghan culture it is *highly* inappropriate for men to touch women they are not closely related to). This coworker of broadcastlady is apparently more conservative than traditional Afghan men from Khost Province.

        That….is an accomplishment.

    5. Stormy*

      I will say that I’m impressed that you wrote in for advice though. When I was in college, I was pretty impulsive and probably would have done something really petty instead of being mature about it.

      Agreed. I would have bitten my tongue bloody to keep myself from telling Brenda she doth protest too much.

      1. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

        I’m an old fart of 51 and I don’t think I could deal with this person constructively at all. My NICEST impulse would be to tell her to mind her own damn business!

    6. SusanIvanova*

      An ex-friend became ex when she accused me of sleeping with her husband because “men and women can’t be friends”. Especially infuriating because I’m a female software engineer and she was QA for that team, so she knew who all my co-workers were and just what was she implying?

      It turned out to not be implying so much as projecting – *she* was the one having an affair.

  4. Hills to Die on*

    I wonder if there’s value in going over her head if it continues after OP asks her to stop. I suppose it’s a personal matter but since Brenda manages OP, it seems to be affecting her job pretty directly.

    1. Future Homesteader*

      And not just OP, but I feel like Chris has a stake here, too. Of course, if they tried to talk to someone over Brenda’s head together, she might just take it as further proof that there’s monkey business going on…

      1. Grits McGee*

        Plus that poor grad student! If I were Brenda’s supervisor, I’d want to know that she’s banning people from the office based on this kind of bananas interpretation of completely normal behavior.*

        *(Of course, it would be different if 1) it was affecting OP’s work output, 2) the grad student was making OP uncomfortable, but it doesn’t look like that’s the case.)

      2. Shiara*

        I think you mean duck business.


        Unfortunately depending on the situation, there may not be an obvious person to go to about something like this. Hopefully Brenda will be huffily offended and back off rather than escalating.

        1. SignalLost*

          There’s an org chart, for sure. Advising might be under Student Services, or there might be some intermediary steps to get through, but Advising doesn’t report to the president or chancellor. There’s a Dean or a VP above them.

      3. Anon for this*

        I would actually consider pulling both the guys into this situation, since they seem reasonable and she reports to all of them. What if the next time Brenda pulls OP into the hall for a lecture, OP says “ok let’s get Chris’ take on the situation” and literally goes and gets him? Particularly if the lecture is about her behavior towards Chris – pulling him into the conversation with him showing support to the OP would really shut down Brenda.

        1. Myrin*

          Yeah, I’m actually thinking that both Adam and Chris should be looped in here. Both because they’re the other two people OP reports to and because Adam seems to have bit of an outsider position here and might be able to think of some additional actions to take because he’s completely uninvolved.

          1. Aurion*

            And honestly, with the fact that Adam is also a very funny, very silly person, it’s a wonder Brenda hasn’t accused OP of ~~luring Adam away from his marriage~~ during the few times Adam is in the office.

            This is making me seethe.

          2. MashaKasha*

            I like this. Chris needs to know that this is happening, because, like others said, Brenda might, accidentally or not, start rumors that can damage his career. Both Chris and Adam need to be involved as OP’s supervisors. Both will be very inclined to put an end to this nonsense. Really like this advice.

      4. Observer*


        It’s really none of Brenda’s business. Now, if Brenda had a genuinely good relationship with the OP, it might make sense for Brenda to give some advice to the OP it if looked like the OP was getting in over her head or something like that. But that is NOT what is going on here. And in any case, it is absolutely NOT Brenda’s place to police what kind of relationships people in the office have.

        *IF* there is some sort of policy on workplace romances, that MIGHT make a difference, but even if there were Brenda is not handling this correctly.

      5. Akcipitrokulo*

        yeah. In addition to the above “Why are you accusing Chris of acting inappropriately towards one of his reports? Chris? Have you got a sec? You need to be aware of this…”

      6. LawPancake*

        Were I Chris in this situation I’d be rushing to put a stop to this kind of talk. People like Brenda are how unfounded rumors get started and spread.

    2. k.k*

      That was my thought. I don’t see it as personal, because Brenda manages OP and is telling her how to interact with coworkers, and has banned a grad student from entering the office when OP is there (bonkers!). This is impacting her work, and if there is someone above Brenda that OP can go to, I think she should if it doesn’t stop.

      1. Keep Your Eyes On The Prize*

        I’m picturing the grad student peeking in the office, seeing OP and walking away with his papers in hand, hoping to come back another time.

      2. Anna*

        I don’t think it’s not personal. I feel like when someone takes this much “interest” in your work relationships, it’s not just because they want to see you do well and are worried about the impact on your professional reputation. That Brenda has told students who have legitimate reasons to be in an office on campus to not come in when a specific person is working is incredibly personal.

    3. Kate*

      I wondered this too. Especially because of this part:

      “and told that student (a doctoral candidate in his late twenties) that he was not to return to the office when I’m working.”

      Brenda is setting boundaries that really don’t need to (and shouldn’t) be set. Who can work in the office when? Who can ask questions to who? So aside from Brenda being grossly sexist, she is affecting how multiple people are able to do their jobs. If I were OP, I would consider talking to Chris, Adam, or possibly a higher up, even framing is, “I’m looking for advice on how to handle this because I do want to be professional”.

      1. Detective Rosa Diaz*

        Also like what? It sounds like OP is kind of the office receptionist in a way, so ALWAYS THERE? Like what is this dude supposed to do? Also wtf Brenda, you’re being insane.

      2. Anna*

        Since she’s a work-study student, she does have the option of going to the work-study office, too, They might want to know one of the departments they partner with has a terrible supervisor in charge.

        1. Luna*

          That’s a really good idea, to bring it to the attention of the work-study office, because I’m sure this is not the first time Brenda has done this. She sounds like the type of older person who thinks all young people are up to no good, which is especially problematic since she works at a university and is in a supervisory position over students.

      3. kittymommy*

        I’d live to see how this would go over if it impeded their big boss in getting something.
        “Hey grad student, fyi your gave that Indio I asked you to get from Chris (or Adam)?”
        “Not yet. LW is in there and I’m not allowed to be in the same room with her.”
        “Who said that?”
        “Brenda. She said it’s inappropriate.”
        -Bosses head explodes.

    4. Viktoria*

      Yes, I thought this too. Since it’s a work study position, and a shared assistant set-up, I wonder if there is a separate hiring manager that OP could take this too. I would think that someone, either Brenda’s boss or the person who manages the work-study program, or both, would want to know about this dynamic. Brenda needs to cut it out now and not harangue future employees in this way either. It’s totally inappropriate.

    5. Competent Commenter*

      At my university Brenda’s comments would violate our sexual harassment/discrimination policies. Worth looking into at the OP’s university.

  5. Aleta*

    “Brenda probably won’t like you much after this.”

    It doesn’t sound like Brenda likes OP to begin with! It’s certainly possible to have that sort of conversation in a kind way, but since OP describes them as “lectures” and “humiliating” it doesn’t sound like the sort of conversation I’D have with someone I like.

    1. Snark*

      And if she doesn’t like OP much after this, that is not a loss OP need concern herself with overmuch. It’s tremendously freeing to realize that some people will, for reasons of their very own, dislike you, even if you strive to be likeable and civil and thoughtful in your interactions with others….and that that’s okay. If your relationship with Brenda is one of frosty professionalism, that is not a tragedy of consequence.

    2. L*

      Exactly! She’s literally inventing things to criticize the OP for, even subconsciously. Even if, for the sake of argument here, OP WAS flirting/dating Chris, it only becomes Brenda’s business if it impacts work. I feel badly for the OP though, because Brenda will interpret any request to butt out (no matter how politely phrased) as a confirmation and serious challenge. OP is probably also concerned about who Brenda is talking to about her “suspicions” — that can become a very damaging rumor quickly.

      1. Natalie*

        Chris is LW’s supervisor, so if they were actually dating or flirting that would present a real problem. But as someone wisely pointed out below, the thing to do would be to tell Chris (as the supervisor) to knock it off, not lecture the student employee.

        1. L*

          Ah I missed that. Regardless, we all agree this is a terrible situation created entirely by Brenda. Butt out, Brenda!

  6. Myrin*

    For what it’s worth, OP, it really sounds to me like this doesn’t actually have anything to do with you personally. Much rather, it sounds like Brenda has a giant chip on her shoulder when it comes to male – female relationships in a work environment. I know that doesn’t help you much in how to navigate this situation – that’s what Alison is here for! – but please rest assured that it doesn’t sound like Brenda ever has any point whatsoever regarding anything interpersonal.

    1. Anony*

      It reminded me of that letter where the LW didn’t want to meet with men alone ever because they felt it was inappropriate.

      1. Totally Minnie*

        Or the manager whose direct report pulled her aside to tell her that her frequent lunches with a married male coworker were inappropriate, when said married male coworker was in fact the manager’s husband.

    2. Murphy*

      Yeah, I bet that “flirty” conversation Chris was having with a graduate student wasn’t actually flirty at all, outside of Brenda’s mind.

    3. RVA Cat*

      I’m honestly starting to wonder if Brenda’s late husband obsessively monitored her interactions with male co-workers and kept accusing her of flirting. His controlling, abusive ghost may still be living in her head.

        1. LouiseM*

          This is a really dismissive comment. I read RVA Cat as pointing out that there might be something going on with Brenda besides her being a cartoonish super-villain trying to ruin the OP’s work friendships for no reason. It’s well-known that people who abuse others have often been abused themselves (which is, of course, no excuse) and make no mistake: that is exactly what Brenda is doing to the OP. She is gaslighting her into believing that there is something sexual or romantic about a normal workplace behavior. Where did she learn to do that? People aren’t born in a vacuum.

          1. Anonymouse*

            OP’s characterization of an older, female coworker as a nagging shrew wasn’t born in a vacuum.
            I think we all need to take LW at her word and not pathologize based on personal experiences which rarely apply.

          2. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

            The above post imagines quite a lot about the specifics of Brenda’s marriage to someone whose existence we only know of because OP mentioned that Brenda is widowed. Not just that he was abusive and/or controlling, but the specific ways in which he was abusive and controlling. That’s highly speculative in a way that isn’t going to help OP figure out how best to address her situation.

            Abuse victims and abusers are two circles on a Venn diagram in which there is overlap, for sure, but there are plenty of abuse victims who are not abusers and plenty of abusers who have never been abused. Exhibiting abusive behavior is not, in itself, reason to believe someone has been a victim of abuse. I would also disagree that Brenda is being abusive in the way an abusive partner would be – she’s being inappropriate with a subordinate, yes, but gaslighting refers to a specific manipulation technique in which the abuser deepens the victim’s reliance on them by undermining the victim’s trust in themselves, which is really not coming across in the letter as Brenda’s goal. Being mean, misjudging someone’s intentions, and even outright lying aren’t ipso facto gaslighting. Brenda could very well believe there is no such thing as platonic friendship between a man and a woman and that OP’s friendly behavior is office-inappropriate; there’s nothing “cartoonish” or supervillain-ish about that. More Rashomon than Gaslight.

            1. RVA Cat*

              Sorry I was just over-imagining and over-thinking.

              No matter the reason, though, Brenda’s behavior with the OP is NOT OKAY. It was just that Brenda’s sexism seems to mirror some of the controlling-spouse letters we have seen here before.

              1. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

                Sorry, I didn’t mean to come down so hard on you for proposing the idea – you did say you were “wondering,” after all, not that you definitely thought that was the case – but I did want to respond to the comment positing that Brenda’s behavior is gaslighting and the implication that she must have “learned” it somewhere.

                As to whether Brenda’s sexism mirrors controlling spouse behavior, I see what you mean, but I also think these expressions of misogyny all reflect broader societal attitudes that we all internalize to some degree, if that makes sense. I see where the parallels are, but I can also see how Brenda could have arrived on her own at thinking she should police OP’s behavior because tropes about men-and-women-can’t-be-friends, women-as-temptresses, etc. are really embedded.

      1. bluesboy*

        Honestly, I find this pretty offensive. You read a post about a woman being inappropriate and sexist and your reaction is to try and place the blame on her dead husband? And with zero reason, there is literally nothing in the letter to suggest that is the case.

        If this were a post about a male boss behaving inappropriately would you respond ‘wondering’ if it came from the way his wife treated him?

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Yeah, my supervisor and I happen to have a bunch of interests in common and very similar personalities, and talk about non-work stuff all the time . . . with ZERO FLIRTING. I am exactly not-at-all a threat to his marriage.

  7. LadyL*

    #WomenSupportingWomen2018 is all I want in life.

    OP, I have also had other women (often older women, sadly) try to police my sexuality (because they were under the impression that by virtue of being young and female everything I did was inherently sexual). Sometimes the women were just being mean, sometimes it was a misguided attempt at “protecting” me from the men. But the end result was not protection. It sucked, and it made me doubt my self-worth. I had a boss who used to criticize my clothing choices as being sexual, including the day I was harassed by an older male volunteer and she suggested that the way I dressed was the reason why. I still own that clothing, and even though I love the style still, I get weird about wearing it in public because of the shame and judgement.

    You are not doing anything wrong. You can absolutely be friendly with coworkers of all genders and relationship status. I hope that you are able to keep Brenda out of your head, because that stuff can haunt you. Protect yourself from her.

    1. eplawyer*

      Thank you for saying this.

      What Brenda is doing is making it HARDER for LW to get taken seriously in the work place. Not easier. By having her second guess every interaction with a male colleague she is going to not perform as well. Brenda needs to get over whatever hang up she has and move int0 2018.

      As noted above, if the first talk with Brenda doesn’t help, go over her head. I am QUITE sure Brenda does not have the authority to ban students from the office for any reason whatsoever.

    2. Oranges*

      This is one of the silver linings to being gay. I’d be like. But… he has a… male part! Ewwwwww! (Not really but I’m amused by imagining Brenda’s face if I ever said that to her).

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Not gonna lie, I was tempted to suggest the LW be like “Oh, don’t worry Brenda, I like girls”. Because there’s a fairly high chance that would shut her up real quick.

        1. Oranges*

          It depends upon the flavor of your particular “Brenda”. My guess is either she’d avoid the LW at all costs (and possibly undermine her) or she’d try to “Save” her. Shudder.

        2. LadyL*

          When I was younger and more naive I tried that once, and all that happened was that I got harassed in a different way. I should have been a better listener when my LGBTQIA friends were talking about their lives.

          1. Oranges*

            Awwwww. It really is interesting when you suddenly become the “hated other” isn’t it? By interesting I mean completely suck-tacular. Thanks for seeing and talking about it though.

            1. LadyL*

              Yes, absolutely. It also really drives home the fact that harassment has nothing to do with the harassee and everything to do with the harasser.

              Perceived as being sexually available? Harassed.
              Perceived as being sexually unavailable? Harassed.

              There is no way to live “correctly” enough to be guaranteed safety from abusers, no matter how much they try to claim otherwise. Oppressed people need to protect each other and stop selling each other out for head pats from the oppressors.

              1. Detective Amy Santiago*

                And allies need to call that shit out when they see it.

                Honestly, I’m disappointed that Chris hasn’t escalated this. He’s older and more secure in his position than OP and it’s damaging to him too (though obviously not as damaging as it is to LW).

                1. Talia*

                  Disappointed but not surprised– there are often consequences for people who don’t stand for others’ harassment. (My partner has been fired from a couple of jobs for backing colleagues’ harassment claims when HR comes around to interview witnesses.)

                2. Plague of frogs*

                  Chris might be concerned that he’s perceived as harassing LW…Brenda might be going out of her way to make sure he thinks so.

                3. tigerlily*

                  Chris might not know what’s going on, though. OP says she apologized to him about one of the times Brenda talked to her, but one miscommunication isn’t necessarily something I would even think to be escalating.

              2. Tiny Soprano*

                Exactly this.

                You can’t be expected to run around constantly changing parts of yourself to avoid harassment from individual people. That’s like trying to block spam from your inbox by creating hundreds of rules to filter emails with different key words.

                To be honest I’d be going above her at this point. She’s impeding the ability of you and your co-workers to do your jobs, and she’s actively stopping grad students from entering offices during office hours (what the actual.)

      2. Literary Engineer*

        SO this reminds me of a time at my old job. I am very very private about my personal life, I have nothing to hide, I just don’t feel comfortable discussing my family without really knowing someone. I do have a wedding ring, however, and I have pretty wild hair. Every. Single. Time. an older colleague saw me he’d comment about ‘what my husband’ thinks of it. I usually just ignored it till I couldn’t anymore and snapped “My /////wife////, and she’s fine with my hair!”

        He never talked to me again and it made me happy.

        1. Oranges*

          If I was quick, brave and annoyed enough I miiiight say something like “Oh, don’t worry he just lies back and thinks of England” See how awkward I can make it.

          1. Literary Engineer*

            LOL! I wish I was quick-witted about it, but I just wanted him to leave me the hell alone so badly! Definitely one of those that I’ve replayed in my head with me being a much more viper-tongued hero.

            1. CM*

              I think what you said was perfect! And ugh, commenting about your hair?? AND doing it in a totally sexist way, like not only is your appearance his business, but his concern is how your husband likes it??

              I tend to just stare people down in the same situation… this also has the advantage of not requiring me to come up with any sort of witty remark.

              1. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

                If my husband gave me a bunch of shit about how I cut, color, or style my hair, he wouldn’t have ever gotten to the point of being my husband.

    3. Trust Your Instincts*

      So much this! I was sexually assaulted on the job once by a male shareholder and the female manager blamed it on me for what I was wearing. And an older female coworker accused me of creating drama by reporting it, telling me I shouldn’t have been flirting and leading him on. I may have been polite with him as I was with all the driving staff, but that’s not the same as flirting! I didn’t even know him by name for goodness sake!

      I don’t know why, but sometimes I think older female colleagues get threatened by their younger counterparts, so they invent misconduct where there is none so they can feel superior. It’s really disgusting behaviour.

      And for the record, I threw out the shirt I had worn that day, because every time I saw it in my drawer, I remembered those comments and believed fir the longest time that maybe I was partly responsible. Not anymore. OP, don’t let her dirty mind poison the well of your own.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Women are almost as good at destroying other women as men are. It’s very sad and I’m sorry you had that experience.

        1. voluptuousfire*

          This. A former friend of mine worked in the office of a bank she had been a teller at for a few years. She ended up transferring back to being a teller because she worked with a bunch of really catty women, most of whom were older. They were nice to her at first but ended up being really nasty to her over the year she was there. One of the women decided she didn’t like my friend for some reason and she essentially turned the whole office against her. My friend was a quiet, retiring type. The type that wouldn’t say boo to a goose. We think it was because she was new, quiet and very pretty–essentially an easy target.

          It was so sad.

        2. Anonymouse*

          I think anyone calling other women “catty” needs to read some of the comments down thread about internalized misogyny.
          The only difference between “catty” and “b!tchy” is aesthetics, and I think people would be up in arms about the latter.

          1. LouiseM*

            So much this. Also, I don’t think the word “catty” makes any sense in this context. Brenda is extremely nosy and inserting herself into the OP’s business to the extent that she’s creating a hostile work environment. My cats keep to themselves, don’t pay attention to anyone or anything, and are gentle and sweet. What exactly is “catty” about Brenda’s behavior?

            1. Anonymouse*

              Ok, let’s drop the “word police” aspect.
              What attributes and actions are you describing when you call a woman “catty?”

              1. NaoNao*

                My understanding is that “catty” is a (admittedly dated and sexist) term that people use colloquially (not literally!) to describe this type of behavior:
                Aggressive towards same-sex peers
                Easily angered or threatened
                Unpredictably angered (like, “purring one minute, swiping angrily at you the next”)
                Duplicitous/clever/lying/deceitful/”two-faced”—this is based on a stereotype of cats, the animal–that they are only “kissing up” to you to get food/warmth/shelter or whatever and they have no real, natural loyalty or love for you

                1. SignalLost*

                  There’s a whole interesting thing, as well, where most Americans (and Brits?), when talking about a cat they don’t know the sex of call it “she” and when talking about a dog call it “he” – the gendered assumption that women share the unpleasant traits we believe cats to have goes a lot deeper than the use of “catty”.

            2. LouiseM*

              If you were referring to my comment, I was using a humorous comparison to try to point out that the word “catty,” besides being sexist, doesn’t even make much sense. My apologies if my point didn’t come across.

              But if you were replying to Anonymouse, I’m surprised you feel like pointing out that our word choices are colored by our social conditoning and misogynist society is being the “word police.” Personally, I’m sick and tired of SEXISM. The OP shouldn’t have to deal with it at work, we shouldn’t have to deal with it from reading AAM comments.

            3. LadyL*

              I mean, Anonymouse isn’t wrong. We certainly don’t call men catty, not even when they’re being, well, catty. I’m not going to claim I never use gendered insults, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to reflect on what the deeper meaning is behind certain descriptions.

                1. Engineer Girl*

                  No, it is the observation of a female engineer that’s been 35 years in the workforce.
                  I’m getting really tired of second wave “feminists” second guessing other women. They weren’t the ones making inroads into the workplace. They didn’t make the sacrifices. So stop attacking the women that cleared the path for you.

              1. JB (not in Houston)*

                Yes, thank you. Words have meaning. Words can do harm. Words perpetuate prejudice. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out that the word “catty” is gendered and asking us all to think about whether it’s a word that we should be using.

              2. Bleeborp*

                I have definitely called men catty, when they are being catty. I agree the usual application of catty has sexist implications but I also think it does have a specific meaning and is useful sometimes. It’s basically “passive aggressive manipulation to hurt someone else for seemingly your own amusement and not much actual reward” right? And that’s a lot of words and “catty” is just one. I worked with a very catty man for years and while I would also sometimes call him “manipulative” and “backstabber,” catty really was the most applicable! So I think it’s a worthwhile discussion why some insults become gendered and if something is so hopelessly wrapped up in sexism that it needs to be retired but I don’t feel that way about catty.

                Additionally, cattiness became a female related trait because women are socialized not to be direct when dealing with a frustrating situation or person so passive aggression became a more attractive option to many women, and that’s super messed up and a part of the discussion as well.

              3. nunya*

                I’d always heard of a fight between 2 women called a cat fight, whether it was trading insults or more rarely, hair pulling, scratching, and biting.

                I’ve more recently heard it used to describe a verbal insult delivered by a person of either gender.

            4. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Language matters. There’s research showing it impacts how people think. It’s a big part of the reason I refer to generic managers here as “she.”

              In general with problematic language in the comment section here, I ask that people call out it out once and then move on so that we don’t derail on it. With a letter that’s specifically about sexist behavior, though, I think there’s more room for delving into it. That said, I think it’s probably this particular discussion is starting to derail so I’m going to ask that we leave it here.

              1. JamieS*

                I’m a bit confused by your comment. You use “she” because you want people to associate the managers being written about, who are often displaying bad managerial skills, with women managers?

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Nope, I want people to picture a woman when they picture a manager. There’s a bunch of research showing that when people picture a manager, they picture a man — because people’s default for authority figures is male. I’ve had readers tell me that after a lot of reading here, when they picture a manager, now it’s a woman.

            5. CalmItDownMeow*

              YES. It has been incredibly tiresome to read comments when half of them seem to be picking apart other comments for their word choice or how they’ve expressed a thought. That isn’t helpful to the OP sand is tiresome to constantly read.

        3. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

          It’s actually the ones that have swallowed patriarchal norms hook, line, and sinker.

      2. Oranges*

        It’s kinda sad if they feel threatened because that means they believe the junk that the only contribution females can make to society is by being young and pretty enough to be objects of admiration. Doesn’t excuse the harm they cause obviously. It’s just…. shrug. So many layers of crap.

        1. sin nombre*

          It’s impossible to grow up in a fundamentally misogynist culture without internalizing some of it. Some people internalize a lot of it. It’s really sad.

      3. LadyL*

        I think when older women do it there’s more to unpack there than just jealousy.

        1) The world you grow up in makes a massive impact on your views of what is normal. The idea that men aren’t helpless to their sexual desires is honestly still pretty new in our society. Women were taught that it all fell on *them* to avoid harassment, probably by their older female mentors, and so they may just be repeating that in an attempt to be helpful or to protect younger women. Or as internal police, as in “when you act this way you make us all vulnerable to harassment so I gotta keep you in line”.

        2) There are also people of every gender that have a sort of “if I had to suffer than so should you” type mentality. The “this is how I was treated when I first started working, so this is how you ought to be treated as well” type stuff. I see glimmers of this in Catherine Deneuve’s response to #metoo, for example. Sometimes also this mentality comes from being forced to struggle to get what you have, as in “I started from the bottom and fought tooth and nail to get where I am now, if you just get an easy pass from day 1, what does my struggle even mean??”

        3) Some second wave feminists see female expressions of sexuality as male-controlled/male gaze-filled no matter what, and may feel that young women acting/dressing a certain way is hurting other women’s credibility. I experience this with my mom, who is loving and would never act like Brenda, but we have gotten into serious debates about sex work/porn/and general sexual expression. When I was a teen we would argue about my clothes a lot, but instead of the traditional “don’t be a hussy” type approach, her argument was more, “wearing miniskirts means you are objectifying yourself for men”. I doubt this is Brenda, but I have encountered older women who are policing younger women because they see them as uneducated about how to be taken seriously, or as tools of the patriarchy.

        4) Yeah, sure, I’m sure sometimes it is jealousy, but I really don’t think that’s as common as men would like us to believe.

        I have been policed by young women as well, but that was typically less damaging because I saw them as either equals or inferiors, not as mentors. It’s real rough when it’s your mentor/boss/superior/etc does this stuff, as opposed to just your annoying coworker.

        1. Emily Spinach*

          This is a really excellent and empathetic comment, thank you. This helps show the many ways people differ on this beyond “she’s jealous that you’re so pretty.”

        2. LCL*

          Thanks for posting this, it is really smart and insightful. If I am honest, I admit I sometimes used to fall in category 3 on your list. I never policed anybody, but I would ask my friends ‘why would someone do that? ‘ and they would laugh at my naivete.

        3. JB (not in Houston)*

          Thank you so much for saying this. “she’s jealous” is an oversimplification of a more complex issue.

        4. MashaKasha*

          I was seeing Brenda, not as being jealous, but more along the lines of horrified, that OP is doing something Brenda had always been taught was taboo (talking! with men! male men! 1:1!!!) So, a combination of 1 and 2.

          Only variations of jealousy I’ve seen in my career have been around “she’s getting all these raises and promotions; no way could she have earned them by hard work and talent, because she’s a woman; so she must be using her feminine wiles to get ahead”. But I don’t think that’s the case here, because OP reports to Brenda and is not moving up the career ladder.

        5. JamieS*

          Re: your mom’s comment about wearing mini-skirts. This logic has never made sense to me. One of the (supposed) goals of feminism is to not determine a woman’s worth as a human being on what she wears. If we really examine what objectifying means it’s viewing a person as a literal object devoid of human worth with the mindset often being that a woman becomes an object with the less she wears and isn’t an object the more she wears. Basically it’s saying a woman’s worth as a human is determined mostly by cotton and some silk, polyester, denim, etc.

          When people, such as your mom, say a woman is objectifying herself by what she wears those people are saying whether or not a woman is a person or an object is determined by some pieces of fabric. This might sound harsh but if that’s their mindset how are they any better than those who are openly sexist? Both “feminists” like that and open sexists associate a woman’s worth with her clothing. The only difference is at least the sexists are open and honest about it instead of trying to package their anti-women attitudes as “feminism”.

          1. LadyL*

            Honestly I think the biggest thing is it’s all cultural/contextual.

            In my mom’s experience growing up women were expected to be accessories to men, either pretty young things that would keep house for them/have babies, or pretty young things that serviced them sexually. Her rebellion was to say, “Actually I don’t want to marry or f*ck you, I’m here to do business”. She was one of two women in her law school class, and for most of her early career she was the only woman at the law firm. Dressing non-sexual/”acting like a man” was her way of disrupting the patriarchy.

            Whereas I came of age during the Bush era, when evangelism was gaining strength in the mainstream. My rebellion involves owning my sexuality, I own my body and I can display it and share it as much as I want to, and none of that indicates anything about my value as a person. I feel I disrupt the patriarchy by refusing to be shamed by my sexuality.

            That’s why I find these conversations so interesting, all the variance.

        6. Sophia Smiles*

          Thank you for this wise and nuanced comment. Sounds like you and your mother have a great relationship.
          As an “older” woman, I can attest that not only am I not like Brenda — which means not all of us are — but I have myself been ostracized in an office situation by other women, many of whom were *younger* than me. I got promoted by our male boss, partly to work with him on a new project. And while there were problems with the boss — he did, in fact, speak to me with subtle inappropriateness about how startled he was when he read in my personnel file that I was older than I looked (according to him), and threw other comments that made me extremely uncomfortable (I no longer work there) — I was always careful to keep my distance from him and keep our conversation strictly professional. However, some women can interpret casual work talk and conversation between colleagues as being flirty, and many of the staff did just that. I don’t happen to dress in a way that anyone could call inappropriate for work, but I’m sure if I had worn short skirts or low necklines, that would have come under fire, as well. I’ve definitely noticed that being an unmarried woman in a community centered around family life can get you shunned by other women. But again, age seems to play little part in it. It seems to depend more on culture.

          I also have a couple of good friends who are male. In one case, we’ve been friends for over 30 years, and there’s never been anything romantic about it. We are brunch buddies and frequently meet up on Sundays to eat out. His wife is totally fine with it — she rarely joins us, knows she’s always welcome to, but she just doesn’t care for hanging out and talking over a long meal. Occasionally, he and I see movies together without his wife, if we want to see something that she doesn’t. So lots of us in my age group (I’m just over 60) enjoy friendships with people of any gender.

          Unless an office friendship is interfering with the work flow, causing favoritism, or otherwise disrupting the environment, people like Brenda need to butt out. Frankly, even if something were to happen between two colleagues outside of work, who cares? As long as the drama stays outside the office, it’s no one else’s business.

          That said, I did once react to a young assistant’s shoes as “hooker shoes” (they were hot pink, not red, but very high heels and platforms — if you were young prior to the disco era, those really did signal prostitution if worn outside). But when I saw the reaction on my assistant’s face I was immediately sorry and even embarrassed that I’d blurted that out. I apologized and have felt bad about it ever since.

          Those of us who grew up before the Madonna era and were promptly and publicly shamed if a tiny bit of lace from our bra or slip peeked out from behind our clothes have had a lot of adjusting to do over the years. Especially because those signals we talk about (especially in clothes and makeup) really were a thing, in bygone eras. Both males and females were trained to regard them as such. From the time we were very young, in subtle ways — media made things clear non-verbally, for example — and then in not-subtle ways as we grew up. All things considered, most of us have done pretty well adjusting, I think. Try to understand, and remember that with luck, you’ll be “older” someday, too, and you may have your own attitudes to adjust.

          1. Trust Your Instincts*

            Maybe I spoke in haste when I went on about older women. This other supervisor also took issue with the fact we were equal in title and she was actually lower in seniority to me because I had more experience in the industry than she did. But her telling me that I was exposing myself with the shirts I wore (try finding a loose top with a larger chest!), that I was flirting and leading drivers on when I said please and thank you, and that I should have expected he would think I wanted that type of relationship with him when I accepted a coffee from him (out of the 15 coffees he brought for the entire office staff)…it drove me nuts and had a patronizing tone to it that I really have a hard time defining. I’m so glad I left that place…unfortunately she’s now a manager, and like her predecessors, tries to brush sexual assault and harassment under the rug.

            To bring this back to the op, I reiterate. People like that are toxic. Whether their own lives are unpleasant enough they feel they need to spread the pain, or whether they’re just not nice people, it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. Don’t buy into what they are trying to sell you, and fight back against it with the methods others here have mentioned. And if the workplace shows they won’t do anything to support your case against Brenda? Get the heck out of Dodge. Toxicity can ruin so many aspects of your life that it’s not worth it.

    4. Earthwalker*

      Do you suppose that Brenda was one of those who has heard that the way to get ahead is using feminine wiles? Perhaps she’s imagining that the innocent conversations she sees now have such a motive and she’s jealous about being upstaged. As an older worker myself, I’ve heard a lot of very strange advice over my career about the proper use or misuse of feminine wiles. I hope that nonsense is all old school and passing away, but I have known some people who claimed to be very knowledgeable about that subject.

  8. Future Homesteader*

    This is a great gut-check on my internalized misogyny. I have to admit that as I was reading this, I was looking a little too hard for things about which to say “well, that *could* be misinterpreted, maybe the LW should be more careful.” But then Alison’s answer was so spot-on and unequivocal, it brought me to my senses. Brenda is so out of line it’s painful, and it’s terrible that she’s making the LW feel self-conscious about what sounds like a lovely and appropriate working relationship.

    As someone who is occasionally prone to over-sharing at the office (I’m working on it) and also supervises students (some of whom actually seem to want mentoring/oversight/opinions on non-work matters, and often more than I feel comfortable giving), the various lines with them are things I think about a lot, and this anecdote provides food for thought in both directions (Brenda’s approach and Chris’ approach).

    1. Malibu Stacey*

      I think it says something about Brenda’s internalized misogyny, too.

      Even if you want to play devil’s advocate here and say Brenda actually believes something inappropriate is happening, it’s extremely telling that she’s coming down on the LW and not Chris – the staff member, supervisor who is a decade older.

    2. mirinotginger*

      Ugh same. I though the same things (Well maybe LW shouldn’t be doing XYZ because impressions bla bla bla) and then was so mad at myself for thinking them.

      LW, you have a great working relationship and a good sense of what’s normal and what’s not. Don’t let Brenda make you feel like you’re doing something wrong, or influence the way you interact with coworkers.

    3. mf*

      “it’s terrible that she’s making the LW feel self-conscious about what sounds like a lovely and appropriate working relationship.”–> This. It’s terrible because Chris sounds like he mentoring and providing guidance for the LW. Were it up to Brenda, the LW would not get the benefit of Chris’s experience and wisdom. This is exactly how women’s advancement in the workplace is stymied by sexism.

  9. DevAssist*

    My college advisor and I met privately in his office many a time.

    Once I graduated, we even saw Deadpool together (with another person) and had dinner together (with alcohol!)

    He’s married, attractive, and very witty. There was absolutely no flirting in either direction. Mentor/Mentee relationships aren’t as formal as they may have been in the past.

    OP, I’d say enjoy your friendship/professional relationship with Chris.

    1. Anony*

      Even in the past, men would go out drinking with mentors. I bet Brenda would see nothing wrong with the interactions if the OP were a man.

  10. starsaphire*

    I agree. Brenda appears to have some issues that she is projecting on to you.

    This seems like a weird approach, but… have you tried chatting to Brenda about something she’s interested in? There was a Brenda at a previous job I had, and (being a Geek Social Fallacy early adopter) I deliberately spent some time talking to her, and discovered that we both liked a particular TV show that had a really avid fan following. So I’d occasionally stop in and talk to her about it. “Oh, they reran the episode last night with XYZ, did you see it?” sort of thing.

    I’m not guaranteeing that it will solve the issue… but it might make Brenda less likely to target you. (It also gives you some good defense material. “Chris and I were talking about Spiderman, just like you and I were talking about Cheers the other day.”)

    Sometimes the Brendas of the world are just sad and lonely, and a little kindness might go a long way. No guarantees, but… what have you got to lose?

    1. Snark*

      I really, really don’t like this, mostly because I think OP shouldn’t have to resort to flattery in lieu of forthrightly establishing proper and reasonable boundaries.

      1. Future Homesteader*

        I see your point, Snark, but I think given the power dynamics here (and the success I’ve had with that approach in the past), it probably wouldn’t hurt to try. That said, LW would be totally within her rights to just shut it down.

      2. GG Two shoes*

        I don’t think that’s flattery to try to find common ground or shared interest, but I agree that at this point I’d move on from trying to be too friendly with her.

      3. K.*

        Totally agree. Frosty professionalism is a totally reasonable outcome here, due to Brenda’s behavior. Brenda hasn’t earned any more than that.

        1. Tuesday Next*

          Except it sounds as though everyone was pretty unfriendly to Brenda to begin with: “everyone else avoids her whenever possible”.

          Maybe she’s jealous or feeling side lined because everyone avoids her, and is reacting in this rather childish way.

          1. Lance*

            I’d find it more likely that she’s behaved along these lines in the past, and people that have worked there, and with her, really want to avoid it.

      4. Lissa*

        She definitely doesn’t have to, but I don’t think it’s a totally unreasonable thing to try, if the LW feels like doing it.

        Frosty professionalism would also be completely reasonable and expected, though. But LW shouldn’t feel she has to do that either if she doesn’t want to, so it’s good to have other ideas, IMO.

        1. Tuxedo Cat*

          When I was in grad school, an admin used to be really grumpy/unpleasant towards me. I started asking how she was and about her photos. She and I were pretty close when she retired/I graduated.

          I know that behavior wasn’t the worst or in the same league as Brenda, but it’s just a thought.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            I had a similar experience in college choir and made friends with the unfriendly soprano with whom I had to share a music folder. However, being grouchy isn’t the same as making sexual assumptions about the OP’s conversations with another coworker and sending clients away so they don’t have to interact with her.

          2. Lissa*

            Yeah, sometimes it actually does work. Not always but it’s not an unreasonable idea if the person feels like trying it. I have noticed a tendency here that when someone behaves badly, any suggestion that is seen as pandering/being too nice is not just shot down but answered with a lot of stuff like “LW shouldn’t *have to*” do it and “it’s not their responsibility” but I just don’t see how giving yet another suggestion is in any way suggesting that it is! It’s just one out of many ideas for the person to consider if it might work in their situation.

      5. Gerry Larry Terry Gary*

        Not in lieu, but in addition makes sense. It all depends on the work environment you want. “Frosty professionalism”- can be hard to keep up. Make a groove for yourself to slide into.

  11. Savannnah*

    This letter is a good reminder to young adults fresh into their careers that both women and men can reinforce sexism in the workplace.

  12. MicroManagered*

    OP I would also suggest looking into Title IX. Basically, Title IX states that no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. Since you are in a workstudy position, it’s possible (IANAL) that she’s violating Title IX by creating a sexually hostile environment for you, particularly because it sounds like she’s singling you out because you’re female. Your school should have a Title IX office or coordinator who can help you navigate this situation.

    1. Wintermute*

      Yup, this is getting into EEOC territory here, and Title IX is how that applies to educational institutions. Everything she’s doing is like she’s a terrible actor in a training film on sex discrimination in the workplace.

    2. Anony*

      I think that is an overreaction. The goal is to diffuse the situation, not escalate it. She is not being discriminated against just because she has a busybody supervisor. It doesn’t sound like the supervisor has excluded her from anything and I’m not sure this would meet the legal definition of “hostile environment”.

        1. Anony*

          I missed that part. If Benda is actually limiting who the OP can work with then she should escalate it.

          1. Sterling*

            Exactly she told another student they can’t enter the office with the OP is working. That is Title IX territory. I am a Title IX investigator for my school and this is something I would want to know about.

      1. MicroManagered*

        I would totally agree with that if it were a non-academic environment. The fact that she’s being harassed in a student position that funds her education puts this in a whole different category immediately. And if there’s not a Title IX case here, then the office that administers that policy can certainly make that call, can’t they?

        1. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

          Fully agree. It hurts nothing for OP to explore her options with the Title IX coordinator, and even so, I don’t think it’s incumbent on OP to de-escalate a situation that’s already escalated past what is appropriate. She’s dependent on this job to pay her tuition to get the very education that is the mission of the organization that’s employing her. She shouldn’t have to deal with a manager who continuously targets her for having friendly relationships in the office.

        2. Alton*

          I agree. Universities have a strong interest in preventing gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and it’s very likely that there’s a Title IX office that addresses these very issues.

      2. MicroManagered*

        In a non-academic work environment, I’d 100% agree. But because she is a student of the university on workstudy, I think this puts the situation in a different (escalated) category by default. And if there’s not a Title IX issue in play here, the office that administers that policy can can certainly make that call.

      3. Mike C.*

        The escalation came from Brenda when she turned every normal encounter at the office into something sexual.

        1. Akcipitrokulo*

          Agreed. It might be worth talking to Brenda’s boss and/or HR to say “hey, we may have a situation here that I think might touch on (legal stuff) – could we talk about it?”

          I don’t know if I’d try talking to Brenda first or not – I’d probably try but it may be difficult – but either approach is completely reasonable.

          1. nonegiven*

            I sure wouldn’t let her pull me out into the hall again. “No, Brenda, I’m not going out in the hall with you to talk about sex, again. It’s an inappropriate topic at work and you’re making me uncomfortable.”

            Make her do it in front of witnesses or put it in an email, that can be forwarded to HR, Title IX people, etc.

        2. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

          Agree. OP is a student, and that’s important to consider, I think. Her work-study position isn’t just cheap labor for Brenda and team, it’s for *her* benefit and professional development as well, and she is entitled to a workplace that isn’t uncomfortable at best. Speaking to the Title IX coordinator isn’t punishment for Brenda, it’s a way to make sure OP’s work environment is in compliance with the educational mission of the work-study program, which should be paramount.

          1. Former Temp*

            Not to mention all the students yet to come (until Brenda has retired). Or, alternatively, there were prior complaints and unless OP also complains, they might think Brenda had amended her behavior (admittedly, this strikes me as less likely—if it were the case, it would seem like there would be someone discreetly checking with OP).

      4. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        No, telling her who she can and can’t interact with (that grad student) based on their respective genders is discriminatory. Her supervisor treating her like the office vixen is discriminatory.

      5. President Porpoise*

        Hard disagree. Discrimination doesn’t always mean tangible denial of benefits. Sometimes it’s the harder to quantify denial of opportunity – such as the opportunity to train one-on-one with a supervisor to build job skills, the opportunity to network and build relationships with male supervisors and grad students, etc. OP is being discriminated against in a way that so far hasn’t had too much effect – but if allowed to continue or if applied to another, less resilient/self aware female work study employee, can definitely result in long term lasting career damage.

      6. Akcipitrokulo*

        Making someone feel uncomfortable because of accusations of behaving sexually inappropriately would definitely count in UK, and from what I’ve read here, in US as well. You can’t do that shit.

      7. Anna*

        It’s not the same because she’s a work-study student. Her work for the department is tied to her financial aid, not through the university and I’m not sure it has to meet that threshold. I recommended above that the OP might want to talk to the work-study coordinator about what’s going on. They should know.

    3. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      Absolutely. If LW is planning, like she seems to be, to stay at this position for multiple years (perhaps all through college) you don’t want this lunatic projecting her warped vision of you to any more people than she already has. In three years you will be writing that you can’t find a job in the university and you don’t know why. Because this loon has shared that she “protects you from yourself.”
      Oh, she IS Always flirting with anything in pants! She tried it with a grad student, but I put a stop to THAT. Not in MY office. I couldn’t do anything about her flirting with Chris, though. I told her she was upsetting him but she didn’t care…Everyday she sits at his desk and well, you know….

      Worst case scenario? Definitely. But still. Shut this shit down.

    4. Justme, The OG*

      It would have to be persistent enough to actually interfere with her performance. Not to say that it can’t get there, but I don’t see it there yet. I would though encourage the OP to know about her university’s Title IX office just for general information though.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        It might be interfering with the performance of the graduate student who was banned from the office when the OP is there.

      2. Observer*

        I don’t think she needs to wait till hat point. Brenda has shown a pattern of ridiculous and discriminatory behavior. It’s not inconceivable that it could fall into hostile workplace territory, which is an issue that goes beyond being limited in who she can talk to.

        But, the idea that Brenda is going to limit who she can work with based purely and explicitly on gender is already discriminatory, even is she hasn’t been harmed YET.

      3. MicroManagered*

        It has affected her enough that she’s written to an advice blog about it and is questioning her actions and decisions–I’d say it’s affecting her on some level. But we can’t really say whether it’s affecting her performance (work or school).

    5. ExcelJedi*

      THIS. Even if OP puts up strong boundaries and manages to stop this behavior for her, who knows how many young women Brenda will have working for her in the future. They should not be getting this kind of bad advice, either. A Title IX officer will know that Brenda setting these kinds of expectations at a work study may actually hold an alumna back once she joins the non-student workforce, and should have the authority to have her retrained before supervising more students.

    6. Sarianna*

      Seconding this. As a student I had to speak with my school’s Title IX coordinator about my advisor who was also the department head–I had nobody above him to go to, so it was out of necessity, but honestly, even though I graduated before it was fully resolved, it was absurdly helpful to get recognition within the academic institution that Advisor’s sexist behavior was Not Okay and Would Not Be Tolerated.

    7. Rock Prof*

      I was coming here to say exactly this. Even if the title ix officer can’t explicitly do anything for her, they can advice and there will probably be a way to subtly alert the work study office that Brenda shouldn’t be in a supervisory time.
      If I knew this was happening to one of the students I regularly interact with, I would be livid and would go and talk face to face to the title ix officer myself, if the student was okay with that.

    8. gladfe*

      Yes, this is what I was coming here to say. OP, if you’re at a university in the United States, it’s also worth knowing that Title IX protects you from retaliation for a Title IX complaint. (IANAL either, but I’ve sat through a lot of Title IX training sessions.) If you’re concerned that Brenda will react badly to any of Alison’s scripts, you might consider looping in the Title IX officer to help preempt that.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        Yeah, as a recently-trained higher ed employee, I would note that having a conversation with someone in the Title IX office doesn’t mean you’re starting a whole Process — it could just be the conversation.

        1. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

          Yes, this is important. You’re not crossing some kind of workplace event horizon by just talking it through, but it can add helpful information about what options are on the table.

    9. Not That Kind of Doctor*

      I’m an American professor at a state school, and I absolutely agree to talk to the Title IX Coordinator*. We had a similar situation in which a senior female professor accused a senior male and junior female professor of having an affair, based solely on having seen them together at a bar off campus. OEEO got involved because it absolutely was (a) damaging to the junior professor’s career/professional development and (b) based on her sex.

      * On some campuses, the university has policies requiring that all “reports” be investigated. If you want to have a conversation before deciding to make an official report**, it is usually helpful to present things as a hypothetical (e.g., involving “someone I know”). You could even just show the coordinator this post on AAM and say “If something like that was happening to someone on this campus in a similar role as the letter writer, what options would there be for addressing it/what steps would you take to respond to it?”

      ** I’m all for making a report– this is NOT OK and NOT the OP’s fault– but I’m even more in favor of the OP having agency about what she wants to share and how the process goes, so this advice is just meant to facilitate that and avoid setting something in motion that makes her feel victimized by the process as well as by Brenda.

    10. Competent Commenter*

      Agreed. Just had Title IX training at my public university and Brenda’s type of behavior was explicitly described. It’s discriminatory and not ok. I’d report it.

  13. EBStarr*

    Brenda is the worst. This is so insanely sexist. How does one even sit “suggestively”? Just by sitting on a chair while being female and under 25, I assume?

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      She probably didn’t have her legs under a desk. (Or perhaps she doesn’t have a modesty panel and didn’t have her knees clenched together, the little flirt.) Everyone knows that’s man-huntin’ position.

    2. Myrin*

      Don’t you see it? It’s all right there in the letter! OP pulled her chair up because Chris showed her something on his computer! Clearly she wants to be aaaaall up in his business, and not in the business-sense, of course!

      1. Snark*

        And Chris be all “AWWWW YEAH I love it when she pulls up her chair like that.”*

        *SPOILERS AHEAD! Chris 100% does not think this.

        1. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

          One wonders what Brenda’s idea of an appropriate “watch while I show you this thing” setup would be. Citrix screen sharing while sitting six feet apart or bust, I guess.

          1. Natalie*

            One of those old “courting” sofas where the seats faced totally opposite directions and had a divider in between them.

    3. Wintermute*

      Unless you’re Glen Close in Fatal Attraction, you don’t.

      But I presume in Brenda’s eyes by being within 50 feet of a male that isn’t your husband and being unrepentantly and flagrantly a woman.

      1. Stormy*

        I was going to say Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, and then I remembered that Stone was tricked into doing that, and I felt doubly cruddy about the whole thing. *sigh*

        1. Wintermute*

          I went there first too but yeah… you’re right, plus Glen Close had a lot of “leaning against something seductively” or “sitting seductively” and so on.

  14. Hey Karma, Over here.*

    First of all, no, no no. This is not normal. She is a loon. She is sexist, judgmental and dangerous to the careers of young women.
    If your job is to support Chris, Brenda and Adam, she seems to have taken over the role of work study assistant monitor. Maybe she took the position, maybe the other two stepped back…In any case, if she is scheduling your hours, assigning you work and reviewing your performance, she is your manager. If she is doing the same on behalf of the other two, made herself spokesperson, (somehow I think she would prefer Chairlady, because she is a LADY and acts like one, ) you have an opportunity to address her actions by addressing the situation.

    You should explain to Chris and Adam that all your feedback comes through Brenda. There has already been an instance where she “misspoke” (straight up lied about what happened and what Chris said happened.) You would like feedback from them directly and to assigned tasks from them as well because “this is an opportunity for me to learn to work with many people on many tasks and learn to prioritize and communicate.”

    I think once they find an eager capable assistant, they will take advantage of that and not just leave you to Brenda.

    1. Data Miner*

      I was thinking this too – OP should give Chris (and possibly Adam) a heads up on what’s going on with these chats from Brenda. It would help having someone in OP’s corner, especially since she has good relations with Chris, and possibly divert oversight of OP away from Brenda.

      All about the #metoo movement, get the men involved :-)

      Curious if Alison had a reason for not suggesting…

      1. Lance*

        Definitely do this; frankly, if nothing else, Chris and Adam very much deserve to know, because this is the sort of thing that can (very unfairly) affect how they’re perceived, and even the dynamics around them.

        1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

          Excellent point. If this lie gets around that LW is inappropriate with coworkers, people will start looking at the power dynamic in the department. And the senior men are going to be blamed by some…

  15. Junior Dev*

    One of the issues with working in a male-dominated field is that the vast majority of the people I could have been work friends with are straight men, and I always have this voice in the back of my head wondering if people are saying these things about us.

    I work in a company that’s more gender balanced and also where I can be openly queer without people making me the Designated Gay and asking all sorts of awkward questions so I’m a lot less worried about it now but it’s been a big problem in the past.

  16. Future Homesteader*

    I missed this the first time around: “told that student (a doctoral candidate in his late twenties) that he was not to return to the office when I’m working.” Holy crap! That’s really bad and could affect the office on a much larger scale. (who even says stuff like that??) That said, I bet it’s a sign that everyone already knows Brenda’s over-the-top and probably takes everything she says with a grain of salt.

    1. Wintermute*

      That’s also the point she reached into prohibited sex discrimination. Restricting your access to your “clients” based on your sex and their marital status is classic sex discrimination.

      1. Anony*

        I thought he was a friend of the OP. If he was a “client” then it does make it sound like it should be escalated.

        1. Wintermute*

          The male student, I presume is a client of sorts, when you work for an educational institution the students are either directly or indirectly your clients.

    2. ContentWrangler*

      Also, depending on what exactly that office does, Brenda’s insane hang ups could be impeding that grad student’s ability to do his work. If this is the grad student’s department office and he can only go to the office when the assistant isn’t there (also how is he supposed to know her schedule), then that’s interfering with someone’s education.

    3. Rusty Shackelford*

      And if you decide to go over her head, this is your opening. It can be hard for managers to understand something as subjective as “she makes me uncomfortable.” But “she told a grad student not to come to the office when I’m here” is pretty objective. And pretty inappropriate.

    4. fposte*

      If Brenda were otherwise reasonable, which she isn’t, I could kind of see this one. Student jobs can be social honeypots, and if Mr. Grad was only coming around when the OP was there and having no real business, that’s a thing you can address. However, you don’t address it by saying you can only come when she’s not in the office; you just say straight out that staff need to focus on their work and you’re going to ask him to leave since he doesn’t have business there right now.

      1. Not Australian*

        And of course the grad student may have reason to complain, too, depending on why he’s coming to the office; to be limited in the times he’s allowed to be there – just him, and no other student – could be seriously inconveniencing.

      2. SoCalHR*

        Exactly, if over-chatting while on-the-clock is the issue, you address that issue with the employee. And if the student allowed to come in when she’s not there, then presumably he has a legitimate need to be there at some point, so its not even like he’s some random guy who stops in JUST to see the employee. Brenda should just help guide the focus to work not start issuing decrees!

  17. Wintermute*

    I’d like to point out that this is getting into potentially discriminatory territory, and you should consider that. It’s a sadly common myth that people can’t discriminate against a class they’re a member of (women can’t discriminate against women, members of the same race can’t create a hostile workplace for that race, etc) but that’s absolutely not true. If she is not managing her male subordinates relationships in this way, this is edging close to sex discrimination. The intent doesn’t matter, she’s wildly out of step with modern-day workplace norms and attempting to impose sex discrimination by virtue of what she feels is “appropriate” or not is just as wrong as if it were a male boss doing it, or she was haranguing male co-workers about their relationships.

    Bringing in “flirting” and romantic intent where none exists and policing conversations with co-workers for potential romantic intent is sex discrimination.

    Expecting people to maintain different colleague relationships depending on their relative genders is sex discrimination.

    Denying co-workers of one gender the opportunity to establish normal working relationships with other employees is sex discrimination.

    Prohibiting students from coming to see you because of their marital status and your gender is sex discrimination.

    It might be time to involve HR, because when you push back (using the very excellent scripts above), you want to be protected from retaliation.

    1. InkyStitch*

      Seconding all the above. This is so many levels of inappropriate and sexist and could be damaging to your career and/or reputation. Even if you don’t plan to work there long-term, you’ll probably need the references. Just as you thought that Chris had asked Brenda to speak to you, other people (like that grad student) may be wondering if you’d asked Brenda to speak to them, or if you have feelings that you don’t have, etc.

      And just to add an additional WTF on policing women’s behaviour but not men’s?! As your superiors, if what Brenda thinks is happening is indeed happening, it’s on them to adjust their behaviour towards you. So many ugh’s.

  18. DCompliance*

    OP- If you get pulled into the hallway again by Brenda, you can always say in the moment “I am going to consider everything you are saying”. Then, you can cycle back to her in time and fashion you choose. You get to take control of the conversation. Don’t feel an obligation to respond then and there and don’t feel that because you didn’t respond in the moment, you cannot respond the next day in the method you choose.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Screw that noise. If Brenda tries to pull LW into the hallway again, LW should say she is not interested in having a private conversation with Brenda.

      1. DCompliance*

        Of course, she can say that. But the fact that OP reports into Brenda can make it hard to find the courage and speak up and say that, especially when you are younger. When I was much younger, I didn’t have courage or the life experience to stand up to someone like that. But simply saying I don’t want to have a private conversation with you is not blunt enough for me. I assume Brenda will just fire back and say well it’s work related.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          If it’s work related, then we don’t need to go out in the hall. Chris and Adam should be involved in the conversation too.

          1. DCompliance*

            Even if she refuses to go into the hallway and Adam and Chris are around, the OP still may need some scripting to gather her thoughts.

        2. Akcipitrokulo*

          “I’m sorry – based on our past conversations I feel uncomfortable being alone with you. Is there someone you’d prefer to have with us?”

      2. Lawyer*

        “Hi, Brenda. I’m not going to have impromptu conversations with you in the hallway, because they’ve been uncomfortable for me and you’ve implied some rather sexist things about me. If you would like to have an actual work-related conversation, I would ask that we schedule it in advance and have someone else present.”

    2. Snark*

      Again, I think this caters to her overmuch. What she needs to hear is, “It is inappropriate for you to police my professional relationships and it makes me deeply uncomfortable. Please stop.” She does not need to be flattered with the polite lie that OP is willing to consider her advice or cater to her in any way.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        I don’t think the point is catering, it’s giving the OP something to say in the immediate moment when she may not have her script ready. Then she can go back to her seat, gather her thoughts, and follow up with “hey Brenda, I’ve thought about what you said, and concluded that you belong on the Canadian dollar because you’re an absolute loon.” (Or, you know, something more diplomatic than that.)

      2. Jennifer Thneed*

        It’s a classic response for people who think they get to harangue you:

        “Thank you, I’ll think about that.” (I’ll think what a loon you are.)
        “I’ll take that into consideration.” (I’ll consider you to be a terrible person.)
        “Thank you, I have plans.” (I have plans to never be near you.)

        It’s a flat response with no place for the harangue-r to dig in. You haven’t disagreed! You even sound like you have agreed! It’s a tool for leaving a conversation when you want it to end, already.

  19. TCO*

    As someone who’s supervised work-study students, nothing about your relationship with Chris seems out of the norm (especially since you’re older than a stereotypical undergrad–you’re 24 and a complete adult, for heaven’s sake!). I’ve had friendly, chatty relationships with the students I supervised, including the occasional non-work text, e-mail, or lunch/coffee outing (though for my office it was typically in groups) to chat about things like TV shows. When it’s just coworkers or friends, gender doesn’t matter. And when it’s a part-time student job like yours, where you’re not looking for advancement or a long-term career, I think the distinction between supervisor and supervisee matters even less (not that talking about movies or having lunch with any boss would be inappropriate).

    Neither you nor Chris is doing anything wrong here.

  20. MuseumChick*

    This is a great chance to pull out the “What I’m hearing you say…” Line.

    “What I’m hearing you say is I should not discuss movies with my co-workers.”
    “What I’m hearing you say is I should not have the cell phone numbers of co-workers in case of emergencies”

    If she brings up you and Chris again you could also say something like, “After our last discussion I felt mortified that I made Chris feel uncomfortable in anyway. I discussed it with him and he assured me that was not the case. Perhaps we should pull him into this discuss to clear everything up.”

    1. Jennifer*

      “What I’m hearing you say is that I need to stop talking to male coworkers around here, period.”

    2. AKchic*

      “What I’m hearing you say is that *you* are uncomfortable with female employees interacting with male employees”
      “What I’m hearing you say is that *you* see everything I do in a sexually suggestive light and I should be considering a trip to HR”

      Yes… these lines are great.

      1. MuseumChick*

        LOL, it really is amazing how just repeat back something can highlight how totally and completely ridiculous it is.

  21. Katniss*

    I always wonder how those people who seem to think men and women can’t be friends because of the potential for attraction deal with the existence of bi people.

    1. Jesmlet*

      I’m assuming they must think that telecommuting is our only option. Actually strike that, can’t even speak with people on the phone lest my tone get too flirty. I’ll just go off into the woods and become a shut-in now

      1. nnn*

        As a bisexual telecommuter who hates talking on the phone, I am completely on-side with this philosophy.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          Does that mean I could get permission to telecommute if I’d agree to be bi? Because I’m all over that. {puts up Gal Godot poster and waits for good things to happen}

            1. Jesmlet*

              I can’t explain how much I relate to this… also @Rusty, *applause* for the Friends reference

    2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      They’re the people who automatically assume that LGBT folk are dangerous, disgusting predators, in my experience.

      1. Wintermute*

        Sadly, you’re probably right. Beliefs this out-of-date usually come with attitudes towards everything sex-and-gender-related that come right out of 50s filmstrips like “Boys Beware”

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Or that being bisexual means you “switch” back and forth between liking guys and gals.

        There was a meme going around FB at one point that illustrated this point in a hilarious way (link in follow up comment).

      2. Rusty Shackelford*

        Well, if you believe someone can’t be friends with people of the opposite sex, it’s the only logical conclusion…

      3. Kelly L.*

        They also think we can’t be faithful, because we obviously must have both a male partner and a female partner at all times.

          1. RosyPosy*

            When I was a teenager, I thought you could be bisexual up until the point you were in a relationship. Like, straight people said “I’ll give anyone of the opposite gender a shot”, gay people said, “I’ll give anyone of the same gender a shot”, and bisexual people said, “I’ll give anyone of either gender a shot.” But then once they were in a relationship, I felt like the bisexual person would automatically become either gay or straight, because at that point, to still say you were bisexual felt to me like you were saying, “This is my partner but I’m still looking around at other people!” I did understand the concept of being in a relationship but still finding other people attractive. Whenever I had a crush on anyone, I’d devote myself to that crush and wouldn’t even entertain the idea that anyone else was cute. It did not compute, so bisexuality was very confusing.

    3. selina kyle*

      We’re invisible to those folks, trust me. Either confused, lying for attention or they straight up haven’t heard about bisexuality.

    4. Stormy*

      Now I have a cartoon version of this workplace in my head, in which LW sidles up to Brenda during one of these dressings-down and says in a low tone, “But Brenda, it’s always been you.”

      Then Brenda’s cartoon head explodes.

      1. Khlovia*

        This must happen. OP, do this please. Have phone ready to catch the headsplode, then update here with YouTube url. Thank you.

    5. AKchic*

      They assume that male bi’s are only bi because they are “confused” gays. They assume that female bi’s are doing it for attention to attract more men. No matter what, it’s all about maximizing the D. Bisexuality isn’t “real” according to most. It’s a “phase” meant to attract “The D” (capital D, because doncha know, every D we want is yuge, that’s the only kind of D there is).

      *sigh* So not the case.

      1. Oranges*

        I think it’s because bisexuality doesn’t fit into our two gendered system. People with black and white thinking haaaate it so much. You don’t fit into their world view of black/white, yes/no, male/female. How can they be sure they’re performing “male” or “female” right when you’re there indicating by your very presence that they’re clinging to a false “natural” dichotomy.

        1. Oranges*

          I… haven’t thought about this a lot…. nope. Not me. I also won’t talk your ear off about it if you let me…

            1. Kathryn T.*

              As I saw on Tumblr a while ago, asking “which one is the wife?” of a same gender couple is like asking a pair of chopsticks which one is the fork.

    6. Jennifer Thneed*

      Lots of people don’t believe in bi — all bi people are actually gay. (This is true of gay people as well as of straight people, btw.)

  22. Parenthetically*

    Brenda is like what would happen if Jack Donaghy’s secretary Jonathan and Kathy Geiss had a baby. Ew.

  23. Jesmlet*

    This old-school Mike Pence-esque attitude is so damaging to women. The idea that men and women can’t have friendly relationships in the workplace without there being something untoward is ridiculous and the fact that she’s pulled you aside twice to reprimand you has me seething. You’ve done nothing wrong. She needs to keep her nose out of your business, and you should not change your behavior one bit.

    If she mentions it again, just say you appreciate her concern but that she’s reading the situation incorrectly, and I would add for good measure that conflating friendly and flirtatious behavior and implying that men and women can’t be friendly at work is harmful to women in the workplace. If she was your only superior, I wouldn’t advise saying something so blunt but she’s not and I’m assuming Chris would back you up and/or be a reference if needed.

  24. CatCat*

    Ew, Brenda. Geez.

    I’m concerned that not only is Brenda trying to interfere with how OP interacts with men at work, but she also seems to be trying to interfere with how men interact with OP. I mean, telling the grad student not to return when OP is working in the office. What on earth? That is setting up obstacles to OP’s success at work. Is she soon not to be able to assist any male students seeking the services of the office? That makes me think OP should go up higher than Brenda to address this issue.

    1. Merida Ann*

      “She commented on how Chris was having a ‘flirty’ conversation with a grad student the other day, and I walked into his office to ask a question, and didn’t leave right away, and it ‘made Chris really uncomfortable.’ ”

      ^This line really bugged me, too – so according to Brenda, it’s okay for Chris to be “flirty” with a female grad student [which I doubt he actually was] and even that he shouldn’t be interrupted while flirting, but it’s not okay for OP to even be in the same room as a male grad student? What the actual heck?

      Everything about what Brenda is saying is sexist and messed up and needs to stop immediately. Ugh.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        Brenda’s “logic” is probably that Chris can flirt with eligible females, but the OP isn’t eligible because he’s her supervisor. And the grad student is off-limits because he’s married.

      2. Swan*

        A female graduate student is there to learn and to prepare for her future career. She is not there to “flirt” with Chris or any other staff member. The fact that Brenda is willing to treat male and female grad students differently based on their sex as well as her dreadful treatment of the OP is inappropriate for any college or university environment. Turning Brenda into the Title IX Officer is appropriate.

    2. Tuxedo Cat*

      It’s possibly setting up obstacles for the grad student’s success… When I was in grad school, I had limited hours to do things because of meetings and such. Forms had to be turned in and deadlines were actually adhered to.

  25. Natalie*

    She told me that I’m being naive, said I need to pay more attention to my actions and whether or not someone is wearing a wedding ring

    I extra want to highlight this portion because I think it shows just how out to lunch Brenda is here. Whether or not someone is married should have exactly zero bearing on how you speak to them in the workplace. If you *were* flirting inappropriately, it wouldn’t matter who you were flirting with – single, married, attracted to your gender or not – it would need to be addressed regardless. Her advice is completely opposite to how workplaces are actually supposed to function.

    Additionally, since you are a student, is there a work study placement office you could speak with? Part of the point of work study jobs is to give students some exposure to workplace norms and so forth, and if someone who’s supervising student employees is this out of line the work study office may want to know about it.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      But don’t you know it’s the OP’s job to make sure that married men aren’t tempted to stray? Men don’t have self-control when there’s a woman involved, so if he cheats, it’s because the OP seduced him to do so.


      1. Natalie*

        Look, as long as the woman in the interaction is always wrong, we’re good here.

        (/s which is hopefully BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS)

      1. Ten*

        Came here to point that out! I know plenty of married people, men and women alike, who don’t wear rings for all sorts of reasons.

        1. AnonEMoose*

          My husband doesn’t wear one. Because he works in a warehouse, and the conveyor belts and suck make wearing a ring very, very inadvisable. My dad never wore one, either, because he was a mechanic and a farmer, so bad idea for similar reasons. I have no concerns about my husband’s fidelity, and my parents are 45+ years into a good marriage.

    2. Rikki Tikki Tarantula*

      The wedding ring thing made me roll my eyes. Neither my husband nor I wear them (he lost weight after we married and I gained weight, so neither of us have rings that fit us any more). If someone’s going to cheat, a ring won’t stop them.

    3. Stormy*

      Also, there are a very large number of married people who do not wear rings. Some do not find them comfortable or worth the money, some do not like the historical implications, and some cannot for job safety reasons.

    4. Tau*

      True story: so I’m from Germany and spent a long time living in the UK. It turns out that there’s a cultural difference regarding on which hand you wear the wedding ring: in the UK it’s on the left, in Germany it’s on the right.

      It took me over ten years to realise this. I did not successfully identify a single wedding ring in a decade.

      I did not notice any particular noticeable negative effects from this in my professional life. It’s just not relevant information a lot of the time, and “a lot of the time” definitely includes “when you’re at work”.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I just finished watching season one of the German series Dark on Netflix and I noticed this–the married people who wore rings had them on the other hand. But the ring didn’t stop one character from cheating, anyway.

        It doesn’t stop people from hitting on you, either. I used to wear a fake one sometimes when I went out and some guys would just ignore it, or make jokes about it and then hit on me anyway. And some of them were married also. If they’re gonna do it, they’re gonna do it.

      2. EvilQueenRegina*

        That was how my ex’s friend hid it from his mother that he was engaged. His fiancée was Hungarian and wore her ring on her right hand so his mother was oblivious for ages. Almost wishing now I hadn’t disowned that clique because then I would have known the outcome.

    5. nnn*

      It surprises me that someone as cautious about giving the impression of flirting as Brenda is would think that wedding rings are any sort of “defence”. I’d estimate conservatively that 50% of the men who have misinterpreted my ordinary professional friendliness as flirtation were wearing wedding rings.

  26. nnn*

    What I would do in this situation, on top of any other strategy, is avoid having any of the interactions that Brenda criticizes with Brenda, lest she feel that I’m flirting with her. No talking about movies with Brenda, no pulling a chair up to her desk, nothing.

  27. lisalee*

    As someone who works at a college, I might actually recommend escalating this to your grandboss now. We are really strict about providing equal service to everyone, and when Brenda barred a student from coming to the office while you are working, she really crossed a line. If you do choose to say something to her boss, I’d say something like “Brenda interprets my normal interactions with male students and coworkers as flirtatious and she is making me uncomfortable with her constant policing of my conversations. It makes it difficult for me to do my work when I feel I can’t interact with men. She also told [student] that he is not allowed to come to the office when I’m working and I’m concerned that that will reflect badly on us if it seems like we are preventing students from accessing services they need.”

    1. mf*

      Yes, this. Every university I’ve worked would want a manager to put the kibosh on Brenda’s behavior immediately.

      1. mf*

        And while it would be fine for LW to use the scripts Alison provided to shut down Brenda’s behavior, this isn’t actually LW’s problem to solve. This is the university’s problem–they bear a greater responsibility here, even more so than if LW were just an employee.

    2. Akcipitrokulo*

      That’s a really good script. This situation needs dealt with – OP, you are completely in the right here, and should get the back-up from higher-ups.

    3. Lumen*

      I am so glad to see so many comments from people who work in these exact environments encouraging the LW to escalate this. Just nice to see women being encouraged to speak up, rather than suck it up and pretend it’s okay. It’s not remotely okay.

    4. dr_silverware*

      This is a really great way to present it to a boss/HR person/Title IX person. Big thumbs up on this; it foregrounds both the personal and professional consequences of Brenda dirtbag behavior, and has the perfect tone.

  28. Inspector Spacetime*

    Gross, gross, grosssss. I got the heebie jeebies reading this letter. I would definitely go above Brenda’s head and get help, OP.

  29. Master of None*

    On face value, I completely agree that Brenda is way out of line. Part of me wonders though if Brenda knows something the LW doesn’t. There is a “missing stair” theory that groups tend to know who predators, serial sexual harassers are and don’t do enough to warn new comers about the person, and just accept the serial harassment as the default and the new girl will learn it on her own (don’t want to sully the reputation of a predator of course). The language Brenda uses is misogynistic and shaming the LW, but it may be that because of her age she doesn’t have the language/mentality to warn a young female worker about her work environment and focuses on the LW “not inviting bad behavior” as opposed to “this dude is bad news.”

    Just a thought

    1. Merida Ann*

      Even if that was the case – which still wouldn’t be the right way to go about it – then how would that make any sense with Brenda being mad that OP interrupted Chris while he was being “flirty” with a grad student?

      “She commented on how Chris was having a ‘flirty’ conversation with a grad student the other day, and I walked into his office to ask a question, and didn’t leave right away, and it ‘made Chris really uncomfortable.’ ”

      Somehow Brenda’s okay with believing that Chris is flirting with female grad students (whether or not he really is), but isn’t okay with OP supposedly being flirty with Chris or male grad students.

      And again, even if Brenda thought Chris was a threat, this would not at all be the way to communicate that message. But I think it’s pretty clear that it’s Brenda that has the problem, not Chris.

    2. Wintermute*

      I could see this angle if it weren’t for the grad student “event’ as well. That goes beyond policing Chris and OP to policing OPs interactions with the opposite sex in general. And what tips it in my opinion.

    3. Savannnah*

      With the OP already in a mindset of doubting her gut, which is super common with this type of interactions because women are socialized to not listen to their guts, it might not be helpful to introduce contortionist theories about maybe good intentions.

      1. Lumen*

        Women are also socialized to buy into the “Her Fault” narrative. Even if Brenda were trying to ‘warn’ the OP about a sketchy dude (which I think is about .000000000000001% likely), her approach is sexist and inappropriate, full stop.

        A note about the “it was a different time! they don’t know any better!” argument. We have seen this used by racists and sexual predators and so on over and over and over. It’s a joke. Women have been fighting for equality, writing about it, studying it, and speaking out for a very, very, very long time. It wasn’t ‘new’ for my grandmother, and it’s not ‘new’ now. If Brenda is ignorant about it at this point, it’s because she’s chosen to be.

      2. Oranges*

        I think it is good someone brought it up just because we can go “nope not how humans work in our experience”. Like shining a light under a kid’s bed to show them there are no monsters there.

    4. Observer*

      PULEEZ! People of a “certain generation” most definitely DO have the vocabulary for this stuff. In this case, all Brenda needed to say was “just so you know, Chris has a reputation. You might want to watch out for him” or something like that.

      Also, it would be one thing if Brenda reacted to the OP’s interactions with ONE person. But the idea that ALL of the guys she interacts with are predators? Come on!

      You’re not just looking for zebras here, you are looking a mixed herd of zebras and okapis in the arctic circle.

    5. Akcipitrokulo*

      No – people who are uptight and embarrassed talking about sex (which she isn’t) would say something like “be careful around Chris” or “Chris can be a bit too friendly…” or “it’s not a good idea to be alone with Chris” or similar.

      It’s not about Chris, and not just because it’s not warning her – it’s ANY man.

      She is being completely out of order and needs to be stopped.

    6. Luna*

      Except OP said she has worked there for a year now, so if there was really a problem with Chris it likely would have come out by now. OP never says anything about feeling uncomfortable around Chris or weirded out by his behavior or anything he has said.

    7. Alton*

      I would possibly be more likely to consider that if Brenda hadn’t also taken it upon herself to ban a grad student from coming around. It doesn’t sound like the issue is isolated to Chris.

    8. Sylvan*

      I suppose that’s possible, but I actually think Brenda herself is the missing stair that everyone has stepped around while her weird behavior and sexual comments continued unchecked.

  30. dr_silverware*

    Brenda is being awful. This is egregious, she is damaging your working relationships (“don’t come back to the office while LW is working”), and she is making you uncomfortable based on your gender and your perceived sexual activity.

    There should be a Title IX coordinator at your school; any professor will know who it is, and will be able to tell you about who can keep what confidential and who’s a mandated reporter. You should be able to talk this over with someone, and if you are authoritative and clear about the impact on you, they will hopefully take it seriously.

    As for Brenda, here are a few additional scripts:

    -I know you have my best interests at heart, but it makes me uncomfortable for you to bring up sex in the workplace in this way, particularly relating to me and coworkers.

    -Brenda, telling me that I’m flirting all the time makes me quite uncomfortable.

    -Brenda, can I speak with you about something? Recently I’ve noticed that you perceive me to be flirting with a number of my colleagues. It makes me quite uncomfortable to have sex brought into the workplace like that. I know you have my best interests at heart, but it’s actually hurting how well I can do my work assisting everyone in my office.

    1. Rock Prof*

      This is good stuff.
      I would add that it’s not been my experience that most professors know who the Title IX coordinator is. They should, of course, but quite a few of my colleagues and other faculty I’ve known were actually surprised to know it was a thing. Even academic advisors, they’re faculty too, sometimes don’t have good information. However, the easiest solution is generally just googling, “University name+title IX.”

  31. Anon for this*

    If there is an issue here, it would be on Chris’s end (as is a higher level employee), and thus Brenda should deal with the situation through their boss or HR. That she hasn’t indicates it perception other than reality.

    1. SoCalHR*

      This is a very valid point. If Brenda’s concern was legitimate, she should focus her counseling sessions with Chris and/or his supervisor, not the OP. Chris bears the burden because of his higher and permanent position (not gender) to set the appropriate office tone – *especially* given she’s a *student* worker and not just an assistant in a normal office (that is part of the point of work-study, to learn how to work).

      Because she’s choosing to focus on the OP, it really just looks like she thinks all 24 yr olds are constantly man-hunting.

  32. Sara without an H*

    OP, I can’t tell from your letter whether Brenda is, in fact your manager. Do you actually report to her? Or are you just working there with three advisors of equal rank, and you all report to somebody else?

    While there are a lot of good suggestions in the comments offered so far, a lot depends on whether Brenda has supervisory authority over you, and who supervises Brenda. Can you tell us more?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I had emailed the OP to ask for clarification on exactly that yesterday but don’t have it yet. My hunch is that it’s a pretty informal arrangement as work-study jobs often are and they can all give her work but she doesn’t have a formal boss in the sense that we normally think of it. But I’m speculating.

      1. Sara without an H*

        Thanks for following up. Somebody manages that unit and it may be time to loop that person in. If Brenda were one of my reports, I’d really, really want to know about all this.

        1. serenity*

          Agreed. And whoever that manager is should probably know about this before OP approaches the school’s Title IX coordinator (as others have suggested), if only because I’m almost sure that manager would act on this pretty darn quick as it’s so egregious.

      2. Dankar*

        That sounds accurate to me, too. Our work-study operates the same here, but I’m the supervisor of record. If they wanted to go above me, they could go directly to the office that assigned them to our department.

        My graduate assistantship seems more analogous to the OP’s situation. I reported directly to the Director of the department, but the Assistant Directors gave me work, as well. In that case, I would have gone directly to HR with any issues as the placement process was fairly informal and a grandboss that wasn’t intimidating (VP or higher) wasn’t apparent. (And I should have to deal with some inappropriate behavior in that office, but I didn’t want to cause trouble for the coworker that was my “friend.” So I get it, OP, if it seems daunting to call Brenda out or go over her head.)

        There is likely a Title IX coordinator somewhere on campus, though, and I echo the other commenters suggesting that the OP seek him or her out. There are some serious issues with Brenda’s behavior, and a student employee is going to be doubly protected under Title IX.

      3. Jessica*

        Higher ed here. I don’t know how representative this is, but at my university there absolutely is a supervisor for every work-study job, one person who’s responsible for approving their timecards and who has taken various required trainings about managing work-study employees and what they may and may not do and what you must do with them. Others might informally give the work-study person stuff to do, but they report to somebody who’s responsible for them.

    2. Snark*

      It sounded to me like both Chris and Brenda and the other person are technically superior to her, if for no other reason than she’s a low-level work study employee and they’re full-timers.

  33. Wannabe Disney Princess*


    Brenda is so out of line here, she couldn’t even see it with the Hubble telescope. I can answer all of your questions with one word: No. I work in a field that is predominantly men. In my office, it’s less than 10% women. So…yeah. I work with a lot of men. Almost all of them are married. It would be horribly detrimental to me (as well as lonely and boring as all get out) if I refrained from getting to know the rest of my coworkers purely because I’m a woman.

    Stand up to Brenda next time, LW. As much as you’re comfortable with. And, yes, she may not like you. But you know what? There are far, far worse things than being disliked by someone so overbearing.

  34. mf*

    LW, I would talk to the person in charge of the work-study program (probably someone in your Student Employment office or Career Center). I think Alison’s scripts are good, but if you loop in someone from the work-study program, you can ensure that they have your back if Brenda makes a fuss.

    You should also feel free to ask them to speak to Brenda on your behalf. Given that you’re a student and an employee, they are ethically (and legally) required to ensure you’re not the target of sexist behavior.

    One other thought: you should feel free to escalate this to your grandboss or any other senior people in your office. I worked as a FT admin in a university office, and if any of the student employees had reported this sort of behavior to me, I would have stepped in immediately and made sure it was dealt with by the right person.

  35. insert pun here*

    Just as a data point: I have both supervised student employees and supervised employees who themselves supervised student employees, and in the latter case, I would have wanted to know about something like this. Not just because I’d want to head off a potential sexual harassment issue at the pass (though that’s certainly reason enough to nip this in the bud), but also because I wouldn’t want my department to get a reputation as a bad place for students to work.

  36. Candi*

    I really don’t like people who stick sex into every male/female interaction. It shows an obsessive mind on some very personal topics. Plus, if LBTG+ is brought into the discussion, even by accident or organically, in my observations they have a +66% chance of being the type of personality to have a prejudiced freak out about the topic. -.- I don’t like that either.

    Me, I would have had a really hard time by now not saying, “What is your issue!?” Not professional, but understandable.

    Push back, LW. Brenda isn’t at Comstock levels, but she is overly involved and occupied with your bedroom life or lack thereof.

  37. Lumen*

    “Or you could turn it around on her: “Brenda, your focus on sex is making me really uncomfortable. I’m surprised that you’re talking to me about such sexually-charged things at work, and I don’t want to hear about this kind of thing anymore.”

    I like this approach, because Brenda’s behavior is forcing her coworkers to feel uncomfortable in a distinctly sexual way. It’s completely inappropriate, and the fact that she a) singles you out due to your gender and b) returns again and again to this topic is… well, harassment.

    I wouldn’t drop the “sexual harassment” bomb in conversation about it, because that has pretty strict legal definitions and I don’t believe this qualifies, but it IS hostile, gendered harassment at work. Just because it’s not coming from a male colleague does not mean it is normal or acceptable.

    1. Lumen*

      PS: This happened to me once, to a much lesser degree, at my old Toxic Job. I sat at the front desk and it was actually one of my instructions to (if I wasn’t too busy) engage with job candidates – you know, see how they treat the person at the front desk, the person they aren’t trying to impress.

      So one day, I’m chatting normally with a guy waiting for his turn. I thought nothing of it. After his interview, one of the directors ‘jokingly’ scolded me (in front of two VPs) to stop “flirting” with candidates. I was mortified and didn’t even know how to respond, because I felt so humiliated and miscast. It never came up again, but we ended up hiring that particular candidate, and it honestly made it hard for me to work with him for a while because suddenly I wasn’t sure what ‘jokes’ were being told about me.

      Anyway: NOT OKAY. Brenda needs to be shut down.

  38. Linzava*

    Over a decade ago, I had a “mentor” who reported to my manager that I had an affair with a patient during an internship. I was 19 and the patient was elderly. The only reason this happened was because the patient was flirting with me. I was very uncomfortable and asked my “mentor” if I could wait outside his room from then on.

    My manager sat me down at the end of my internship and told me I wasn’t going to be hired because of the affair. I was mortified. I hadn’t even seen this patient since the first encounter and it had been weeks.
    As a result, when something along these lines happens, I go straight to my manager and report it. I never worked in that field again, but was stuck with the loans and the year of school I’d never use. It’s been years, but adult me is still raging mad about it.

    1. Chrissy*

      WOW. I’m shocked. I’m so sorry you experienced that. I honestly don’t know the answer to this, but it makes me wonder if you should/could do anything about it now. Wow.

    2. Lance*

      I’m sorry, what? You specifically ask to not have to see that patient because you’re uncomfortable, so the conclusion is you were having an affair with him? That is some of the most twisted, backwards logic I’ve ever heard.

    3. Plague of frogs*

      When a woman reports sexual harassment that’s been going on for a while and everyone is like, “But whhhhyyyy didn’t she just report it sooner?” I want them to come here and read this, and keep reading it until they understand.

  39. cactus lady*

    I used to have a roommate that was like this – she once scolded me for asking a married acquaintance how his wife and new baby were doing because “talking to married men when their wives aren’t there is always flirting”. The last of Allison’s suggestions was the most effective for me – but the key is to say it where someone else can hear you. It’s probably not going to change her opinion of what’s going on but it has a good chance of shutting her up, because people like this don’t like it when they are told that they’re doing something weird (they always want to be right), and they DEFINITELY don’t want other people to think that they’re weird (because image is important to them, hence why this is an issue to begin with). And ugh, what a nightmare to work under. If she doesn’t respond to this, can you talk to someone above her? Or to the other guys who manage you and ask them what to do?

    1. Drew*

      I know that my flirting technique ALWAYS involves asking people about their spouses and infant children. It’s super effective, guys. (Narrator: It is not.)

          1. Snark*

            “Such an approach is of course not effective, and would be tantamount to ze insensate scream of a deluded ego at a universe zat does not care if one dies, alone and unloved.”

              1. Snark*

                Herzog is maybe my favorite filmmaker, because he is INSANE and it is delightful. I took a video of my son at about six months old playing with a teddy bear, reading quotes from Grizzly Man in Werner Herzog’s accent. Put it on Facebook. About a dozen people were like “I’ve watched this five times and I still haven’t stopped laughing” and at least four people unfriended me.

                1. strawberries and raspberries*

                  1) I am also a Herzog fan, and I have the Herzog/Danzig mash-up Cinemetal T-shirt, which I would be wearing this minute if we were not business casual.
                  2) You don’t need to be friends with the kind of monsters who wouldn’t find your Grizzly Man parody absolutely amazing.

                2. Oranges*

                  I now want to see this video but I hate FB (I work in a company which uses machine learning about customer’s buying behavior. It’s made me paranoid). Is it other places or public on FB?

                3. serenity*

                  A friend of a friend encountered Herzog at a film festival in Florida many years ago. I don’t know what possessed him to say this, but in the guise of trying to flatter Herzog this guy referred to him as an icon of the counterculture. This did not sit well with Werner, who shouted “I am ze culture. YOU are ze counterculture!”, something we’ve quoted endlessly in the years since. His bearing/accent made it gold.

                4. Snark*

                  No, it’s not public – we’re pretty cranked down on privacy settings and so forth. Honestly, it’s one of those things where your imagination is probably entirely equal to the actual product.

            1. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

              Cut to shot of a visibly unsettled Herzog listening to a recording of someone attempting that flirting technique. “Turn it off,” he says. “You must never listen to this. The tape should be destroyed.”


      1. cactus lady*

        Right?! She also added that it would be different if I were married, but since I wasn’t, it WAS NOT OKAY. Because apparently unmarried females are all out to get poor, unsuspecting husbands to cheat! We need to be the property of men so that we won’t do that!

        1. Elizabeth West*

          The wife of one of my coworkers at a previous job was like this–the person I replaced warned me she would be unfriendly to me, because I was a single woman working with her husband (horrors!). I decided that it was HER problem and not mine, and so was very friendly to her every time she came in. I changed nothing about how I talked to her husband–he was very nice and there was no flirting or interest there whatsoever.

          Eventually she realized I wasn’t out to get him and got over it. I always wondered where that attitude came from in her case–I suspect her upbringing, but I never found out.

    2. Jules the Third*


      Actually, talking to men about their wives in a positive way is usually one of the *defenses* against that man hitting on you. You know, the not so subtle ‘yes, I know you are married and that matters’ kinda ways.

      1. cactus lady*

        His wife was a friend of mine who I’d somewhat fallen out of touch with. She just wasn’t there because she was taking care of the baby. People like this lady are weird.

  40. MilkMoon (UK)*

    Brenda would’ve had a coronary by now in my office. We have a very upbeat and playful environment and compliments are always flying around in a totally good-natured way – single, engaged or married! No one gets confused and thinks it’s a seduction attempt. This isn’t even *happening* in OP’s workplace! Bloody hell Brenda.

  41. Lisa*

    This feels like sexual harassment to me. Consistently taking nonsexual situations and framing them in terms of sex? When the person doing this is older / in a position of power over LW? Ew, nope.

    1. Biff*

      I was coming in here to say this. Brenda sounds like she’s harassing the OP. I would find this incredibly gross. I think “Wow.” and “No, that’s gross.” are phrases that OP needs to try on while dealing with this woman.

  42. ResuMAYDAY*

    I have a feeling that Brenda is projecting her own anxieties of her history on to this young person. To soften the script provided, she could say, “Brenda, it sounds like you’re looking out for me, possibly because of something you might have experienced at a point in YOUR career. I appreciate that, but I assure you that I trust my gut and trust the people that I’m talking to that everything I’ve experienced is above board.”

    1. Totally Minnie*

      I would 100% NOT say this. Don’t make any speculations at all about Brenda’s past, because they’re not relevant here. And speculating on this could actually make Brenda more upset than just using one of the already suggested scripts.

      If OP uses one of Alison’s scripts and then Brenda comes back with some variation of “I was just looking out for you because those kinds of interactions caused problems for me early in my career,” then sure, acknowledge that and thank her for trying to help, but continue to draw a firm line that places this topic off the table.

  43. a Gen X manager*

    Alison wrote

    OP wrote,

    There is something about how OP describes her relationship with Chris that seems overly-friendly and as though some behaviors are being rationalized and/or minimized. I agree that what OP describes isn’t inappropriate and Brenda is total busybody, but I have the impression that OP may not have enough perspective to see her behavior objectively and that it may very well be or leading toward being in inappropriate (because even if OP genuinely doesn’t have any romantic interest in Chris, the flirting can easily get out of hand in an office environment because let’s face it, it’s a lot of fun and feels really good to connect with someone in a fun, flirty way). I have tried to logically explain how a flirting relationship at work wasn’t anything more, but I was only fooling myself – everyone else could see right through and it and I wonder if OP is experiencing this, and either way it wouldn’t hurt for OP to pause and reflect on the situation from a third person perspective (a regular person’s – not Brenda’s! LOL).

    1. a Gen X manager*

      ugh – quotes removed

      Alison wrote: To be clear, it is possible to be overly chatty or inappropriately flirty at work. But there’s nothing here that indicates that you’re doing that.

      OP wrote: We chat and joke around, and he gave me his cell phone number so that if something is happening in the office while he’s out at lunch or something, I can get in touch with him. He’s also teaching me to do some of the functions of his job, because he plans on leaving in the next year or two and he wants someone to be able to pick up the slack. We’ve texted on non-work things a few times — I watched a movie he recommended and told him what I thought, etc. and once or twice we’ve grabbed lunch or dinner together after leaving work.

      1. Aurion*

        The only indication I can see that this interaction isn’t purely professional is that OP watched a movie Chris recommended and texted him what she thought out of work (rather than waiting until work to give said feedback). All other interactions are perfectly normal within the realm of professional relationships. And even with texting about personal things after hours, all that indicates is that OP might be developing a personal relationship with Chris, not purely a professional one. But personal does not necessarily equal romantic or sexual.

        Unless the takeaway message is that OP is not allowed to develop a personal (which can be platonic! Dear universe, can we stop assuming everything is driven by romantic or sexual feelings?) relationship with a colleague, Brenda is wildly out of line and needs to stop. Period.

        1. a Gen X manager*

          I’m not defending Brenda AT ALL – she is a busybody and a nightmare, nor am I questioning OP’s veracity. I am suggesting that OP may not have as much perspective or clarity as she thinks she does and it might be beneficial to reflect on the the situation taking the whole Brenda part out of it.

          A fictional example of what I’m wondering about is Jim & Pam in The Office. Fun, friendly, a bit flirty co-worker relationship that was fast becoming more and they were oblivious to the fact that everyone else could see it for what it was. I’m not saying OP’s relationship with Chris is at that point, simply that having perspective in those situations is really difficult.

          My litmus test for OP’s description of her relationship with Chris is what if one or both of them were married? Would the behaviors still be appropriate? It’s different for everyone, but from OP’s description, I wouldn’t want my spouse to be that involved with a co-worker (and it seems to be escalating?).

          1. Natalie*

            I kind of get what you’re saying, but I think a better thought exercise would be LW checking in with herself – would I be acting differently if this co-worker was married/not married? Gender(s) I’m attracted to/not attracted? Age range I date in/Not? This kind of thought exercise can be helpful in a lot of situations where implicit bias might be a factor.

            I’m not sure if this is how you meant it, but I don’t like the idea of the LW modifying her behavior based on what a spouse (real or hypothetical) might think. Mainly because it’s impossible to evaluate – for example, I am married but would have no problem with the relationship described and in fact have a similar relationship with an old boss (also married, not to me). But also, HypotheticalSpouse doesn’t automatically have a healthy appropriateness gauge, and any appropriateness standards in the relationship are HypotheticalChris’s job to manage, not all of HypotheticalChris’s coworkers.

            1. a Gen X manager*

              Right – the whole first paragraph is what I was trying to express. thank you –

              I didn’t mean imply that I thought OP should be thinking in terms of hypothetical spouses, because I don’t! It was just one example of how someone in this situation could look at this kind of situation objectively when they’re in the middle of it where things are sometimes more difficult to see clearly or the bigger picture.

          2. Aurion*

            I get what you’re going for, but I don’t think it’s that relevant. The OP has had one even vaguely “non-colleague” behaviour: texting about personal things outside of work. I wouldn’t text my colleagues about a movie I watched over the weekend, but I sure will chat with them about Spider-Man while we’re refilling our morning caffeine. If the OP has had a long series of “non-colleague” interactions with Chris, and only Chris, then put that together as a pattern then I can see your point. But she only had one non-colleague interaction, and it only happened once. I think OP is in the clear.

            And to your litmus test: if there is one non-colleague interaction between me and a married person I know, my assumption is we are friends (perhaps very casual ones given the limited nature of our interaction). I don’t think texting someone after hours, in and of itself, is indicative of anything beyond that. Everything else the OP has done has been very much in the bounds of warm collegial behaviour and not inappropriate at all.

            1. JessaB*

              And more than that OP texted Chris about a movie they particularly recommended. It’s not like OP was just “Ooooh I saw x this weekend, la, la.” This was a specific response to something that Chris suggested OP see

          3. sin nombre*

            I strongly disagree. I don’t think anything the OP described even approaches the line of inappropriate regardless of anyone’s marital status. My husband has work friendships this close and closer with numerous coworkers, many of them female, and it’s never even occurred to me to be bothered by it. I don’t really tend to make work friends, but even I have a couple of relationships with male coworkers (I’m a software engineer and almost all my coworkers are male) that I’m sure Brenda would have a problem with. Yes, everyone draws the line differently, but I would argue that a line that’s still far, far within the bounds of “personal relationship that is totally non-romantic” is a misplaced line. If you want to draw it there for yourself, fine, but don’t tell me that’s where mine belongs.

            I think the OP sounds very self-aware and we can and should take her at her word that there is no flirtatious vibe here. I also think she’s currently got a much older authority figure wildly overstepping all kinds of lines and gaslighting her to the point she’s worried she’s at fault where she very clearly isn’t. She seems like she’s already considered/considering the possibility Brenda is on to something, far more than that possibility seems to deserve. She doesn’t need more “well are you really suuuuuure you weren’t smiling too much/leaning in too much/too interested in that movie/etc etc etc” feeding what sounds like outsized self-doubt.

            1. a Gen X manager*

              1) I never said that OP approached or crossed any lines – that’s not for me to decide and it doesn’t sound like she has anyway.
              2) I spoke for myself, not for you or anyone else on where the line is drawn! The line is definitely different for everyone.
              3) Nothing I said suggested that I thought OP had done anything inappropriate, so I am surprised that you’re lumping me in with the “are you really suuuuuure” group.

          4. Tuxedo Cat*

            I’m not a fan of cheating, to put it mildly, but if hypothetically the OP and her coworker were to have an affair, it’s not exactly Brenda’s business unless they have some clause about two coworkers not dating. My guess is that they don’t- I don’t think I’ve encountered one for jobs that students hold.

            Regardless, if they were and such a clause exists, Brenda needs to handle it better.

          5. Plague of frogs*

            You wouldn’t want your spouse to watch a movie that a coworker recommended and then discuss it with him? Yikes.

              1. Plague of frogs*

                I’m sorry if I misread your comment.

                You said: “It’s different for everyone, but from OP’s description, I wouldn’t want my spouse to be that involved with a co-worker”

                OP’s description was this: “We chat and joke around, and he gave me his cell phone number so that if something is happening in the office while he’s out at lunch or something, I can get in touch with him. He’s also teaching me to do some of the functions of his job, because he plans on leaving in the next year or two and he wants someone to be able to pick up the slack. We’ve texted on non-work things a few times — I watched a movie he recommended and told him what I thought, etc. and once or twice we’ve grabbed lunch or dinner together after leaving work.”

                Which part of that description would you be uncomfortable about if your spouse were to engage in it? Sounds like you’re OK with the movie part.

    2. Observer*

      I was thinking about that. But Brenda’s response is SOOO over the top that there’s no reason to even think about it and try to squint to find SOMETHING that she MIGHT be right about.

    3. lisalee*

      I don’t know about this–it would be one thing if Brenda was *only* criticizing her interactions with Chris, but she’s not. And there’s no indication that anyone else seems to think this is weird either. The OP also isn’t a teenager and I do think that makes a difference–24 year olds and 30 year olds are friends all the time, and nothing here seems to cross a line from casual friendship into something else.

      1. Biff*

        Teenagers and adults can be friends too. Inter-generational friendships are important, yet something society has gotten away from. One of my friends is nine years old. My oldest friend is in his 70s. I think we all value each other.

    4. Lynn*

      Since Brenda is also busy banning other students from the office for having the temerity to talk to the female OP while being male, and thinks Chris is also flirting with both OP and another grad student, OPs judgment of her behavior doesn’t appear to be even slightly the issue. Brenda appears to be nutty and think all male/female interactions are flirting and sexual.

      1. a Gen X manager*

        Brenda being way out of line (and she so clearly is! how can she get away with banning students like that!?) doesn’t negate the possibility that OP is caught up in the developing friendly/professional relationship with Chris and *could* lack healthy perspective. It was simply a suggestion that OP reflect on it from a different perspective (FOR HER OWN BENEFIT – having nothing to do with Brenda), not a judgment of OP’s veracity or behaviors.

    5. Elspeth*

      Not really – I think we should take the LW at her word that she’s friendly and not inappropriate.

      1. a Gen X manager*

        I’m not questioning the truthfulness of OP’s letter at all, and clearly Brenda is a complete nightmare.

    6. TCO*

      It’s important that we take OPs here at their word. It sounds like OP and Chris are both in agreement that there’s nothing inappropriate about their relationship.

        1. Observer*

          But you ARE derailing the conversation – based on the behavior of someone who is clearly out of touch with reality.

        2. Lynn*

          No, but you’re inventing a hypothetical, assuming there might be truth to the allegation, based on basically nothing but the fact that it’s not impossible for Brenda to see something sexual in OPs behavior, despite zero evidence or intention. It’s also not impossible that Brenda is carrying on a secret affair with every man in the office and is acting out of jealousy. Of course, much like your supposition, that’s a baseless fantasy given the facts in the letter. Just like your admonition that OP needs to reexamine her totally normal interactions.

          1. a Gen X manager*

            I didn’t invent a hypothetical; I was thinking about OP’s situation and what techniques someone in that situation could use (if they wanted to) to identify / consider / understand any potential or real blind spots in their thinking.

            I also didn’t admonish the OP in any way whatsoever and I wrote off Brenda’s allegations immediately! I offered a been there, done that in a similar situation and here’s what I wish someone had told me at the time…

        3. Louise*

          I mean you’re doing some TEXTBOOK concern trolling and I don’t think it’s particulalry useful to OP or to this conversation.

        4. a Gen X manager*

          trolling?! derailing?! Everyone agrees that Brenda’s behavior is way off base and OP should ignore it or address the pattern of behaviors. It’s trolling or derailing to share my experience in the same kind of situation and offering a “for what it’s worth” to OP?

          1. Sinsinati*


            Irrelevant to the question the OP asked, hence derailing.
            Appears to be based on some hypothetical concern for the OP, shared as something they “might want to reflect on” – hence concern trolling.

    7. Student*

      If the OP were a young man, these conversations wouldn’t merit so much as a raised eyebrow. Movies. Books. They are talking about pretty normal hobbies, hobbies that men discuss among themselves all the time. Topics of general popular interest!

      If the OP were a young man, you would call these interactions with a superior “networking” without a second thought. Not “overly friendly.”

      Hard truth 1: this kind of normal social interaction between a junior female with a boss male at work can be risky because he might escalate it from normal social conversation to flirting.

      Hard truth 2: these kinds of interactions are designed to make the boss like the junior employee in a platonic, network-y way so that the boss will enjoy working with the junior employee.

      Corollary hard truth 1: If women can’t have these normal interactions that might lead to flirting at all, boss men will have friendships with young men but not young women, and young women will be less likely to get promotions etc. If you want a full career equal to a man’s, you have to be willing to take the risk that your boss-man is a normal human being instead of someone out to have sex with you. And then you’ll have to find a way to handle the ones that turn out to be skeevy out-t0-have-sex-with-you bosses when you run into them.

      1. Oilpress*

        This isn’t true. I am a relatively young man (or at least I was), and I received similar treatment from a few Brenda’s. Whenever a male coworker has a laugh with an attractive female coworker, other people raise an eyebrow. I think people just like to assume the worst and create more drama in their boring lives.

        1. anonagain*

          I think Student’s point was that Brenda wouldn’t pull aside a male work-study student whose relationship with Chris was like the OP’s. In that case their rapport would be seen as normal and positive.

          1. Kiwi*

            Yes, you either have these friendly interactions with male co-workers even though someone might take them the wrong way, or you don’t have these interactions with male co-workers. And not having these interactions is murderous for your career, so you have them and take the risk.

            It sucks that it’s a risk.

            I like someone else’s comment that normalizing friendships between men and women is the way to fix this. The more such friendships are seen as normal, the less of this crap everyone should have to deal with.

  44. Nobby Nobbs*

    You watched a video on his computer? You brazen hussy! You should quit this job innediately before poor respectable Brenda has her reputation tarnished for interacting with a fallen woman! Shame on you!

  45. Akcipitrokulo*

    To provide balance – how dare you SIT? Don’t you know you can’t do that in the presence of a man with a ring?

    (Seriously – please listen to all of the commenters here that are absolutely horrified by her behaviour. It is not normal, it is not OK and it’s probably illegal.)

  46. strawberries and raspberries*

    I am absolutely so sick of this kind of nonsense from older women to younger women. As someone who’s also received this kind of bullshit advice and other petty, snipe-y behavior from women who ostensibly could have been mentor figures in the workplace and at school but instead decided to make my life a living hell, the only thing I can attribute it to is a combination of internalized misogyny and this deep resentment that some other young woman is going to usurp the last bit of power the older woman thinks she has.

    I’m such an asshole that I feel like if it were me and Brenda was trying to make me self-conscious about my totally benign interactions with my male colleagues, I would be so tempted to ramp that shit up and, like, toss my hair and exaggeratedly cross my legs in front of her, or use my other great shutdown line, which is something along the lines of “Don’t you have your own kids to humiliate?” #wouldntdoobviously

    1. Oranges*

      I think they’ve internalized all the misogynistic crap they went through and are now trying to pass it on without even thinking about it. Just like how you’d correct a co-worker who was picking their nose in meetings.

      Still horrible behavior.

    2. Why Oh Why Does this keep happening?*

      As a more-experienced female, I can tell you that it is indeed possible for what a woman considers “innocent” friendship to be misinterpreted by a man. Several men have misinterpreted my friendship over the years (and not necessarily only in my 20s).

      I don’t warn younger women, but it does sometimes happen that a woman stumbles into a situation unknowingly. It does sometimes happen that a woman who thinks she’s just being friendly suddenly gets invited to what she thinks is a date that he thinks isn’t, or vice-versa. This kind of thing has cost someone I know his job and career.

      When two people are not on equal levels, a certain distance is a good idea.

      1. Oranges*

        Nope. You burn that bridge when you get to it. Going down that path leads to males and females cannot interact at work. So either you tread carefully in office relationships (if that indeed is what you’re after) and don’t go up or down in the power structure OR you just… don’t date co-workers.

        Also predators gonna hunt no matter what camouflage you use. Either by being “frosty” or by wearing “modest” clothes. They’re not gonna pick up any “clues” because they don’t WANT to pick up the clues because that means they have to stop their behavior.

        1. Alton*

          I also think that in terms of honest misunderstandings, the answer is to encourage gender diversity and interaction between people of different genders, not discourage it. If women are discouraged from interacting with men because they might misunderstand, that implies that the woman is to blame for not picking up on something obvious, rather than the man being responsible for learning to see women as colleagues or friends first and potential romantic partners second (or third, or not at all depending on the context).

          1. PlainJane*

            This. (Some) men misunderstand because they, like Brenda, have learned to see any interaction between a man and a woman as flirty/sexual. The more we normalize professional relationships and platonic friendships among all genders, the sooner this antiquated idea will go away.

      2. Luna*

        It can sometimes happen, but OP and Chris have worked together for a year and haven’t had any issues with this, so it seems unlikely.

  47. Observer*

    OP, I noticed something. When Brenda talked to yo about how Chris was supposedly uncomfortable, you automatically assumed that Chris “must” have talked to her. Why?

    The fact that she presumed to talk for Chris – who has told you explicitly that he did NOT do so – should tell you how little her perceptions mean.

    1. Rob aka Mediancat*

      I suspect because the OP couldn’t imagine Brenda daring to take the initiative to bring it up on her own, because it’s such a boundary-crossing and irrational thing to do.

      1. Observer*

        I hear that. It’s just that Brenda has ALREADY crossed so many lines that my first thought when I started reading this, I immediately thought “No, Chris didn’t ask her to speak to you.”

    2. Akcipitrokulo*

      I think the wording that “Chris felt uncomfortable” definitely implies that Chris spoke to her about his discomfort. It would for anyone who wasn’t being as much of an arse as Brenda is anyway!

      1. Observer*

        Well, as I was reading that my first thought was “really? How would SHE (ie Brenda) know?”

        Remember, not only has Brenda crossed every line she could find till now, the OP says that everyone avoids her whenever possible.

        Which leads to my real point, which I should have made clearer. Just because someone says something does not make it true. When that someone has the kind of track record that Brenda has, it’s perfectly reasonable to take that into account when deciding what you should do about what they say.

  48. Lady Phoenix*

    Considering Brenda’s attitude has inpeded not just the OP but also a student worker, I would bring this up to either the manager or someone higher.

    Brenda’s opinion is trash but she believe it all she wants (cause then everyone can tell her how full of shit she is), but her actions in those beliefs is causing disruption to work and could get then in trouble if she oversteps her bounds even more.

  49. Go Bears!*

    This is a Title IX violation and unfortunately, if Brenda is Union, she is not going anywhere. Speak with the Title IX office and the Gender Equity Office. As a work-study student and just as a University student, you are guaranteed a safe learning enviornment…ideally. Even if you choose to leave the position for an equivalent position elsewhere on campus, which I definitely suggest, don’t be afraid to reach out to Title IX if you have any questions or concerns. This is not rocking the boat if anything the whole office needs a refresher on sexual harassment in the workplace and Brenda, a two-finger tap on the shoulder to straighten up her act.

    1. Why Oh Why Does this keep happening?*

      What if Brenda knows that Chris has a track record of hitting on student workers?

      1. Lefty*

        Then Brenda should be handling that with Chris and/or management, not the work-study student (LW).

      2. Observer*

        Ideally, she’d be addressing this with Chris. Even if she can’t for some reason, she would limit her intervention to warning the OP that Chris has a record of hitting on student workers.

        Telling her how to sit, ;lecturing her because she (supposedly) interfered with someone’s “flirtation” and banning a student (!) from the office when the OP is in, can NOT be seen as a reaction to Chris having a bad track record.

      3. Sylvan*

        Then she should use her words and say that like an adult, instead of making weird sexual comments to the OP like a… person who makes weird sexual comments.

    2. Kelly*

      Even if there isn’t a union, Brenda still isn’t going anywhere due to her seniority. The LW likely isn’t the first or the last younger woman to get the Aunt Lydia treatment from Brenda. Her bosses likely had complaints from women who report to her about her general attitude and behavior towards them, and their solution is to reassign them to another office. She stays because of her seniority and gets a new young woman to bully and harass.

  50. GreenOne*

    If OP really reports to all three of Adam, Brenda, and Chris, then it seems to me that Adam and Chris should be stepping up to correct Brenda on her behavior as well. I’m disappointed that Adam and Chris are apparently leaving OP to deal with Brenda’s sexist behavior on her own. It sounds like they are aware of Brenda’s behavior, and they should be taking steps to address it themselves. Maybe they’re not aware of the full extent of Brenda’s behavior, but they know enough that they should already be taking action. The next time Brenda tries to haul OP out into the hallway for a lecture, I’d love to see Chris say, “Brenda, if you’ve got feedback for OP, let’s all discuss it right here. What’s on your mind?”

      1. Observer*

        What makes you think that Chris is misbehaving?

        *IF* he is, then yes, Brenda should be talking to Chris and NOT to the OP – AT ALL. But, there is nothing in the letter to indicate that he’s misbehaving.

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      > It sounds like they are aware of Brenda’s behavior, and they should be taking steps to address it themselves.

      I suspect that they are not particularly aware of Brenda’s behavior, just because most people don’t pay a lot of attention to other folks. And at least some of these conversations are *out in the hallways* so they can’t hear what happens.

      But I also note that it looks like Brenda is a decade or more older than Chris or Adam, and that could be affecting them, too.

  51. essEss*

    This is really skirting the line of a legally ‘hostile work environment’. OP is being repeatedly targeted for being a female caught talking to male coworkers. Customers (the grad student who has been told not to be in the office when she’s there) are being refused service if she is in the office simply because she is a unmarried female. That impacts her workload simply based on her sex and married status.

  52. Lisianthus*

    *long-time higher ed lurker delurking*

    I’m an older woman and I’ve supervised work-studies and interns. Brenda’s behavior is not only grossly inappropriate on a personal level for all the reasons people have cited, but professionally and potentially legally a liability for the university. You say “advisors,” which sounds as though your office is either student services- or academic-related; in that case, her barring a grad student from the office for the “reasons” she gave is even more egregious to me.

    OP, please go to your work-study coordinator ASAP and ask them for help because Brenda’s conduct is making your work environment so unpleasant (I’m avoiding “hostile” since IANAL) that you feel you can’t continue in the job. Every work-study coordinator I’ve known would absolutely want to hear about this rather than have you quietly quit the job. DEFINITELY tell the person that Brenda barred a grad student from the office in which you work during your working hours.

    If you’re worried about how Brenda will react to that? If your work-study is funded by Title IV federal financial aid, the financial aid office has the right and responsibility to step in and deal with Brenda. If it’s funded via other means, that office does too. If you have an academic advisor with whom you’re on good terms, I’d also ask them for help since not being able to pay tuition because Brenda is making your life miserable potentially affects your academics, to put it mildly. If not, your student life office may also be able to help.

    If all else fails and you’re on Title IV work-study, the coordinator hopefully should be able to find you a better working environment somewhere else on campus and have a brutally frank talk with Brenda’s boss about why.

    Hang in there. Brenda is gross and out of line, speaking as an older woman.

    1. Another Academic Librarian*

      I agree with this, OP! If you have a Dean of Students, his or her office may be another resource for you. At my university, they operate as sort of a catch-all “I have a problem and I don’t know who to talk to” office, and they can usually refer you to the most effective place to take your concern.

      1. Lisianthus*

        Oh, the Dean of Students office is a good idea!

        OP, feel free to reach out to ALL of these offices Another Academic Librarian and I and others have mentioned as they apply to your institution and your major. Escalating on multiple fronts increases the chance of success. Especially if it gives administrators a chance to connect dots regarding Brenda that may not have been apparent before.

        But if you’re Title IV funded for work-study I’d start with the financial aid office over the Title IX office because they have the financial leverage of administering the program that pays you and every other student on federal work-study. If Brenda doesn’t like that, too bad. Title IV compliance audits are more important than her…issues.

    2. Why Oh Why Does this keep happening?*

      Brenda could be trying to keep the department (and Chris) from getting into trouble. She should really be talking to Chris about boundaries, but I think it’s fair for her to speak up if she sees trouble on the horizon. The two are not equal coworkers.

      1. Natalie*

        Even if that exceptionally generous reading was true, someone still needs to speak to Brenda because her methods are legally questionable. Discrimination under the guise of protecting people is still discrimination.

        1. Lisianthus*

          Exactly, Natalie and Elspeth.

          IF Brenda has legitimate reason to suspect there is a problem with Chris the full-time staffer engaging in boundary-crossing behavior with grad students and work-study students — IF, I repeat — then she should speak to Chris or pursue the reporting options available to her as a full-time staffer (their boss, HR, ombudsperson, Title IX, whatever).

          The way she’s treating the OP — and the male student she barred from the office — is completely out of line.

      2. Another Academic Librarian*

        I raised this possibility below (that this is about Chris behaving in a way counter to norms around interacting with students), and I still disagree with your comment. There is no way that it is “fair” for Brenda to “speak” up to the OP. As you said, Chris and the OP are not equal coworkers, but that is exactly why Brenda should be approaching Chris with any concerns she has about the way he is behaving with a student if that is what is going on here. Rules, even informal ones, about interactions with students are there to protect the student–they are not meant to be weaponized against them.

      3. Jennifer Thneed*

        What you’re doing here fits the concept of “blaming the victim” very well.

        IF Brenda is trying to protect the OP from Chris, then she would say things like “Watch out for Chris”. But she’s not. She’s saying things that sound like she’s trying to protect Chris from the OP.

        And if you’re right, and Brenda is trying to protect the whole department, well, she’s going about it in the worst possible way and STILL needs to be reported.

  53. Another Academic Librarian*

    It is not clear to me whether or not the OP is a student employee, or if she is an employee who is also taking classes. If she is a student employee/student worker, that makes the situation a little more complicated, IMO. The way the OP describes her working relationship with Chris in particular sounds like something that would be completely 100% appropriate between two regular employees, but maybe not between a student employee and a regular employee. At the universities where I have worked, having social relationships with student workers is generally discouraged, and texting about non-work things and having meals together gets pretty close to violating that norm. If an employee here was showing this sort of pattern of behavior with a student, they would probably be pulled into a talk with their manager.

    But that doesn’t seem to be the case here, or at least if it is Brenda is being completely inappropriate in how she addresses it. If that were the case, it should be discussed with the EMPLOYEE, not the student worker–because it is the regular employee who be setting appropriate boundaries. So if Brenda were telling Chris that he should be more professional with OP or not text her or not have lunch with her, I think that actually would just fine–as long as it were also true of Chris’ relationships with other student workers regardless of gender. From the letter, though, Brenda just seems like she is targeting OP because she is a sociable young woman, and that is all kinds of problematic and potentially illegal (in terms of Title IX).

    1. Another Academic Librarian*

      I am obsessively rereading this to make sure I don’t sound like a Brenda apologist! I absolutely, unequivocally do not think Brenda is in the right here, and I do not want to suggest that she might be. Whether or not Chris should be behaving differently with student workers is a completely separate issue that is between Chris and his manager, neither of whom wrote to Alison.

    2. Rusty Shackelford*

      She said it’s a work/study position, which sounds like a student worker and not an employee who is also taking classes.

  54. AKchic*

    I think Brenda has a lot of issues.
    One of which may very well be jealousy of the LW. Hear me out here. I know, I know, the old “oh, she’s jealous” thing is silly, and overplayed, but let me elaborate:
    LW is young and is obviously getting attention from male workers and customers that perhaps Brenda feels that *she* should be getting, perhaps if LW weren’t there (maybe the LW’s tasks fall to her when LW’s position is unfilled?). Add in the old-school misogyny, ageism, and mother-hen routine: you’ve got a Brenda.

    You see things like this a lot in new mothers-in-law when their sons marry. The Aphrodite/Psyche complex. This letter has a similar flavor to me.

    I do think that going over Brenda’s head may be a good idea. She has already chased one person away and banned them from the office during LW’s work hours. Brenda’s judgment is flawed, outdated, sexist, and frankly, it’s limiting both LW and the office (and customers). It is detrimental to the department to allow her to continue her antics, and its not even clear that she is the actual supervisor of the office/department. What she is doing is illegal (as many have elaborated on so eloquently), and there is no point in being kind about it. She’s had plenty of opportunities to stop herself, or educate herself and she chose not to. She already doesn’t like the LW, so there is no point in ingratiating yourself with Brenda.

    1. Why Oh Why Does this keep happening?*

      Look at how many men have lost their jobs in the past few months due to the #MeToo movement! If she sees something she thinks is crossing the line, and then there’s a lawsuit, would she be blamed for not saying anything?

      1. Elspeth*

        Brenda has made absolutely clear that she thinks LW is flirting – she didn’t say anything to Chris when she thought he was flirting with a student! No, Brenda is singling LW out for out-dated, misogynistic reasons.

      2. Luna*

        Not only is there no flirting, but consensual flirting is completely different from unwanted harassment.

        1. Oranges*

          This. All of the this.

          Why oh why’s comment is trying to state “flirting will cost Chris his job” which… no. Not how that works. Stop trying to blur the lines between friendly conversation and sexual harassment. We can see the lines and I have deep suspicion of anyone trying to conflate the two.

      3. Lefty*

        This is a part of the problem with internalized misogyny, “Look at how many men have lost their jobs in the past few months due to the #MeToo movement!”

        I’ve rewritten it, “Look at how many men are being called out for their unacceptable behavior- which may mean overdue, real world consequences like losing a job or reputation- due to the safety women are finally feeling with the backing of things like the #MeToo movement!”

        1. PlainJane*

          Or, “Look at how many men are finally being held accountable for behavior that has driven women out of jobs and professions since forever.”

          1. Lefty*

            Thank you! This addresses the exact sentiment I wanted, but fell short in my re-write. Your wording is wonderful & direct!

      4. AKchic*

        If Brenda thought for one instant that there was a meritorious sexual harassment issue, then she should have brought it up with Chris (and Adam). Both of them are the (nominal) supervisors over the LW, and the defacto-mentors within the office for LW. Instead, Brenda is attempting to take LW to task for being flirtatious and leading men astray within their marriages for having the temerity to exist and talk to them in a personable/friendly manner when they enter the office; which is, y’know, her job as the front desk person. She is being called out for doing her job and being a woman doing her job.

        When LW went to apologize to the person Brenda made one of the issues about, the person (Chris) had no idea what was going on, and indicated that he had no issues with anything. This is 100% Brenda’s overly sensitive nature. For whatever reason, Brenda is fixated on LW as a female being existing within the office and interacting with males in general. She isn’t pulling Chris to the side to lecture him about chit-chatting with female customers in a personable manner, or with LW at all. She isn’t reporting any of this to a higher authority to make a determination that what is going on is actually inappropriate. She is making herself the LW’s personal minder, reminiscent of a lady-in-waiting, to ensure that the LW does not sully her “reputation” or do anything scandalous, but in reality, it’s to ensure that no man actually damage *his* reputation with her. Completely backward thinking and it will limit the department (especially if Brenda continues to ban people from the office while LW is in the office) and could limit LW’s work experience and hinder her career.

      5. Panda Bandit*

        You misspelled the phrase “Look how many men have lost their jobs due to their own gross behavior”.

  55. Why Oh Why Does this keep happening?*

    In my experience, guys sometimes mistake friendliness for interest in a relationship. It’s happened to me several times. I talk to a guy the same way I would talk to a female friend, and suddenly… wham! He hits on me because he thinks we have a “thing” going. Every time it happens I’m shocked. So it’s possible she sees something there, but I’m sure you can take care of yourself if he misreads your intentions.

    If she’s really worried, she should take things up with Chris, not you. He’s the one who would be violating policy or potentially breaking the law if he hit on you, not you.

    1. Elspeth*

      The LW has made clear that Chris does not act inappropriately at all – it IS possible to have platonic work friendships with opposite-sex coworkers.

      1. Oranges*

        Or heck, even if the hypothetical (non-power-differential) male thinks there’s “something there” and acts on it all she should have to say is “nope” and then he… stops! Gasp!

        Only if he doesn’t stop asking does this go into “nope” territory. Then he’s not accepting her “no” which is really really gross. If that happens there’s nothing that the hypothetical female could have done because he doesn’t see her as a human, only as something to “win/get”.

      2. Elizabeth West*

        Yes, and she’s already been working with him for a year. I’m pretty sure she would have noticed something like that by now. The OP is an adult, not a child.

    2. Natalie*

      I feel like this theory ignores all of the non-LW-and-Chris stuff that is also weird. She banned a student from coming into the office while the LW was there and told the LW to pay attention to people’s wedding rings (which, ???), and that the LW had interrupted Chris and someone else flirting. That stuff is weird on it’s own, and doesn’t compute at all if the problem is that Chris is predatory.

  56. HRH the Emperor Kuzco*

    I’ve had to work with idiots like this before. They’re terrible for moral as they think it’s unpossible for men and women to simply be friends. OP, you have nothing to worry about. Your busy body exists in a different time period, and is probably projecting her own insecurities onto everybody else.

  57. sfigato*

    Brenda is out of line, OP. From what you’ve described, you aren’t doing anything wrong or suggestive. You should absolutely be friendly with colleagues of the opposite sex. Brenda is out of touch and out of place in commenting on this. I’m a dude, I have tons of friendly professional relationships with women, it’s totally normal, no one thinks I’m cheating on my wife because I occasionally have lunch with a colleague or my coworker texts me about a non-work thing every once in a while. In fact, that ability to connect with and make friends with your colleagues will help you professionally in creating good teams and making lasting connections. It will get you jobs and occasionally make you life long friends.

  58. Nita*

    Frankly it sounds like Brenda has some issues. It’s also crossed the line from merely “annoying busybody” to actively interfering with the functioning of the team, and spilling out into how people inside and outside the office see the OP (how did she explain to that student that he’s “banned” from coming in when OP is there?!) Not to mention she’s a supervisor, and in a position to abuse that relationship.

    Thankfully this is probably a temporary job for OP, but there’s no need to put up with this nonsense, and there’s a small chance it could have repercussions down the road if it’s not addressed now. For example, is it possible that OP could need a reference from this job? I can totally see Brenda picking up the phone, and giving an earful to the prospective employer to protect them from OP’s vixen ways – not that anyone would take her seriously, but that sort of “reference” can plant seeds when it’s dropped into a person’s mind. So in light of that, I think OP should go to the university’s HR department, and involve Adam and Chris to confirm that nothing improper has been going on.

  59. earl grey aficionado*

    This is my worst nightmare. I was a student worker for years and I know that navigating power dynamics between students, staff, and faculty is already difficult without someone else injecting sex into it!

    OP, I wonder if it would be worth approaching the office that coordinates student work at your university (if such an office exists). I would try AAM’s direct approach first, but if you don’t get good results, I think that this is something that the university should know about, since Brenda’s behavior is putting you in an awful spot–and she could potentially do the same to future students. (As long as you’ve tried dealing with it directly first, I don’t think you’ll come across as tattling.) Depending on the Title IX office culture at your school, you might also be able to talk with them about it, since Brenda is being blatantly sexist. I went to a small liberal arts college whose Title IX staff would have been very open to talking about something like this, even though it’s not directly in their purview.

    Good luck! Brenda is behaving terribly here and I hope you can get this situation resolved ASAP.

  60. Student*

    Strong, strong disagree. If she reports to three people, and especially if Chris is already aware of part of this problem, she should talk to Chris and possibly Adam about how to tackle this with Brenda. Tell them the whole story first, about how Brenda is heavily policing your interactions with all men for potential flirting and banishing men from the office when the OP is there.

    Specifically, she should ask Chris and/or Adam to talk to Brenda and tell her to knock it off, that they don’t see the same issue with OP that Brenda does, and, very importantly, that they don’t feel the OP is flirting with them and would not encourage such conduct if they were worried. They may decide this merits getting somebody above all of them involved to tackle it.

    OP can try talking to Brenda directly, but without back-up from another supervisor she likely won’t get anywhere. This is very serious levels of sexism that would prevent you from doing your job properly if you followed Brenda’s directions – she basically doesn’t want you to talk normally with any men. When sexism is that serious, you’re not under an obligation to deal directly with the sexist person about it any more.

  61. Swan*

    I am a middle-aged woman, who works for a college and agree with the suggestions about seeking out your Title IX Officer. I find Brenda’s behavior unprofessional and sexist. I would never talk to anyone in the same manner that Brenda has talked to you. Please do not second-guess yourself because you have done nothing wrong.

  62. Jessica*

    I think the OP is also in a good position to try the “I just have a question about office norms” approach if she doesn’t want to create conflict directly with Brenda. She could talk to either Chris, Adam, or their supervisor and say, “Brenda has been telling me that I need to stop flirting with other men in the office. But I treat everyone who comes into the office equally and I’m not trying to flirt with anyone. She’s told me I should have any social conversations with Chris, and has even told a male student that he can’t come by when I’m in the office. So I’m not sure — how am I supposed to interact with men when I’m on this job?” Hopefully this will lead someone to conclude that Brenda is crazypants, without making the OP look like she’s just trying to get Brenda in trouble. It’s also possible that we’re missing some information (like maybe the OP works at an extremely conservative university, or something), and framing the conversation this way would at least let her know if the higher-ups share Brenda’s perspective or not. I hope the OP realizes from all these comments that Brenda’s perspective is super sexist, but on the off chance that the OP really does have to change her behavior, at least if she wants to keep her job in this office, at least she’ll know for sure.

    1. Oranges*

      Thank you for pointing out that if the context changes so does the response. I think we all assumed that the OP is working at a non religious place. This probably is true but just in case…

  63. Hmmmmm*

    My extremely feminist, badass on her own merits a few years older friend told me point blank “Assume all older women at work who take a personal interest in you are Linda Tripp.” As sad as it is, it was some of the best advice ever. Basically, in her experience, and mine now, older women who want to professionally mentor you are actually extra not interested in your personal, romantic, social life and extra careful about not inadvertently sexually harassing you. Brendas are busybodies at best and full on “elaborating setting you up for nothing other than the fun of the dramz” at worst.

  64. GreenDoor*

    As described, I don’t believe anything inappropriate is going on here either. But the way Brenda is talking to you is the same way a lot of people respond when a woman DOES have a legitimate sexual harassment concern…she’s trying to convince the OP that whatever (inappropriate) thing is happening is all the OPs fault. You’re sending too many texts, you’re being too flirty, you sat next to him that one time. You, you, you. You’re doing something to bring all this (inappropriateness) on.

    This is all BS. I agree with AAM. Shut it down. Respectfully but firmly. If she wasn’t a supervisor, skip the respectfully and just be firm.

  65. Former Hoosier*

    OP, I recommend keeping a diary of this information. Every time that Brenda has made a suggestion or comment to you. And yes, I agree with others that by telling a male grad student not to come into the office when you are there, Brenda is harming the perception of you among others. It can be just as damaging as if you were denied a promotion or raise because you were a woman. And there is really some sticky issues with the way she is treating Chris and that other grad student.

    These are serious concerns I also agree on speaking with your Title IX coordinator or the student ombudsperson. This is not acceptable behavior and I would not want your professional or student reputation be harmed by Brenda’s comments and actions. She very well may be talking about you with others and you are not aware.

    Please know the behavior you described is not inappropriate. It is ok to be trained by a male co worker or supervisor and occasionally texting a male colleague when the colleague gave you a cell number is not inappropriate. You are not doing anything wrong. I would hate for you to become self conscious at any job because one crazy person made inappropriate and wrong comments to you.

  66. RB*

    Maybe we need a year-end category for the letters that have made us the angriest. This would definitely be in the top ten. I am so angry at Brenda I can’t even.

  67. SusanIvanova*

    ” I realized that Chris must have asked her to talk”

    I wouldn’t be so sure. It sounds like the two of you have a good working relationship, so if he did have any issues he’d come to you, not run it through the office busybody. Or if you were doing something so outrageous that he needed to pull someone in, it would be HR or his boss, not someone who’s on the same level as him.

  68. AnonEMoose*

    I might post about this in the open thread later this week. But this letter is making me think of a situation I experienced some years ago. And I wish I could have said something to the young woman, but didn’t have the standing or a relationship with her that would have made it appropriate for me to do so. Still less could I have said something to the man involved, although I considered the situation to be his fault, not hers.

    It was like this. I was a client at this business (keeping it vague for privacy reasons). The owners had recently hired a young woman (early 20s to my 30-ish at the time) as the receptionist. I was told that she’d been their waitress at a local restaurant, and they liked her, so offered her the job. She did seem very nice, and was clearly trying to learn.

    The man was one of the owners of the place, was probably a bit older than I was, and married. I’d been told that he had already divorced his first wife and married a younger woman (to whom he was, to the best of my knowledge at the time, still married). The way he treated the receptionist was very flirty, and honestly creeped me out as an observer (and I can be kind of oblivious to that sort of thing – so if I was noticing it, it was obvious). It was pretty clear to me that he was grooming her either for an affair or to be Wife #3. My take on her was that she was very young, and didn’t really have an idea of what would be considered normal in an office environment. And I also knew that, working as a server, a certain amount of flirting with customers was helpful and even expected.

    I was creeped out by him, and felt bad for her. I so badly wanted to tell her that he was bad news and she’d be better off using the experience she’d gained there to find a different job. But she was an adult, and I wasn’t a mentor to her in any way. I’ve thought about her sometimes since, and hope she didn’t end up in any kind of bad situation with him – and that he eventually experienced some kind of consequences.

    If I had it to do again, I’m still not sure what, if anything, I could have done differently. I was pretty sure that if I’d tried to say anything to him, he’d have ignored me at best.

    1. AnonEMoose*

      I should clarify that I don’t think the OP is at all like the young woman in my story. I don’t think the OP is doing anything inappropriate – the only one who is being inappropriate is Brenda, so far as I’m concerned. I told that story more as an illustration of a situation where there actually was something off.

      1. Cat Lady*

        The young woman in your story didn’t do anything inappropriate either, from what you wrote. I don’t think you meant it this way, but it does come across as a bit patronising that you think she “didn’t have an idea of what would be considered normal in an office environment.” How do you know? And if anything, working as a waitress before that and dealing with all kinds of people probably helped her become more alert to creepy guys when she meets them.

        1. AnonEMoose*

          No, I didn’t mean it that way, although I can see why it came across that way. I reached that conclusion from observing her interactions, not just with the guy in question, but with others as well. She was very nice, just learning the office culture stuff, just like I had to when I started working office jobs. And in my view, the guy was taking advantage of that, which was really gross and wrong to me.

  69. Julia the Survivor*

    So I was thinking about this last night, and I think it might be good to go to HR before you try talking to Brenda so they’ll understand what’s going on if she starts trying to retaliate.
    Bring the texts and whatever other evidence you can gather. Probably let Chris and Adam know. If there’s another supervisor in the picture, let him or her know too.
    When I was young I had experiences where I tried to talk reasonably to people who were hassling me and they just started yelling and trying to hurt me. I don’t know if Brenda will do that, but it’s good to be prepared. Or another thing she could do is act reasonable when you talk to her, and then try to stab you in the back. Either way it would be good to be prepared and let everyone know what’s going on first. :)

  70. Old Jules*

    WOW! People must think that my co-worker and I are having an affair… We go for morning coffee together, lunch together frequently, take turns driving for those lunches… We are of the opposite gender but just deal well with each other. People of opposite and same gender can have relationship at work that doesn’t boil down to affairs. We talk about people we have to deal with, projects, kids, kids activity, TV shows, Marvel movies, crazy politics, family and religion with no judgement. When we leave work, that is that. We don’t hang out outside of work. We are work friends. I have multiple opposite gender work friends in different workplaces. No one ever judge me about it. Is the OP in a conservative university/town/city?

    People can appreciate you without wanting to get in your pants, y’know. And if someone indicate otherwise, I’d shut it down fast and move on. I don’t feel awkward saying that I am not interested in that.

  71. RUKiddingMe*

    “”Brenda, your focus on sex is making me really uncomfortable. I’m surprised that you’re talking to me about such sexually-charged things at work, and I don’t want to hear about this kind of thing anymore.””

    This one.

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