how can we get older members of our field to stop complimenting women on their appearances?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I am a member of a prestigious society for my field, several thousand members strong. We include student practitioners, new practitioners, experienced practitioners, and people retired from our industry. So we have a very large age range — 20s to 90s. As you can imagine, the world has changed a lot from the initial founding of our society. Our industry is also changing. It is one of those things that was predominantly white and male, but is now becoming much more representative of the population. On top of this, we also have several different factions in the field, where parts of it are very reserved and proper, but other parts can be boisterous and bawdy.

We have a group of older members who will compliment the younger, female members by on their appearance. The most recent example came from a very gentle, kind man who I know was well-intentioned. He’s always been a welcoming presence at meetings and still spends time years after his retirement attending conferences and helping to teach people new to the field. I am mid-career and was told about this by another colleague. I have no supervisory authority over the member. I am at best a peer, but probably 30 years behind him.

I know that waiting for time to eliminate these members isn’t the best solution. I know that yelling at them is also not a good solution. I know that sometimes we need to understand that older people can’t always change entirely and that it is important to know when something is meant in a mean fashion and when it is meant kindly and you need to let it roll off your back. I’d like to turn this retired man into an advocate. How do I best do that? How do I take a person with great desire to mentor and support those newest to our field and teach him to do this better? 

Readers, what’s your advice?

{ 585 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Please take the letter writer at her word that this is a problem. If women are being complimented on their appearance and outfits rather than the actual work they do, it’s a problem. And believe me, these comments are not going to men, as every woman who’s witnessed this knows.

    Comments suggesting there’s no real problem here will be removed.

  2. Long Furby*

    I ended up leaving a job in part because no matter what I did, I could not establish myself as a subject authority in the eyes of the older male population we most commonly served. I was consistently praised for being “a nice pretty face” at meetings as opposed to the substance of my presentations. My older male colleague, despite not having the same subject specialty as me, was frequently turned to in place of me.

    The one thing that made this more tolerable was my director and colleague not swaying to the winds of these groups. They were not aggressive about it, just unmovable. Questions were re-routed to me. Public praise emphasized substance. I was even asked to take on more technical presentations, perhaps as some sort of unconscious “proof.”

    They were great, but ultimately I was tired, and left.

    1. Anon for this*

      Very much feel this. I’m a female structural engineer, working for about five years now, and have gotten everything from an older colleague trying to smell my hair (I wish I was kidding) to coworkers telling me that maternity leave is discriminatory towards men.

      I would love to transition to a field where I would be treated like a person and not a gender, but I have no idea where I would even begin.

      I hope you are doing better where you are at.

      1. TIRED*

        Re transitioning, I’m considering moving to software developer… it’s not my first choice but I can do it. LOOK INTO IT! The bonus is they were a more flexible field before covid. (Online vs in-person, not that “butts in the seats” office mentality) If more / most of the interactions are online, you will definitely avoid the hair sniffers. It’s not perfect but it looks a LOT better to me. (I’m not a structural engineering but I’m a woman in engineering.)

        1. BeenThere*

          I have to warn you I wouldn’t switch to Software Engineering it is a cesspool of bias against women and it worse at the big tech companies. I’ve been in software for fifteen years and I was a process engineer for five years before that. I have degrees in Chemical Engineering and Computer Science. I had more opportunities and was treated with less bias in the factories I worked in owned by fortune 20 companies at the time) that I do at the big tech companies (which are now fortune 20 companies).

          Sign a back end technical lead who has to fight daily to not be pushed into all the pink roles and is tired of explaining to tech dude bros why women don’t report harassment to HR.

      2. MissInTheNo*

        Female civil here, my boss’s female admin assistant likes to make a big deal about commenting on my appearance in front of him. The only way to finally get it to stop was to avoid her entirely.

        1. Cmdr Shepard*

          It sucks that you had to resort to that, but in that case you had as much a co-worker problem as you do a boss problem, because the boss did not shut it down. I think it is one thing to occasionally make a comment about someone’s appearance such as that jacket/suit/shirt is a nice color, but it is another thing to consistently bring up someones appearance.

      3. Sam*

        Since you’re not really in a position to teach this person, I would lead by example. If you hear a male say, “You look very nice today,” you can jump in the conversation and say, “Yes and I really found your presentation on x topic last week to be insightful, thank you for doing that.” Or something that would apply to your field but in that same direction. It’s not much but it would help the other women feel appreciated for their work at the very least.

      4. Lenora Rose*

        Canada has a portion of leave that is only for gestation itself, but a whole BUNCH of leave both parents can split. The leave only for gestational parents is emphasized as for *physical healing* (including the potential for a time before the delivery itself, if the pregnancy is precarious), and always while the body recovers. The other leave is for infant care & bonding purposes and parents can do with it what they wish.

    2. Legal Beagle*

      Same for me – I actually fully left the industry. I was pleasantly surprised to find law was better.

  3. Nicotene*

    Captain Awkward has a great script for “changing hearts and minds” for friends and family that I have used with success several times. Consider if you are the right messenger though; it has to come from someone they have mutual trust with. If OP is 30 years younger and female (not to assume) it might be taken better coming from someone else you might recruit to talk to them. I’ll put the link below but basically you say something like, “I used to have (common misconception) but was so glad when someone pointed out to me that I might unintentionally be making it worse. You’re such a great advocate for (whatever) that I know you’d want to know this.”

    1. Long Furby*

      Interestingly, Steven Hassan, an expert in deprogramming cult members, suggest a similar script for loved ones getting sucked into culty-groupthink. Something along the lines of “Wow, I know you are really interested in / know a lot more about [X] than me. My impression was always [Y]. Let’s talk about it more! I’d love to hear your take on it.” It appeals to their ego and opens the dialogue to let them reason themselves out of the hole.

      1. OhNo*

        How interesting – I had heard of that kind of conversation as a tool for gently reforming chronic mansplainers, too! Sounds like it has uses in a lot of different contexts.

        1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          How does “I’d love to hear your take on it” help reform mansplainers? Sounds more like encouragement to me.

    2. Aggretsuko*

      I’m a big believer in the right/wrong messenger thing. Sometimes you just can’t be the one that delivers the message or it will go poorly. Cyrano is a classic plot/trope for a reason…

    3. Alexis Rosay*

      When it comes to people using outdated ways of speaking but mean well, I’ve found it has worked to say “hey, I wanted to let you know some up to date terms people use now. Now, people may be hurt if they hear the term A [compliments on their appearance] and it’s preferred to use term B [compliments on their work]. I know you would never want to hurt someone even unintentionally so I wanted to let you know.” You can also say something like “Yeah, things can change really fast nowadays! I find it hard to keep up sometimes too and that’s why I appreciate when people let me know I missed something.” (This can be used to build rapport even if the term or practice in question isn’t really new.) For this to work, you do need a pre-existing good relationship with the person.

      I am a big believer that sometimes, you cannot change someone’s heart, but you can teach them to speak more respectfully anyway.

    4. Abogado Avocado*

      I like the Captain Awkward script.

      However, it sounds like OP is not describing someone who’s intending to be hostile when complimenting appearance. Rather, OP seems to be describing an older, well-meaning-but-miguided male who doesn’t know how to linguistically signal to women that they’re saying hello or they want to have a conversation. This may seem odd when I put it this way, but that’s actually what’s happening. So, you have to give these guys words — as in they are better off saying, “Hi! Hot weather we’re having today!” rather than making a personal comment or opening a conversation with, “What did you think about that last presentation on Injectable Phenolic-Chitosan Self-Healing Hydrogel with Hierarchical Micelle Architectures?”

      1. ecnaseener*

        I think the idea is to use CA’s script without any assumption of hostility, along the lines of: “I used to think you couldn’t go wrong with a nice compliment, but more and more younger women especially are saying that complimenting their appearance in a work context actually makes them feel worse. I know you’re such a kind person and only want to make our members feel valued!”

      2. Quinalla*

        If find it much easier if he isn’t intending to be hostile because he is more likely to listen and want to change – though I agree with posters above to have judgement if you are the best messenger – I am a senior woman now and I am able to have these conversation with most men in my company/field, but in the past and still sometimes now I’d ask a male ally to have the conversation. It is actually one of the great things allies can do, so if someone asks you to do this as an ally, they really trust you!

        I’d approach it very much like the Captain’s script: I know you mean to be kind when you compliment women on their appearance like (I’d point to a specific, recent example here), but unfortunately comments like this just add another thing focusing on women’s appearances at work instead of their expertise which sexist people, not like you – (said or implied depending on the person I’m talking to), use to dismiss women. I know you want to be an ally to women, so I can suggest you instead compliment her presentation/paper/idea/whatever instead?

        The other approach I will use if they seem to not be getting it is the would you say that to (straight, white dude of same age/experience)? “Hey Brad, you look so handsome in that suit today and your hair is just perfect!” and that is tame, it could be more like some compliments women get “Brad, you look so HOT in that suit, if I were younger and not married, well…” No, it is rare than men compliment other men on their appearance at work. It can help them to get why it is a problem sometimes.

        1. JustaTech*

          I saw a thread on Twitter the other day about how to re-direct patients who insist on commenting on a junior doctor’s appearance.
          Senior doctor: Please don’t comment on the doctor’s appearance/body.
          Patient: I was giving her a compliment!
          Senior doctor: If you want to give her a compliment, tell her what a good job she’s doing/ how smart she is.

          I have no idea how effective this is, but if the appearance-commenter is genuinely well-meaning and willing to change, then this might be effective.

        2. Pickled Limes*

          I had a male coworker at one point who would wink at the women in the office and didn’t understand why we thought it was creepy. Eventually, I said something like “how come you never wink at Jim from accounting?” He got it then.

        3. KP*

          It’s rare for men to get compliments because women learn early on that we can’t compliment a man without him (more often than not) interpreting it as a sign of romantic interest, and in a lot of cases getting creepy/stalker behavior as a result.

    5. Artemesia*

      Here is an example of how one lawyer dealt with it 40 years ago in a Southern city. A peer of my husband’s appeared in court before a distinguished older judge who said ‘Ok, sweetie, what do you have to say’ when it was her turn to speak. This kind of language was really common men to women in those days. After the trial concluded for the day she approached him and told him that when he addressed her like that it undercut her professionalism in front of her clients. He apologized and NEVER DID IT AGAIN to women in his court. Sometimes people are not ill intentioned, they just do what they have always done and when someone points out the problem they change. If the old guy in this example is in fact well intentioned, a quiet word about how times have changed and how women feel about the focus on appearance undercutting their professional stature MIGHT work.

      1. pancakes*

        I think this could work well in some situations because it displaces some of the awkwardness and value judgements that come with talking about one’s own feelings – even a real clod should be able to understand that clients might pick up on the message.

      2. Hornswoggler*

        arrrgggh that judge…

        I had a small fantasy dialogue pop up in my head:

        Judge : OK sweetie, what do you have to say?
        Lawyer: I’m sorry your Honour, what did you call me?
        Judge: I said OK sweetie.
        Lawyer: Am I your sweetie your Honour?
        Judge: Er, no, you are not.
        Lawyer: Thank you, your Honour. May I call my first witness, Mrs Jessica Fanackettypan?

        1. Ann Nonymous*

          Judge : OK sweetie, what do you have to say?
          Lawyer: *Silent and looking around.*
          Judge: I said OK sweetie.
          Lawyer: Are you talking to me? I thought you said “sweetie.”
          Judge: Um, go ahead.
          Lawyer: Thank you, your Honour. May I call my first witness, Mrs Jessica Fanackettypan?

  4. bubbleon*

    There are a lot of options between ignoring the issue and yelling, has anyone tried saying to this specific person “I know you really mean well and we appreciate your involvement, but it’s been mentioned that people can be a little uncomfortable when you focus on their appearance rather than their professional achievements. I’m sure you don’t mean anything rude, so I wanted to let you know”

    That assumes he’s not doing it to harm anyone and frames it as a kindness to let him know rather than a reprimand. It might not work with everyone if they’re not as well-intentioned and welcoming, but it can be tailored.

    1. jenny*

      Yes – I don’t understand why you can’t directly tell each individual perpetrator to cut it out.

      1. Pippa K*

        I think it matters *who* tells them to cut it out. If it’s a woman, especially a young woman, the offender’s hackles are often raised. “I was just being nice” is a common reflexive defensive response, and it can escalate to “if she doesn’t want compliments, she shouldn’t (dress/look/talk to me in whatever way).” Some of this is covering embarrassment at being criticized for what they genuinely thought would be well received, and some of it is hostile, and as others have said, negotiating this all the time as a woman in your job is just tiring.

        With men on the “kindly intended compliment” end of the spectrum, it can be helpful for someone (another guy!) to note that he’s mistakenly applying (old fashioned) social norms in a professional setting. It’s harder to deal with the guys on the creepy/deliberate end of the spectrum, because they often use the “well-intended old fellow” guise as cover.

        1. Artemesia*

          It needs to be a peer and in this case a male peer although an older woman on his level might manage it. Otherwise you get the ‘nice guy’ defense. ‘These women, it’s impossible to know what they want; I was just being nice.’

          1. quill*

            Yes. Ideally you would get a man of similar age or experience to go “we don’t do that anymore” and people who Mean Well, or are Men of Their Times, start to change their habits. If you are younger or female or both you get the Simpsons “No, it must be the YOUTH who are wrong!”

            1. Detective Amy Santiago*

              This is exactly what I was thinking. The only person who can address this with any hope of effecting actual change is a man of similar age/experience.

          2. pancakes*

            I’m not sure it needs to be a male peer. I’ve encountered this sort of behavior from older women as well. One of the more memorable occasions was when the former dean of my law school’s wife had her annual cocktail party at her apartment to welcome incoming law review staffers. I walked in with two other women and as she was shaking our hands she laughed and said something like, “what are you doing here, you girls are too cute to be on law review.” Sexism is not confined to men, and never has been.

            1. Quinalla*

              I agree, there are plenty of sexist women – we all grew up swimming in a sexist society after all – but that isn’t the point here. The point is the messenger does matter. As a senior women in a male dominated field – I usually CAN deliver this message, but sometimes I will ask a male ally to do it instead when I know I won’t be listened to. When I was a young woman, hah, nope would not have been listened to at all.

            2. MissIntheNo*

              I have had this problem too! My boss’s admin assistant would make a big deal about commenting on my appearance, in front of every one, every day! Going to far as to ask me where I bought stuff and telling me it looks cute (I hate that word). The only way I got her to stop was to start avoid her compeltely.

        2. The New Wanderer*

          Can confirm. After a comment by an older male coworker *to his manager* that my colleague and I were eye candy, I said something sharp in the moment about how we had brains too and then sent him an email saying, effectively, I know you intended to be complimentary but please don’t comment on my appearance.

          All that was needed in return was for him to just, you know, stop doing it or at most reply with, “I understand, I’ll refrain.” Instead, his reaction was to not only reply at length to my email but come over to personally apologize for “just being nice” and “I thought you’d appreciate the compliment” so I had to deal with that emotional labor too. I don’t care what he intended, I care about not being objectified at work.

          Most comments are probably relatively harmless but worth pushing back on. In this case, the guy made other inappropriate comments to my colleague, later requested a hug from me at one point, and then escalated to trying to send me NSFW content, at which point we stopped engaging at all. He retired before we took the issue to HR.

          1. Pippa K*

            Yeah, my workplace has a guy who specialises in being complimentary then apologetic for ‘accidental’ inappropriateness. He’s playing the odds that he’ll get a favourable response to the first sally, or a sympathetic response to the “apology” for the compliment, and his bases are plausibly covered in case of complaint. One way or another he *will* get the women’s attention he wants; he’s been doing it for ages and there’s practically no way to shut him down except by icy responses one woman at a time. His retirement will be a good day.

        3. OtterB*

          I like making the distinction between social norms and professional norms. It’s more focused than “things have changed.”

        4. BadApple*

          If there’s the right environment, all a guy has to do is cut in with a “hey what am I chopped liver?” And it sort of gets the point across humorously.

          1. Ann Nonymous*

            Man to “complimentary man”: Why don’t you call *me* “honey”? Don’t I look good too?

      2. KHB*

        Because it sounds like OP doesn’t necessarily have the rapport or the authority to get each individual perpetrator to listen to her. You can try going around “educating” people and telling them what to do, but you may very well just end up annoying them.

        I really don’t think we have enough information here to say how best to approach these men. It depends so much on the personalities and relationships involved.

      3. Boof*

        OP is looking for a script to start the conversation, pretty reasonable. I like the open “over time I realized we should try to focus less on people’s appearances, especially women; what do you think?” type of scripts to start with, especially for someone you think means well.

      4. Le Sigh*

        Because it’s rarely that simple. Too often, the reaction from people who mean well is either angry, all about how they’re just trying to be nice/compliment someone, or just over the top apologetic. You not only have to manage your feelings around original crappy comment, you have to manage their feelings as well. And that’s IF they even hear what you’re really saying.

      5. ampersand*

        In an ideal world I agree with you—someone says something offensive or wrong? You can point it out/correct them as needed. I think others are right that the messenger here is as important as the message; older men who are are accustomed to focusing and commenting on women’s looks probably need to be approached by an older, male peer to increase the chances the message will be well received.

        I’m hopeful that one day this level of tiptoeing around problems isn’t necessary.

    2. LadyByTheLake*

      And this script is gender neutral, so it isn’t saying “you’re sexist” it is saying “it is not appropriate to focus on appearance rather than professional abilities.” The person can then connect their own dots to realize that they only do it to women — which is often a more effective deterrent. I have had to train myself to not comment on little girls’ appearance (what a pretty dress!) and instead focus on something else like I would with a little boy. To my horror, I realized that it is deeply ingrained to compliment girls on their appearance and so catching myself (internally) before I do it is more effective than any scolding would be.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I have been known to say to little boys, “I like your shirt,” so I feel comfortable commenting on a particularly great clothing item when it’s a little girl too. But it’s generally not a particularly pretty dress, nor is it often a particularly cool shirt. And I try to avoid “pretty,” since it gets so gendered, and instead say, “I like your dress; that’s a nice color” or “I like your dress; it looks very swingy.”

        1. Massive Dynamic*

          That’s actually a great practice for little boys and girls- when you compliment their clothing choices, you’re complimenting their agency in putting together their outfit! Toddlers get so dang proud, I tell you what.

        2. The Rural Juror*

          My cowoker (39M) and I (34F) had a nice conversation once about complimenting style and not necessarily appearance. I’ll tell him if I like a new hat he’s wearing (he works outside quite a bit and often wears a hat). Little compliments go a long way in making a person’s day a little better, but we all definitely need to be aware of a) WHAT we’re complimenting and b) HOW we’re delivering the message.

          OK: “I like the pattern of your shirt/tie/dress!” <– you have style I like
          NOT ok: "That dress looks good on you." <– you have a body I find attractive

          1. Nic*

            Yes! I often think that the nicest compliment I’ve ever had, is the time when a guy stopped me on the street (very politely) to ask where I got my handbag, because his girlfriend’s birthday was coming up and he was trying to think of something really classy that she’d appreciate. That was a really nice compliment to get because it was about my taste, not my person, and it clearly wasn’t going to segue into a come-on.

          2. Bethany*

            My general rule is that if you would say it to your sibling, it’s fine to say to your colleague.

            ‘Nice shirt’ is fine.
            ‘I like the way that shirt fits on your body’ – noooooo

        3. Jack Straw*

          The difference between their shirt and their appearance is that the shirt is a conscious fashion/self expression vs. their eye color which they had absolutely nothing to do with. Granted, it depends how young the child is, but even at 2-3YO my kids knew what they liked and had opinions on how they dressed. lol

          I often compliment clothing items, intentional (pink, blue, etc.) hair colors, jewelry, tattoos, shoes, etc.–because those are items the person chose themselves. It’s a matter or “I like your ______ (thing that shows off your kick ass personality, intelligence, sense of humor, independence, etc.)!” vs. “You’re so pretty!”

          1. Seeking Second Childhood*

            My variation: complimenting how they chose something, instead of just looking pretty in it. “I love your shirt. It’s fun that you picked matching shoes!” Or “cool shirt…I wish I had thought to wear dinosaurs to the Natural History Museum.”

        4. DataSci*

          For little girls I like “I like your shoes. It looks like you can run really fast in them.” Compliment their style AND their ability, in an area that’s not coded as feminine.

      2. MacGillicuddy*

        This is so rampant. A friend of mine has 2 kids, the daughter a few years younger than her son. When her daughter was a toddler, sometimes she’d dress her in “girly” clothes and sometimes in her brother’s hand-me-downs. Taking her daughter places, she noticed that when the daughter wore non-gendered clothing, people would interact saying things like “Can you wave hi?” “Can you do patty cake?” “What does the doggy say? Can you say ‘woof woof’?”
        When her daughter wore girly clothes, all the interactions were “Oh aren’t you pretty.” “What a beautiful dress you have” “You have such nice curly hair” etc.
        When people thought she a boy, interactions were all about what the toddler could do or knew. When people thought the toddler was a girl, it was all about LOOKS.

        After this happened a few times, my friend started keeping track of it. And it happen again and again.

        It’s ridiculous how ingrained in society thus stuff is.

        1. Reluctant Manager*

          A friend of mine trained her daughter to reply to comments about being cute or pretty with, “And smart!” It was especially effective when she was 3.

      3. Jasmine*

        Many years ago I started to tell a young girl how pretty her hair was. Then I saw her mothers’ wild gesturing out of the corner of my eye. Later her mother told me that so many people had told her how pretty her hair was it she really started to become vain. Ever since then I have leaned more toward complimenting children on their good manners and their efforts to accomplish something. I also don’t compliment children just by saying how smart they are. Again I compliment their hard work. I do compliment children who are obviously dress up for a special occasion on their appearance.

    3. ThatGirl*

      This would be my tactic, for sure – instead of chiding, assume the best intentions and gently redirect it.

      1. Steph*

        I’m now a bit older than when I started at my workplace, but I still enjoy dressing in cheap but well fitted clothes. I also don’t like the roving eyes or comments that I look nice or dressed up for the day. I’ve found brushing comments aside has worked.

    4. Matt*

      That “but” undermines the nice things you said at the beginning of the sentence. It’s better to try and change it to an “and”. For example, “I know you mean well and we appreciate your involvement, and we’d like you to continue having your contributions. Can you please focus on our members’ professional achievements and appreciate their beauty without comment?”

      1. AskJeeves*

        Ack nooooooo please don’t tell these people that they should be “appreciating the beauty” of younger female colleagues, with or without commentary! That sends totally the wrong message. Yes, people have eyes and are entitled make their own aesthetic judgments of others, but there’s no reason to encourage that mindset in a professional setting or make any reference at all to the physical appearance colleagues, let alone “appreciating” it. I’m sure this was well-intended, but it’s validating the idea that women in public spaces are objects to be admired.

      2. Allypopx*

        “appreciate their beauty without comment” makes my skin crawl please never say that to a person

      3. Jules the 3rd*

        “Can you please focus on our members’ professional achievements and not comment on their appearance, or even on how the industry has changed?”

      4. anonarama*

        please do not appreciate my beauty in a work context even silently. treat me the same way you’d treat a sentient cloud of mist

      5. nimble*

        Oh dear god, never EVER say that.

        If someone said that to someone in a room I was in (I am female), I would no longer trust EITHER person.

        That response is disgusting, unprofessional, and harmful to careers. Don’t.

    5. High Score!*

      My current employer and the last one both have no commenting on other’s appearance in employee rule books and also in training videos that everyone must watch.

    6. fposte*

      Yes, agreed. I think the OP’s on a good track with this individual–somebody like that may be able to take the feedback and become part of the solution, suggesting ways to spread the message (without reifying the problem through awkward white-knighting).

      I also think there may be broader ways to spread that message. Is there a code of conduct for the org? If not, maybe it’s time there was one. Emphasize that X field honors its membership, and this is the best way to make all its members feel honored.

    7. Jessica Fletcher*

      Right! It’s not impossible for older people to change. If these members are spry enough to go to conferences and continue teaching, they can certainly stop saying things that aren’t acceptable anymore. They learned to stop recommending outdated medications and treatments; this is fundamentally no different!

    8. Despachito*

      I like this wording.

      Times are changing, and I do not think the man from the example deserves to be yelled at. Explained the change gently would be nice.

      I would be mortified if I did something inappropriate (but what used to be perceived as appropriate some time ago) and got yelled at.

    9. OP*

      This has actually been done multiple times. It hasn’t stuck. At this point, I am trying to “partner” with him so that I can step in and remind him not to do these things. He has value. He is important. He is wonderfully kind. There has to be room in society for people like him. And yes, I am the person to whom others turn for help on this matter, and others.

      1. Student Affairs Sally*

        I’m sorry to say, but if you’ve already had this conversation with him “multiple times” and it’s not sticking . . . it’s probably because he actually doesn’t care. It’s really not that hard to remember “don’t compliment people on their appearance in a professional setting”. It’s pretty simple. If he’s not stopping, it’s because he doesn’t WANT to stop, regardless how “wonderfully kind” he is.

        1. Student Affairs Sally*

          Edit: how wonderfully kind he SEEMS, because anyone who would behave this way after being asked to stop is actually not kind at all.

        2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          Yeah, Joe Biden stopped being creepy because he wanted to be president, but this guy maybe isn’t looking to achieve anything more in life.

      2. bubbleon*

        What has his reaction been to being told this in the past? Has he been receptive or more “I’m just trying to be nice, woke culture has run amok!”?

        I’m sure he’s kind and doesn’t mean any malice by it, but it still can’t be okay and it shouldn’t be your job to babysit him at every event. He needs to step up and be able to monitor himself as the important and valued member of your organization that he is. If it continues to be an issue, I think there’s a point at which patience and understanding can only do so much and someone should tell him with a more firm “Bob, we all understand you mean well but you must understand how uncomfortable it makes colleagues when you prioritize their attractiveness over their professionalism. I really need you to commit to changing this habit.”

        1. Cordelia*

          and has he been able to adapt to other changes in your professional environment and culture? in which case, why does he seem to be struggling with this one? why is it this that doesn’t “stick”?
          There has to come a point, surely, where being “kind” isn’t enough, if his presence at these events is making them more difficult for other people. If he can’t change this behaviour he isn’t really the good mentor you want him to be, definitely not for the young women trying to make their way in a male-dominated field, but also not a good role model for the younger men in the room, who need to know that this kind of behaviour has professional consequences

      3. CJ*

        If it hasn’t stuck this might not either, but maybe reinforcing the desired behaviour might help? ‘You know, Cecil, when I was starting out, it meant the world to me when someone like you complimented my work/asked what I thought of the presentation/etc’ sort of thing.

      4. LC*

        I’m glad you’re already talking to him about it, and it sucks that he still isn’t taking it into account, but I hope that you continue to say it to him, even if you get to the point where it feels completely useless and you want to just write it off.

        Even if it doesn’t change him, it can have a positive effect on others. Maybe other younger-that-this-guy-but-definitely-older-than-you men will hear you, and it’ll subtly reinforce the idea of what kind of behavior and talk isn’t okay. Maybe other younger people, just starting out in their career, will hear and think, “sweet, even if this environment isn’t ideal right now, there are people pushing against shitty behavior and it’s okay to stand up for ourselves and each other, and that’s awesome.” Maybe another woman around your level will you hear you right after it had just happened to her for the third time today and feel a little less hopeless and give them the energy to keep fighting the good fight.

        So, yeah. It doesn’t sound like you’re going to write this guy off regardless, which is great, but definitely please keep in mind that it’s not just about him, you’re also benefiting everyone else around you.

      5. tamarack and fireweed*

        So… if he (and his similarly inclines peers) *have* heard it, and therefore have acquired a passing familiarity with the idea, then the social pressure has to be incrementally raised. Have the words “undermine my/her/their professional standing” been pronounced, with gravitas?

        Because chances are that however kind, or in fact in part because he is kind, his very kindness is operating as a filter, and that his nice supportive attitudes are not equally distributed among those who should by right benefit from them. And not just along the gender axis, most likely. (I mean, maybe you *are* good on race and ethnic background and class etc., but you’d be the exception!) Some commenters will tell you that he can’t possibly be kind an a flaming sexist at the same time, but that would be naive. You can have genuinely nice people who have much much worse, more discriminatory attitudes than your guy. The genuine niceness may at one point disappear if they really are put in front of the hard choice (or it may not! they may jump the right way!), but you are nowhere near that point yet.

        One tool can be a code of conduct, discussed calmly as a tool to achieve something closer to a level playing field, and supported calmly but unwaveringly by a high-status person or if necessary committee.

        And yeah, there is no guarantee that this is going to end without hurt feelings, but you know what needs to be done, and who is in the right here! I do support your approach of trying without a big airing of grievances, not really for his sake, but because you don’t want give oxygen to a nonsense narrative of “these horribly shrill feminists have driven out wonderful Dr. Pinniped, who’s the nicest man ever, and an eminent Cataralolologist, *just* because his compliments were a little bit out of date!”

      6. Tehanu*

        Maybe it also at this point needs to be about whether he can continue mentoring. Even if he’s not cut off, he should be aware that it doesn’t take much these days, especially with social media, for people to share experiences they feel uncomfortable with/creeped them out. You value him and his kindness: I’m sure he doesn’t see himself as someone predatory but commenting on young women’s appearance can certainly be interpreted that way. I find this sometimes works when appealing to self-interest and self-perception: “I know you probably don’t intend to be ___, but you’re being perceived that way, let’s talk about how you can change that.”

    10. Ellie*

      I think you need a united front – it needs to be a group of people telling them nicely but firmly to cut it out, every time it happens. They will grumble but they will learn, if they are actually nice people. One person can’t be everywhere, and you need to stamp it out whenever it happens, with no exceptions.

      I’m in IT, and the most effective changes I’ve seen is when management sets the standard for behaviour and will not tolerate anything less. You need enough people in authority who are behaving inclusively, and who aren’t afraid to point it out if something unacceptable happens. The better ones use examples too, they work little anecdotes into the lunchroom conversations about shocking incidents that have happened, and how it was handled appropriately. When that happens, people feel they have backup, and they know they can speak up.

      Can you get a group together that has some authority and is already behaving well, and get them to agree to be champions? Also, don’t underestimate the impact of good quality training, posters and flyers – they help to set the culture as well. Make sure that everyone is represented in the literature that your organisation puts out, and get some advice about what kind of language to use. Subtle things can add up to make quite a difference.

    11. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

      Re this: “…it’s been mentioned that people can be a little uncomfortable when you focus on their appearance rather than their professional achievements.”

      Why say “people” when this is an issue that is specific to women? I don’t know if that was a deliberate choice or not, but it just doesn’t feel right to me worded that way. Using the word “people” when discussing such a clearly gender specific problem can muddy the waters and make the message less clear, imo.

  5. Mophie*

    I’m trying to figure out whether this is a “compliment” in a creepy or leering way or – genuine benign compliment like , “I like that dress” or “nice shoes” or “you look nice today.” Since you describe this person and gentle, kind and well intentioned. I feel like the former deserves a completely different response than the latter. And for an 80 or 90 year old guy, I’m not sure the latter deserves a response at all.

    1. Justme, The OG*

      I took it to mean that he would say she’s pretty rather than complimenting on an accessory. Which does definitely make someone seem less important. Especially with the age difference.

      1. TootsNYC*

        but even complimenting someone on an accessory is derailing; “nice tie” directs the attention to minor (frivolous?) fashion choices instead of leaving it focused on the business at hand. It’s inappropriate for men as the target; it’s just that our cultural context makes it far more damaging for women. Men’s image in others’ eyes will recover from the momentarily frivolity much more rapidly than women’s will.

        1. Paulina*

          Thank you for addressing this. I find a lot of offenders try to excuse their sexist remarks by claiming they make such comments to everyone, but the impact isn’t the same. It’s a lot easier to brush off such comments when you don’t get them as often and people aren’t really using stereotypes to question your competency.

        2. MK*

          This seems over the top to me. I really don’t think it is inappropriate to chat about fashion/accessories with colleagues of any gender from time to time as long as you’re not commenting on the person’s body or appearance. It’s just a form of small talk and you will have weird work relationships if every work conversation needs to be 100 percent about work. I’ve chatted with men about their ties or whimsical dress socks and chatted with women about where I found dresses with pockets. Most of our conversations were about work but lots of people are into fashion and clothes and accessories can just be a safe topic to grease the wheels a bit.

          1. Good Vibes Steve*

            I guess a lot of this is context dependent. Is the person whose accessories you’re complimenting in work mode or not? I see no problem with “I love your shoes” when it’s said at the coffee machine queue. if the person is in the middle of a presentation to senior leadership, then that’s not ok.
            And of course, people use a lot more than words when paying compliments sometimes. “That’s a nice dress” will be innocuous from on person, but the exact same sentence said with a creepy eyebrow-raising and leering look is absolutely not fine. That’s why finding a hard-and-fast rule on what’s creepy and what’s not is difficult; yet I can tell in a millisecond if someone is a creep or not.

    2. Nicotene*

      If this person wants to participate in networking stuff at their age and work with the incoming young people, they’re going to have to realize this isn’t the way to do it. I would care more about young womens’ ambitions being crushed than I would about this guy’s potential hurt feelings. If he wants to sit on his laurels and not adapt to changes, he doesn’t need to still participate and say anything he wants from his own home.

      1. AskJeeves*

        This. There’s no reason to coddle adults who are behaving inappropriately in a professional setting, regardless of age. Why do a retired man’s feelings take priority over the experience of women trying to advance in their industry?

        1. OP*

          This is exactly what I want to avoid. He has value. I don’t want him discarded over this. I want a solution where I can help mentor the younger women and give them an appropriate professional environment without throwing this guy out.

          1. bubbleon*

            I commend you for wanting a solution here, but you’re incredibly focused on his reactions and his feelings over a much larger group of people who are impacted by it. He can both have value and not be the priority in a solution.

          2. Student Affairs Sally*

            I don’t think anyone is arguing that this guy doesn’t have “value”. But does his “value” matter more than creating a safe, welcoming, and comfortable space for the women in your profession? He may have lots of helpful information and mentoring to contribute, but if he can’t behave professionally and respectfully in your professional spaces, then he doesn’t belong in those spaces. Period.

            There are plenty of other people with “value” and things to add to the conversation that AREN’T belittling women or reducing them to mere decorations. At least, I hope so – if not, then the problems in your industry are far bigger than just this one guy.

          3. tamarack and fireweed*

            I 100% understand the willingness of not throwing someone out who maybe you yourself have a lot to thank for, or others you value. I’ve felt the same. But in the end this is out of your hand – because you know which way this ball *has* to roll down the hill eventually, and it’s *his* choice to remain selectively unresponsive.

          4. laser99*

            I fail to comprehend why you are so fixated on his “value” and “kindness”. Just tell him to knock it off. If he doesn’t, that means he is only sees women as objects for his enjoyment.

      2. Lilyal*

        Also what are the men learning from him? Are they learning to value their female colleagues as equal? Are they learning this diversity is all lils service?
        I’m in a male dominated profession. I gave up on some older guys but I pulled aside the young male who heard and explained what was wrong.

    3. Mophie*

      On thinking about it, I suppose a “you’re a pretty lady” or something similar would still be meant as kind and is problematic. I am still interested in what was actually said.

      1. jenny*

        I don’t think it matters to quibble over what was actually said. “I like that dress,” “nice shoes,” or “you look nice today” CAN be uncomfortable and inappropriate depending on the tone, power dynamics (role/age/gender) of who is speaking and being spoken to, so clearly one person can think “Oh, that’s harmless and not a big deal” and another can think “Wow, I wish he had never said that to me” – i.e., what was actually said does not matter for the larger conversation.

        1. katertot*

          Yep- this 100%. If someone says “I like that dress” (which can be very innocuous) but paired with looking someone up and down and being generally inappropriate all of a sudden that innocuous comment is….not.

          1. TootsNYC*

            it doesn’t even have to be paired with that.
            In a professional setting, it’s not polite to derail the business conversation with compliments about clothing.

            There might be times, but those are rare, and are saved much more personal interactions–a close coworker, for example. Not one of the people those older guy meets qualifies.

            1. JustaTech*

              Or maybe in the semi-social setting at a conference, between peers (of the same gender). “I like your scarf” is very different coming from a peer than from a senior person.

              It’s also very different at the end of a conversation (after a discussion of the subject matter) than as a conversation opener.

              But even with all of those caveats, it’s still better to err on the side of why you’re there in the first place (“great presentation!” “Your poster is really well organized!” etc), than on what people look like.

        2. Boof*

          But it does matter; ANYTHING can be problematic if said the wrong way. It’s pretty different if he’s saying “you’re looking well today” (not sure this is a problem unless there’s some weird inflection) vs “you’re as pretty as my granddaughter” (condescending etc) vs “that dress really shows off your legs” (pretty gross)

          1. jenny*

            No. You’re taking something very clear (“how do we get older members of our field to stop complimenting women on their appearance?”) and turning it into “well, are you sure it’s even a problem? what was his tone? what exactly did he say? words can mean anything depending on how you say them!” Please read basically any other comment. The LW is has already stated this is an issue.

          2. Ellie*

            Lol, I’ve never, ever had anyone at work tell me, ‘you’re looking well today’. It has never happened. I have heard plenty of your last two examples though. The worst one was when I made the mistake of wearing fishnets to work once (I was wearing a mid-calf length pencil skirt and boots, and they were in fashion…). After the 50th or so comment I went into the bathroom and removed them, and they went straight into the bin as soon as I got home. The most innocent comment I got, ‘nice tights’ isn’t so innocent when they have literally never spoken to me before. But they just had to break their silence over 2 inches of semi-covered leg.

        3. Spencer Hastings*

          Yeah. Plus, the received wisdom is always “compliment people on choices they made, not on their body!” — which makes sense, but sometimes it feels like even that can be a back door into commenting on one’s body. :-/

        4. Blackcat*

          I have been in professional settings where a fellow young-ish woman compliments what I’m wearing and asks where I got it. That is 100% fine, because it’s sort of small talk about where to get professional clothes.
          But coming from an older man, it’s always, always uncomfortable.

          1. Paulina*

            Yes, that can be fine on occasion. But I also wouldn’t start with such a comment. Always talk about the work first.

          2. Ellie*

            I’ve had men compliment me on my bag or my top before, and its been fine, but there’s generally been a reason for it that doesn’t have anything to do with my body (like its a band t-shirt or has an anime design). Small talk is all good. When its me their complimenting, and not the clothing, then that’s a problem. I’m starting to think that there are some men who literally cannot distinguish whether its the dress or the body underneath that they’re responding to, and I’d advise those men to make it easy and not comment at all.

            1. Tabby*

              This part. I’ve had a guy compliment my hair before (currently silver microbraids), and it qas nbd. But this guy the OP is talking about? Hell, no. He needs to stop, or be stopped. He’s a hard pass.

        5. Koalafied*

          Yes, and I think it’s also relevant that this has emerged as a pattern, not a single incident. For really egregious stuff, a single incident would merit a response. For the quote-unquote “benign” inappropriate comments, the issue is less what he said any specific time and more the fact that he keeps reaching for that conversational tactic when he’s interacting with women.

      2. Artemesia*

        It doesn’t matter what was said (unless it was truly outrageous — but generally no one says ‘wow, the beauty in this room is really giving me a hard on’ — you can deal with that bluntly.)

        The enduring problem is the speaker who says ‘ so glad to see so many beautiful women here tonight.’ or. ‘Nice to see so many women in the group this year, it certainly improves the scenery.’ etc etc I have been at conferences where man after man starts his talks with this sort of thing. It reframes the room immediately into ‘serious professionals and those women.’

    4. Anononon*

      Even the second type of compliments can be awkward and uncomfortable, especially when they’re only directed at younger women (which OP indicates they are). A response is necessary if the comments are driving away younger women from this field.

    5. No Tribble At All*

      Complimenting someone’s outfit is generally OK, unless it’s something gross like “that dress makes your butt look fantastic”

      1. Nicotene*

        Honestly though, I can’t imagine not feeling bad hearing, “Chadwick, loved your paper on particle physics. Andrew, great job on that higgs-boson equation, you’re going to go far. Nicotina, those are really cute shoes.”

        1. No Tribble At All*

          Oh gosh yes! I meant in general of “I, a dude, see my coworker is really dressed up, and I want to give her a compliment in a non creepy way, is there any way for me to do it?” But yes if someone mentioned my appearance in the middle of a professional discussion, I’d be annoyed.

          1. Anononon*

            Unless you’re super close friends who regularly discuss fashion/compliment each other, no, you should not compliment people on their fashion in the workplace. Nope nope nope.

            1. ThatGirl*

              I work with a lot of women and I would be ok with things like “oh, those shoes are so cute!” or “I like your new glasses” but I’d never say “you look great in that top”. And that’s within casual workplace conversation, not at a conference or any sort of formal event.

            2. pancakes*

              This seems a bit heavy-handed as a proposed rule, or not targeted directly at sexism or objectification. I’ve worked in many places where men and women compliment one another on their clothes or accessories without it being creepy or derailing. It’s not inherently demeaning or sexist to compliment one another on dressing stylishly. Maybe some of this is regional – I’m in NYC and a fair number of people here like to put some energy into how they dress. I can see how it would come off badly if both parties are dressed very casually or unremarkably, but then the compliment wouldn’t really be about their clothes, it would be about leering.

            3. SoloKid*

              I mean if someone has novelty items on it’s not totally egregious to go “I love the cats on your socks!”

              I personally would be ok with that as long as it wasn’t about something like my age or hairstyle, or the only compliment I got outside of my male coworkers being praised for their contributions. The goal is to not objectify people.

            4. mf*

              Agree with @ThatGirl and @pancakes. It tends not to be weird if it’s a coworker you know fairly well and it occurs within casual workplace conversation. But some guy 30 years older than you that you see 3x/year at a conference? *That’s* weird.

            5. tamarack and fireweed*

              This is what I call (privately, mostly) a poof-in-the-pudding problem. Complimenting on dress or other outfit choices at work can be totally, 100%, certified harmless & enjoyable. I just bought new shoes – and I would welcome a “ohhh, nice shoes” from *nearly* everyone. Nearly. A lot of visible choices are being made in a way to invite the right kind of reaction, after all.

              There’s a lot that goes into a successful compliment, and one ingredient is the kind of relationship that the two people involved have, and mutually agree they have. If one of them is mistaken, or inattentive, about something of relevance in the relationship, it’s a recipe for a failed compliment. And failed compliments are high-risk. It’s the same with asking someone out. Obviously asking a co-worker out is not always inappropriate – millions of successful long-term relationships started at work. But when it is unwelcome or inappropriate it can sour one’s standing as an employee very fast.

              There is no recipe that you can follow to make sure you never do it wrong. If you have made the experience that people tend to push away your efforts, do tread lightly. If you are in power over someone, be very attentive to that. If you are with someone from a different cultural background, establish some interpersonal commonality first. And we can use codes of conduct to remove the most obvious tips (sexualized comments, comments on appearance in general…). But we are human, and if I fall into a bog during fieldwork and then the next week show up with brand-new super-deluxe waders, my colleagues *will* say “ohhh, nice waders!”. We are embodied beings and a level of acknowledging that is just an expression of good relations.

          2. Awesome Sauce*

            I, a lady, have received compliments on the way I’m dressed from male coworkers, and you’re right, it’s very tricky to do in a work-appropriate way. Personally, I feel ok about it if: it’s coming from a coworker I’m already friendly with (i.e. we sometimes spend breaks together and share small talk about other topics), the comment focuses on a particular style choice I’ve made (e.g. “that is a really neat bracelet!” is much better than “you look great in that dress!”), and the comment doesn’t somehow imply that I look like a slob the rest of the time haha.

            So my suggestion would be, stick to only making these sorts of comments with people you’re friendly with already, keep it away from work-related discussion (e.g. if you bump into them at the coffee machine, that’s probably an ok time for it), and be very specific about what you like about their outfit/style choice, NOT how they look while they’re wearing it – the shirt has a neat pattern, the jewelry is very striking in some way, the scarf has birds on it and you love birds, etc.

            1. Koalafied*

              Yes, one element of this is what percentage of your total interactions with someone are you complimenting their appearance vs legitimate work talk? Something that would be fine coming from someone you work closely with every day and who always treats you as a professional can read differently coming from the guy down the hall who you don’t actually work with and rarely talk to. Not every thought you have needs to be spoken aloud, so maybe if you haven’t found any reason to speak to this person before, you can keep your feelings about their appearance to yourself. The world will still go on turning when you decide not to tell a near-stranger your opinion of their appearance.

              1. Despachito*

                I was wondering whether it is EVER appropriate to mention anyone’s appearance in a work setting, and I find this thread be very helpful to figure it out.

                It is an absolute no-no to comment appearance of someone I do not work closely with.

                As for people with whom I am in a regular contact and on friendly terms, I would not find totally inappropriate to comment on a new haircut/great shoes/stylish combination of a tie and jacket, but I’d be careful not to do it very often and make it sound like “that’s a nice object you have” rather then “you look good in this”.

                1. 4CeeleenLV*

                  Yes, Yes! I am made deeply uncomfortable by people making personal comments – even if positive, I’ll take it as a negative. (“The thing you did was noticed – therefore never do that thing again.”) If someone compliments my shirt, the shirt goes straight to Goodwill. If someone comments on my food or eating, I literally will find a new job unless it immediately stops. I wear makeup so people won’t comment on how tired I look. With all this said though, I love to get compliments on the *craftsmanship* of items I wear or use. I know, I know, this sounds confusing. But if I am wearing the most beautiful shoes that were made by a good designer, made with care and are attractive, I would happily receive a “Wow. Your shoes are gorgeous” because … it’s a comment on my taste (to choose the craftsman whose work you’re complimenting), not my person. Or “awesome cashmere, must be super breathable!” If people find this confusing though, I appreciate when they err on the side of not making comments. Just talk about weather or traffic, I’ll delightedly engage in small talk that has nothing to do with my appearance or comportment.

                2. snack queen*

                  I am an interior designer and it’s fairly common in our industry circles for people of all genders tend to pass around the compliments on fashion choices etc. pretty frequently. We are also probably statistically more likely to be wearing cool/colorful/interesting things than say Big Law Partners for example? It’s worth paying attention to cues from your particular industry culture.

            2. mf*

              Yes, this is very much a “know your audience” kind of thing. That woman on your team who’s super into fashion and wears outrageous shoes on a regular basis? Probably fine. The female executive who’s four levels above you and wears a suit to work every day? She’s not looking for comments on her appearance.

              1. tamarack and fireweed*

                Yes, exactly. And if you’re complimenting someone for the first time, you can keep it low-key. As in, not going in for the big-production “ho-ho, beautiful lady!” approach (which is probably never going to fly except with your closest friends who already appreciate you DESPITE being a social klutz) but rather a casual “these are quite spectacular shoes / what a beautiful shawl – is it handwoven?”. If the other person then launches in a 3 min tale about their connection to the objects in question you’ve done it right.

                (Come to think of it I regularly get compliments on the street, or at work, on my handknitted shawls. Some from knitters “is this Malabrigo? handspun? the Hitchhiker pattern?” and some just in general. Mostly from straight women. I’m a not conventionally attractive, not very stylish, middle-aged lesbian. It’s never bothered me – on the contrary, it’s *fine*.)

        2. Coenobita*

          Yes, this is very well put! I personally have a very high threshold for discomfort around this stuff in my personal life – I honestly don’t super mind most well-meaning-but-problematic comments if they’re from my neighbor, the cashier at Safeway, or even customers at my “fun money” side job. (I actually adore that Safeway cashier. His name is Gary and we always ask each other about the books we’ve been reading lately.) But the kind of professional situation you’re describing would be intensely demeaning and dispiriting.

        3. Pomegranate*

          I can also easily imagine a younger woman going up for a presentation and being introduced as “and now let’s hear from this beautiful young lady about her research” or “thank you for that presentation, your smile always makes the room light up”.

          1. fposte*

            That’s definitely what I’m thinking of. This is how you’re nice and welcoming to women, in these men’s minds. And to women in professional mode, it’s a smackdown, and at something like a conference it may happen over and over again.

            1. Allypopx*

              This is so important. Anyone saying “it was a compliment, let it go” is overlooking how exhausting and demoralizing it is when it happens over, and over, and over…

              1. Quidge*

                This entire thread is making my do my “carefully, benignly blank with slightly-high eyebrows” face, which I don’t think I’ve done outside hard-science academia since that breakdown truck driver told me how he usually just tows women drivers in my situation because, you know, most of them just wouldn’t understand “pump the clutch when changing gears”.

                Male friend with me was appalled, I laughed after because it’s not even close to the most enraging thing that’s been said or done to/in front of me, just the stupidest.

              2. Koalafied*

                And they never consider the reverse side of the coin – i.e. it’s just your opinion, let it go. Nobody is being harmed by being told to keep their opinions about others to themselves at work. Why is your right to compliment a woman the hill you want to die on?

          2. tamarack and fireweed*

            Yup, THIS is the kind of thing I envisage.

            And among people who are at an event specifically to talk shop, I’d be very careful with a lot of things that would be ok at work. Of course it’s a problem.

        4. Dust Bunny*

          I think setting matters. I have told coworkers that I loved their earrings or whatever but it was in a casual setting when we were just doing everyday work (“Hey, I’m going to be in the warehouse for awhile looking for XYZ papers. Ooh, I love your earrings!”). I would never do that in front of other professionals.

          1. TootsNYC*

            I have said, “those are great shoes” to a female colleague, even one I don’t know well, while we were in the employee kitchen, in the elevator.
            Never in a conference room, not in a work hallway, not at their desk.
            We’re on duty; this is not a social situation.

            “nice shoes” is a social conversation, and it should take place only in social situations.

            1. Simply the best*

              I think even then, setting matters. In my office it would be not inappropriate at all to say to someone “ooh, great shoes” or whatever in any of the three places you just mentioned.

              1. mf*

                I can see how this kind of thing would be culture- and industry-specific. In a more formal environment or in an industry that’s been particularly hostile to women (law or tech, for example), it’s probably smart to err on the side of caution.

            2. Corey*

              Okay but your comments demonstrate that your work settings are far from normal. You have never had a social conversation at work?

          2. TiffIf*

            I know I’ve done the same with female coworkers (I am female) but it is generally a quick notice (NOT every time) before something work relevant; “Hey Jess, I like the new haircut. Did we get an update from ClientName on the Llama Grooming Shears 2.0 application?”

        5. Artemesia*

          This. How hard is this to understand. In a setting with co-workers the occasional compliment might not be an issue although how often do people compliment men on their suits or shoes? If you work with another professional and have dozens of professional interactions then ‘that’s a nice dress’ is not a big deal.

          In a professional association like the OP’s, for anyone to comment on the appearance of another, especially a young woman, it immediately jerks them out of the frame of ‘young professional’ to ‘woman whose primary value is delighting our eyes.’ Men who cannot see this are part of the problem.

          I have never seen a young male professional at a conference complimented on his clothing or appearance — it happens all the time to women.

          1. Coenobita*

            Right!! The two other people on my immediate team are men and I’m a woman; we have a very warm, friendly relationship and we compliment each other’s nerdy ties or cool t-shirts or warm-looking winter coats all the time. I gently tease them when we go to a fancy meeting and they are wearing identical suits like the Men in Black. They gently tease me about how I have a fleece jacket for every occasion. That is all fine for us – and it is MILES away from what the OP is talking about.

          2. Mimi*

            I did have a couple of male colleagues who sometimes wore great (attention-catching) shoes, and I would compliment them on their shoes. But it was generally in the realm of “I like your style” compliments or “Oooh, it’s the lime green shoes today!”, and as you said, people with whom I would have dozens or hundreds of professional interactions.

            1. mf*

              I’ve done this too, and actually, a lot of men really appreciate being complimented on their style. Probably because they receive a lot less of those compliments.

      2. LadyByTheLake*

        Complimenting a woman’s outfit is okay only if the speaker regularly comments on men’s outfits too. Which (from long personal experience) I think is unlikely. Commenting on anything about a person’s appearance is not okay EVEN if it is not leering or overtly sexual if the ultimate takeaway is that women are only noteworthy because of what they look like or are wearing and men are noteworthy because of what they are working on. As a woman in a field traditionally dominated by men, it is discouraging to come away from a day of networking with lots of comments on my appearance while my male peers were asked what they are working on.

      3. Boof*

        I think it comes down to “can/do you say it to men and women equally” and if not, an excuse like “well only the women dress up!” doesn’t really fly.

        1. Paulina*

          Even if a specific person says it to men and women equally, it’s also about how much of it different people get, and how much is more professional. Someone who only gets the occasional compliment of their smile (for example) as a minor addition to professional comments can have an easier time shrugging it off than someone who gets it a lot more frequently and instead of professional comments.

      4. PT*

        It really depends on context. I worked somewhere that was generally a dress-down environment, but sometimes there’d be occasion for managers to dress up. So if there was a Big Big Big Meeting which happened once a year, it would get around that “Mark and Heather are in suits and they LOOK SO FANCY TODAY!!” And they would spend the whole day getting “lookin’ sharp!” and “you fancy!” from people wearing jeans and one-size fits nobody staff shirts.

        Meanwhile, some of our staff had permission as appropriate for their roles to wear shorts and tank tops. If you’d gone around saying “you look nice today” to them, that would have been creepy and inappropriate. (Unless, of course, you were someone who wore the same gender clothing who also had permission to wear shorts and a tank top for your role, and you’d like to know where they bought their clothes, in which case it was OK.)

    6. Jill*

      I feel like if we’re being told it made some uncomfortable it doesn’t really matter what they were commenting on. I had a professor in college that would only compliment student’s necklaces, and then comment on how hot scarves must be in the winter.

    7. jenny*

      This isn’t a useful way of looking at it. First, let’s take the LW at their word that the appearance compliments are not appropriate in a professional setting and should be addressed. Second, “gentle, kind and well intentioned” does not affect the impact on the person being complimented. The compliments you offer as genuine and benign would still skeeve me out to receive from an older man. There is no age cutoff for expecting appropriate behavior. Basically, please don’t argue that these are just harmless and shouldn’t be addressed. If YOU would be comfortable, that’s great, but please let other people decide what they are comfortable, or wildly uncomfortable, with instead of saying ‘you’re uncomfortable? I don’t see why – it’s probably not valid’

      1. Nicotene*

        Poor young me genuinely believed a guy who was 60-plus couldn’t possibly be hitting on my 22 year old intern self. There must be some other explanation for his behavior. I should be more patient, tolerant and understanding! He was from a different time and probably his comments were kindly meant!!

        Yeah dude was 100% hoping we might hook up for a quickie

        1. Artemesia*

          This happened to me many times as a young professional. It culminated in a noted luminary in my field who gave me a lift back to the hotel after a late meeting and pulled the car over and started pulling off my blouse. I totally did not expect it; I was married and 3 mos pregnant at the time and I think not ‘signaling’ availability of whatever excuse these jerks use; I felt lucky that he didn’t slag me professionally after I jumped out of the car and ran. This was extreme, but it is hard to over emphasize how dispiriting it is as a young professional to find that every expression of interest in your work seems to lead to being hit on.

        2. laser99*

          What I can never figure out is why an elderly man would think a young woman would be interested.

          1. Ana*

            Why does her opinion matter? /s
            Just search “ graph age men women find attractive” and be dissappointed. I still don’t get it how they can be so self-centered and unaware…

    8. Lacey*

      Yeah, I don’t take benign compliments from very old men to heart. I know that even pushing 40 I seem so young to them and that they just mean to be kind, even though they’re doing it in a particularly outdated way.

      And it’s for three reasons. 1. I know they mean well. 2. I sort of treat them like I might a person from another culture who was being unintentionally offensive 3. They’ll be dead soon and I’m not sure an unintentional insult is worth hassling people about that close to death

      1. jenny*

        That’s great for you – not as great to tell other people who ARE bothered to just get over it and not take it to heart though.

      2. Nicotene*

        You’re making the best of it and that’s no doubt the right choice for you in response to it happening, but I also have a choice if I’m hosting an industry event or conference, and I don’t want this person to be there highlighted as a Great Mind of the Field so that he can do this to young women whose background we don’t know and who could really take it to heart. Just because you or I could shake it off doesn’t mean we have to enable it happening to people just entering the field.

        1. fposte*

          Right, this is a chance to make the field better. It’s really not a big deal for men to stop complimenting the appearance of their female colleagues; I’m sure they can handle it.

          1. SarahKay*

            Years ago I worked in a restaurant and the owner wanted me to come in 5 mins early to heat the coffee machine so he could have his cup of tea. I said, “Sure, if you pay me”. He said ‘”It’s only five minutes” to which I replied “It won’t cost you much then”.
            If someone says something’s not a big deal…then it’s not a big deal for them to change. Right?!?

      3. Yorick*

        They don’t treat men this way, even when they’re way younger than you. Best case scenario, this guy sees women younger than him as little girls and compliments them the way he would his granddaughter. They’re there to mentor but aren’t offering any real mentoring to women.

      4. Clemgo3165*

        And maybe that’s an answer to how to talk about this with them – as if they’re from another culture. They really are, if you think about it. A gentle explanation, the same you would give if someone from another country made a faux pas, should do the trick if the person is well-intentioned.

      5. Cordelia*

        As a nurse, I might take that attitude when providing care to “very old men” who are in some way incapacitated and “close to death”, if its a well intended gentle compliment on my appearance. That is entirely different to men from an older generation who are attending professional network events as experts in their field. They can be expected to change their behaviour, why assume that they can’t? And why are their needs and comfort more important than young women making their career in the field?

      6. anonymath*

        Here’s how I think of it:

        1) On an individual level, this is the best approach for you to take. As an individual, you have limited control over the actions of others and you need to make your way in your profession.

        2) On a collective level, we need change. We are a collection of individuals then and it’s like dating at my very male-dominated engineering college: sure it’s fine for a guy to ask a gal on a date (being heteronormative here), but when you’re one of the few gals and are asked on 50 dates and hit on twelve times a day, it is not reasonable to deal with (your ability to go to class, eat dinner, form study groups, etc are all impacted). Or for those of you still dismissing that sort of thing, it’s like the veterinarian letter — the vet was happy to help a bit outside of work, pro bono, no problem, but was reaching the point of burnout and financial stress because 90 hours a week of helping (including weekends and evenings) with only 40 hrs/week paid is unreasonable.

        As someone involved with the professional society, point (2) is more relevant. “Hey, lovely old man, did you know that the young women you hope to mentor are all waiting for you to die so their professional lives can be better?” is probably not the most politic approach, but it’s accurate — and I’m sure these old guys would be rather horrified to hear it if they understood the context. I have a 90-something-year-old grandfather who is fully supportive of my STEM career, who also had to have a moment with a man he trusted so that he’d stop complimenting the nurses at the hospital on their good looks. Just ’cause he’s old doesn’t mean he’s stupid or entirely inflexible. Yeah he’s not going to change how he drinks his coffee, but he does actually want to be respectful of the people around him.

        Let us all please differentiate between individual best practices (gotta roll with it or confront it in the moment, depends on the situation) and what we want to do as a community (change the norms). In addition, splitting it this way helps people understand that the individuals affected are not the ones who must do all the heavy lifting. You can’t ask the one or two minoritized people (on whatever axis) to change the group. People not in the minoritized group(s) can and should engage effectively on changing the community.

    9. mreasy*

      Regardless, if this person is making “benign” appearance compliments to women only, they are indicating that they view the women and the men differently in a professional setting, which is unacceptable.

    10. Dust Bunny*

      I work with a lot of white, male, elderly doctors and with one notable exception that was swiftly and decisively handled by my employer, they always mean it paternally. But it still isn’t appropriate in a professional setting.

      I’m going through the papers of a particularly well-respected doctor right now and a lot of the correspondence is letters of recommendation for people seeking jobs: He routinely compliments female candidates on their appearance. The latest of these letters are from the 1980s so they’re old but not that old.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        And where I am, our supervisors would handle it. They wouldn’t expect lower-level employees to push back on people who are patrons/often donors (we’re a nonprofit).

      2. Artemesia*

        I remember reading a recommendation written for a young Edwin Hubble that commented on his manly well grown physique and it just was shocking because it is so unusual to see that sort of thing directed at men — A similar comment about a woman candidate would not jump off the page the way that did.

    11. I'm A Little Teapot*

      It doesn’t matter if it’s creepy or leering. In a professional context, if you wouldn’t say it to a male, you shouldn’t say it to a female. Full stop.

    12. MonMon*

      It’s not about the content of what was said. It’s not about if the comment is on their clothing, their facial features, or something completely ordinary like shoes.

      It is about the fact that the person making these remarks is drawing attention to a woman’s appearance in a professional setting. As a young woman, I would prefer if you acted like you weren’t looking at me at all. Any of the comments you just listed would make me feel uncomfortable coming from any male counterpart in a workplace, no matter their age. I don’t want to be ogled at when I’m at work, I just want to show up and do my job and be taken seriously as an equal while doing it. Making any comment about my appearance takes away from that, no matter how benign the intention is.

    13. Jules the 3rd*

      The letter writer is asking how to enlist the commenter in more professional interactions, not asking for editorial / conjecture on their current commentary. Assume the LW knows what they’re talking about, please.

    14. Stephen!*

      I had a supervisor say to a room of my peers that”oh, we’ll have to tell former employee that we replaced him with someone much better looking!” Which, as a woman, the third woman to ever be hired into that department, felt awful. It was jovial, it wasn’t “bad”… yet I felt diminished. And when I was sexually harassed by a coworker, I hesitated to tell my supervisor- remembering the comment, I did wonder if he would take my complaint seriously. It doesn’t matter the age of the person, they need to not treat women as decorative.

      1. Artemesia*

        This is classic. Women experience this hundreds of times in a career. It is the constant drip of this constant reminder that you are considered someone to brighten up a room and not a real professional that is so dispiriting. This is just absolutely the kind of thing that men can’t seem to understand as inappropriate and demeaning and so it happens endlessly.

      2. Student*

        Right after I was hired at a science job,I had a person at management-level (but not my manager) tell me that the company had only hired me because, out of the candidates available, I was the only one who could stand next to my Lab Boss and make it look like Lab Boss was the person in charge. I am a very short lady, a couple years younger than Lab Boss. Lab Boss was a guy who was relatively young for his position, a little bit shorter than average for men, and “baby-faced”.

        Definitely made me feel like crap, made me feel bad for Lab Boss, and made me extremely leery of the manager in question. The crappy manager who made the comment was also a woman – I wanted to shake her and say “What is WRONG with you, you should KNOW BETTER”, but I held myself back because, well, manager.

    15. Acronyms Are Life (AAL)*

      I feel that it isn’t exactly ‘nice dress’ but more like an older male coworker of mine that would say things that he didn’t mean to have bad intent but were just weird things to say. Like I used to sit between two male colleagues and he would walk by to talk to us and refer to me as a “rose between two thorns.” Or I think someone else here said something similar, in meetings he would say “let’s let the beautiful young lady speak” instead of “let’s let AAL speak.” I think guys would be slightly weirded out too if someone said “let’s let the strapping young lad speak” instead of referring to them by their name.

      As for talking to him, please pull him aside. Don’t do it in front of others it will make him defensive. Assure him that you understand he does not have bad intent, but his comments can be misconstrued by those who do not have the same rapport, and that because he is a senior member, that people may feel uncomfortable with raising concerns because they do not want to damage the relationship. Expect him to say that he didn’t mean it like that (because he likely doesn’t) and explain that sometimes things can be interpreted differently by a receiver. I bet he thinks he is being friendly and supportive and just doesn’t see it. It’s ok, it’s hard for people who don’t have that experience to not understand it until it’s explained to them. Which leads into my second idea, if you were saying/doing something that you did not realize could be offensive, how would you like someone to approach you and let you know?

    16. Sigh*

      If you say to a White friend, “I hate how X commented on how I speak, as if I were a performing animal,” and they responded with, “well that depends, did they call you “articulate” or did they say you were “well spoken”? I need to know the exact phrasing before I can decide whether you have a right to be upset,” how would you feel? Have you had this happen? I have, which is why I bring the example up.

      If women are made to feel uncomfortable by these soi distant compliments it does not matter what the precise phrasing was. It matters that women are being made to feel uncomfortable and our work devalued. If it helps you to have some empathy for us, please remember that by women here I mean all women, including Black women who have to deal with both the racism you deal with AND sexism including from the same Black men who should be supporting us.

    17. OP*

      He is just shy of 90. He is in no way creepy or lecherous. He truly means to be kind. In most interactions, you would take it as a compliment and recognize the source. Unfortunately, he has spoken up during zoom meetings/full meetings with these comments. So not an appropriate comment, and also at a really bad time. This would be akin to using congressional meeting time to comment on Nancy Pelosi’s dress.

      1. Artemesia*

        You said you have told him and he continues. How clear have you been? Have you said, ‘when you comment on women as attractive or as lovely young ladies, they feel they are being viewed not as competent professionals but as entertainment for men; it undercuts their professionalism. Please don’t make comments, even compliments, that focus on a woman’s appearance.’ If you try it that bluntly and it keeps happening, time to move on and stop including him.

        1. Jennifer*


          If being this blunt does not fix it and you keep prioritizing including him, then you have made the decision that his value is more important to you than the potential value of 50% of your younger generation of workers – the same people you’re trying to mentor.

          For reference: when I run into these men in a professional context I quietly disapear. I’ve learned that dealing with this sort of micro aggression short circuits my brain and just isn’t worth it to me, so when I encounter it (and I do) I then do my absolute best to never work with that person again.

          In the case of your professional organization that would likely mean I stopped participating completely.

          I’m good enough at what I do that I can draw that boundary.

          In a non-professional context I might even be friends with the guy, but I will not tolerate it professionally. It’s not worth my time, as it always comes with a whole slew of undermining and exhausting professional issues – whether from the guy, or from the environment that supports the guy.

      2. allathian*

        You have a relationship with the old man and have context that the young women who attend your conference don’t. His comments are inappropriate in a professional setting, whether or not they’re creepy or lecherous.

        I still fail to understand why you’re prioritizing his comfort over that of the young women you’re supposed to mentor. If you can’t get him to stop, either by getting him to change his behavior or by not inviting him to the conferences any more, I’d go so far as to say that you’re failing in your mission to mentor these women.

  6. Cthulhu's Librarian*

    I disagree with the letter writer that yelling at them isn’t a good solution, but I’ll answer as if I agree.

    Expecting them to change seems like a perfectly reasonable expectation – any time you start by saying someone can’t change, you’re almost always not giving them the chance to do so. What you can’t expect is them to change if they don’t receive any pushback and consequences for the action you want to see changed.

    So, push back on their behavior. You can do it kindly if you want to – ‘clearly you didn’t mean to it this way, but you need to not do this again because of how it can be interpreted’ – or you could do classes on how to be a mentor for them, maybe. But if you don’t push back about the behavior, it will continue, and then he will be useless as a mentor and advocate.

    1. Xavier Desmond*

      I agree that it is appropriate to push back as commenting on a woman’s appearance is not right in a professional setting but are you really suggesting that you would yell at a 90 year old man for saying ‘You look lovely today’ to a woman?

      1. I edit everything*

        Not only *would* yell at them, but expect it to be a constructive response? I don’t think that solution would help anyone.

        1. EventPlannerGal*

          I think that this is valuing the in-the-moment satisfaction of making the guy shut up over what the OP actually asked about, which is how to turn people like this into advocates. Yelling at older members of your professional organisation is not going to turn them, or most people listening, into advocates. Firmly shutting it down and making it clear that the behaviour is inappropriate – I really like Cthulu’s Librarian’s script – is going to be more constructive.

        2. RagingADHD*

          If we’re talking about literal shouting, doing that at anyone in a professional context is also going to completely derail and displace work being discussed. And directing it at a 90 year old is not going to enhance the perception of the yeller’s professional credibility.

          It would just make them look like a hostile and immature loose cannon.

      2. Long Furby*

        Right – because at least in my case, the comments were pretty benign, but the volume and persistence of them undercut the view of me as a professional. My colleagues often helped by chiming in (as they were frequently nearby when these comments occurred) like such:

        “It’s so nice to have such a pretty smiling face talking to the group. We need a lovely young lady here!”

        “Yes, Long Furby does valuable research on furbie manufacturing, does she not? We’re so lucky to have her expertise.”

      3. Cthulhu's Librarian*

        I took the context of yelling to be one of sternly reprimanding them, and establishing consequences for the behavior – not necessarily shouting/screaming at them.

        And no, I’m not suggesting I would do it – I am saying that I have to do it regularly with members of the general public – both about employees at my facility, and about other members of the general public. “No, you need to leave that person alone, or you will be banned from this public accommodation,” “No, you need to refer to staff members by name instead of as Sexy-Young-Thing,” and “That is entirely unacceptable, you are no longer welcome in this space” sadly gets said on at least an every other week basis.

        I so wish it could be less.

      4. The Other Katie*

        Context matters.
        A 90-year old man with Alzheimers in a nursing home? Yelling at him for complimenting you is probably not helpful.
        A 90-year old man who is still active in a professional organisation and participating with younger members under the guise of “professional mentorship”? A short, sharp reminder that it’s not really appropriate to compliment a woman’s appearance in a professional setting may be warranted.
        (Probably, however, the people being mentioned are not 90. I’ve had men as young as 50 do this, and when called on it they pretend it’s all kids these days and they’re too old to be expected to change. No.)

    2. Littorally*

      any time you start by saying someone can’t change, you’re almost always not giving them the chance to do so.

      I really like this take on it. Don’t assume he can’t change! If he can’t, he will demonstrate that amply.

    3. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

      Yeah, if the workplace norms have changed, you can’t expect somebody who’s retired to know about it!

      I would think an open letter to the entire community might be appropriate here.

    4. allathian*

      Yelling at them isn’t likely to be very constructive, and it is unprofessional. You can’t really expect others to follow current professional norms unless you do it, too. Raising your voice in a professional context is rarely appropriate, unless there’s an emergency. If someone’s collapsed on the floor it’s fine to yell “somebody call an ambulance!” while you rush to give first aid. Similarly, if your work involves dealing with potentially life-threatening situations, there are cases when issuing orders by shouting is appropriate, like in the military, or cops at a stakeout, etc.

  7. BB8*

    I’ve dealt with this some in my professional societies (I’m in the sciences, in a part of the sciences where the younger cohorts are now majority (barely) female). In my experience one of three things (sometimes in combination) can be helpful

    1 – Its ok to compliment anyone (not just women) on something they CHOOSE (like a nice shirt, a fun scarf, a great pair of shoes). But the compliment should be focused on that item, and how you love the choice that they made.

    E.g “Hi I really love that scarf, its such a great color!”

    2 – It can also be helpful to point out that if someone insists on continuing to compliment someone on their appearance more broadly ask them if they would be comfortable doing the same to their male colleagues. Chances are they would never think to tell a male colleague that he has a beautiful smile, or is looking nice today, and the idea might make them very uncomfortable. Ask them to reflect on that.

    3 – Does your professional society have a code of conduct or other standard for how members should treat each other? Make sure this kind of thing is included in there, that way you have the authority of the society to refer back to when talking to folks about why they shouldn’t/can’t do those things. That way its not just your opinion, but society policy.

    1. Qwerty*

      I was coming here to say something similar to all of this!

      It also helps to lead by example – give guys the type of compliments that you would find acceptable. Turns out that guys don’t get compliments often and really appreciate them! It also seems like some of this obtuseness regarding telling women they are pretty is rooted in a line of thinking of “why is she complaining, I would love to be told I look nice!”.

      You might not need to have a bigger conversation at first – I’ve made huge strides just by telling teammates things like “I like the lobster pattern on your shirt!”. After a few times, they DO start giving those same compliments to the other dudes. And then their compliments to the women also end up getting adjusted.

      1. Nicotene*

        Yeah there are comments saying it’s fine to compliment a fashion choice just not a body part, and sure baby steps, but I don’t know how often men are complimenting other men’s fashion choices; it still indicates that the role of women is largely decorative. Ideally, you’d find another way to strike up conversations with people of both genders (“is this your first time at this conference?” is a classic for a reason).

      2. Junebug*

        I’m pretty sure if I complimented a male colleague’s shirt, he’s think I was hitting on him.

        1. Boof*

          I commented I loved a dude I work with’s sneakers (because I did – they were shiny!). Nothing got weird; we just say hi to each other a lot.

          1. Artemesia*

            Huge difference between guy you work with every day and have evolved a professional relationship with and a stranger at a conference. I have never thought the comment ‘so nice to see a lovely lady at the table, it really brightens everyone’s day’ was anything but horrific — felt this way 50 years ago and it is still true.

        2. Kiki*

          Lol, being a woman in my 20s, anything I say will be interpreted as a come-on to a male colleague if he wants it to be true

          1. 50AndItHasn'tChangedYet*

            This will not change no matter what age you reach. If a guy wants to interpret something as a come-on, it will be interpreted without a second thought.

    2. Aqua Arrow*

      Yes, this is 100% what I was going to say, and you phrased it way better than I could have!

    3. Keymaster of Gozer*

      I got a bit of traction by asking one person at work (I’ve always worked in very male dominated environments) to consider not complimenting the women on their looks, but think about something they do, or a skill they have, or they way they phrase something etc. instead – because that’s more a compliment to the *person* and not the physical body they happen to inhabit.

      Err… okay that makes way more sense in my brain, but it did stop him from passing comments on mine and other women’s appearances for a while. Think he realised that a) the women and men both prefer that kind of remark and b) his viewpoint that women need constant reassurance of their attractiveness while working in more male dominated areas was completely false.

      1. Pomegranate*

        Women need constant reassurance of their attractiveness? Woah, is that a real thing some men think? holy shit, there was not enough psychology in my STEM degree!

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          It’s an often not stated but nether the less underlying attitude I’ve found in my many decades in this industry – they want to praise women doing the job but worry that sometimes we’re trying to make ourselves ‘too much like men’ in the process of fitting in and that it’s somehow good to remind us that we are in fact still attractive women doing a man’s job and…I dunno, that we’re not becoming too ‘bloke-like’ and neglecting our feminine strengths.

          That was, probably quite babbly but you get the idea.

          1. Quidge*

            Gosh, that makes a horrible kind of sense, actually – “I’m not those terrible people who think women in male-dominated fields are lesser because they’ve forfeited their feminity and therefore worth” comes blurting out as “you look really pretty today Jane!”

            1. Japinicat*

              I would view it far more cynically as ‘remember that your REAL place in life is to be sexually appealing’

              1. Jennifer*

                And I’d assume that sometimes you’re straight up right.

                And that sometimes it’s an incomplete and awkward failed course correction – that they had a split second “women belong at home” reaction which they then flipped into “but I’m not one of those men” and then “I need to reassure myself that I’m not one of those men”.

                Which then comes out as “and the lovely and beautiful Susan is here to tell us about Teapot Glazing today.”

                But mostly I think it’s that they only have three, maybe four boxes for women in their subconscious – and none of them are “professional colleague”.

                1. notyourcoworker*

                  You are correct! It almost seems like if men see an attractive woman and can’t somehow act on it, they feel like less of a man. It’s like they feel a need to make it known rather than keeping quiet about it.

    4. Mental Lentil*

      All of this. It’s perfectly okay to compliment someone about a fashion choice; it happens all the time at my job. (We have some really spiffy dressers, so I’m delighted when I get a compliment, because I have the fashion sense of an armadillo.)

      But complimenting them on their overall appearance? Just ugh. “Oh, you look so pretty today” kind of implies that you don’t look pretty on all the other days you don’t get this compliment.

      Also, would you turn to a male coworker and say “Oh, you look so handsome today”? If your answer is “no” then you shouldn’t be complimenting the women in this way either.

      1. starsaphire*

        Context is important, too. If I compliment a co-worker in passing or in the breakroom or whatever (“Jane, where did you get those gorgeous shoes?”) it’s very different than singling them out for an appearance-based comment after they’ve just given a presentation.

        I’m an older woman, and I frequently compliment male co-workers on things (usually nerdy things, like “I love the Dr Who tie!”) and not had it taken amiss. But, again, context – if we’re in the lunch room or corridor, sure, but not during a meeting.

        Also, if the *only* thing you ever comment on is appearance… that’s a problem.

      2. Aquawoman*

        I think your last question applies to all the compliments though. If a man only compliments young women on their clothes, and not men or older women, they are not really complimenting the clothes, are they? “Nice skirt” can also mean “nice legs.”

        1. mreasy*

          This is the problem. Complimenting the clothing choices on the “central” sections of a woman’s outfit can imply you’re complimenting how they look on her – eg chest, butt, figure in general. Complimenting a high heel could do the same re legs. Guys just don’t! Hats, fine, glasses, fine, earrings, why not. But otherwise you’re leaving her wondering. And please just don’t!

      3. tamarack and fireweed*

        … but even when this is about something that would be ok to comment on in most work situations, if you are a senior Big Head in your professional field, and are at an official meeting of a professional organization, dedicated to talking shop, that’s probably the least likely situation where commenting on *any* part of the appearance of $RANDOM_YOUNG_FEMALE_PROFESSIONAL is ok.

    5. Brett*

      I want to push back on #1, as a PoC male in a field where people of my ethnicity can be rare (and also because I am an unusual size for a man). It is not okay to complement me on my clothes. Not on their fit, absolutely not on how they coordinate with me (implying matching my skin, hair, eyes), not on the choice of a particular brand, etc. It feels incredibly patronizing when someone does that.
      _If_ the person knows me well, and knows my particular struggles with finding good work clothes or understands the meaning behind them (e.g. the cultural reasons why all my suits are brown), yes, I am okay with that. Otherwise, no, absolutely do not complement me on my clothing, haircut, etc.

      1. Jules the 3rd*

        Thank you for saying this. I wasn’t sure how to bring it up, but yeah, the complimenting of male PoC has some different concerns than complimenting white males.

        I am a white female, so I can not speak directly to the experience, but I have seen a Black colleague (Gary) who was complimented several times about his clothes by a white male colleague (Andy) who never commented on *any* other men’s outfits, but did comment on women’s. Gary pointed this out to me, and I watched, and yeah, that was happening. This was at a point where Gary was holding down two positions with good results and minimal training / documentation – there was a lot of work he was doing that was worth discussing.

        It’s subtle, but it’s an indication that Andy didn’t think of Gary as a fellow professional. Andy talked work issues with several white colleagues in my hearing, including “what’s hot on your plate right now?” It’s an easy question, but he never asked Gary that. Andy and I had about the same amount of professional interaction with Gary’s position, and I found it natural to chat with Gary about what was up with his work. (We do have 20ish other Black people in our 150ish people open office area, but Andy was in one corner, and Gary was the closest Black person to him; I didn’t see Andy’s much of interaction with other Black colleagues.)

        1. TIRED*

          Yep they are othering POC men if they do this. Thank you for sharing this Brett. It’s not OK to do this. For anyone thinking this has ONLY happened to Brett and he is an outlier, then re-read Jules the 3rd’s story about Andy othering Gary in the same way.

          1. allathian*

            That was an eye-opener for sure, thanks for sharing this Brett and Jules. It’s like white men default to discussing the looks of people they don’t take seriously in a professional context. How awful. I guess I’m just grateful that I’ve always been respected for my expertise in my current job…

            1. Brett*

              The way it seems to me, it is viewing men of color as junior professionals, e.g. “Oh look, you got your clothes right. Good for you,” or othering them as tokenized individuals, “Hey, that’s a different look [from a normal professional look],” which is different from actually understanding why that look is different.
              Both are forms of normalization of white male professionals: the first assumes that men of color are not familiar with the norms of professional life that white men follow (norms they should have picked up from parents who were working professionals, from college exposure, from early career etc) and the second assumes that someone who is not white male was hired to encourage diversity and not purely on their merit (even though we know that people are often hired for reasons other than pure merit).
              The junior professional aspect is the one I was particularly speaking to, and have run into rather frequently.

    6. TootsNYC*

      however, those comments about clothing are social comments. They shouldn’t come up in a setting or convo in which you wouldn’t say “how was your weekend?”

      So like, as you’re settling in, OK, maybe. But if you don’t know the person at the conference well, would you ask them “how was your weekend?” I wouldn’t.

    7. old biddy*

      I’ve had this discussion with my husband with regards to social situations. He’s a well meaning guy but damn it’s hard to get him to get over his internal programming that compliments on looks are good. I do think that a lot of it is that men rarely get compliments on their looks or clothes and don’t know how unwelcome it is in many situations. I made some headway on getting him to compliment the clothes/specific thing and to use the ‘would you say this to a guy’ test.
      I do get ragey when he can’t comprehend that people dress up for their own satisfaction/wanting to look nice, but that doesn’t mean that it’s open season for general compliments. He keeps asking about what if people expect to get complimented and aren’t.

    8. meyer lemon*

      If the compliments are relatively benign, I would probably be inclined to lean on the mentoring angle to explain why they’re inappropriate. These young women attend the events to improve their professional skills and make professional connections, and they need to be treated as professionals.

      Then again, for the confirmed creeps or anyone who is spoken to and doesn’t improve, I’d want policies in place to get them out of there. They’re failing in their role as a mentor if they can’t prioritize the younger members’ learning experience over their own impulses.

    9. Pants*

      This is perfect! I was trying to unjumble what was in my head but you said it so much better and had much more info. Perfect. Winner!

    10. Tara*

      I have in the past semi-successfully tried to reverse uno this, when creepy men give out of place comments about me looking ‘particularly lovely today’ *groan*, I would say thanks and talk at length about why I’d chosen to buy the dress / top / whatever I was wearing. They weren’t talking about the clothes or choices I’d made, but they felt too uncomfortable to say that directly.

  8. Audrey Puffins*

    When people compliment me on my looks (rarely, for I revel in my homeliness, which is probably why I never learned to just take a compliment), I tend to smile and say “thanks! Do I look smart/thoughtful/funny/kind too?”. It’s a really low-key way to point out that I have other values, and it doesn’t make the giver feel bad for saying something they intended pleasantly. Can this be adapted to the workplace? If you’re nearby when he says “that is a very pretty young lady” (or whatever), would a friendly “yes, and she’s extremely good at [work-related thing] too!” be a decent building block to start from?

    1. Nesprin*

      Nope. Gigantic nope.
      Ive been in the sciences a long time and i cant tell you how gutting it is to have my work reduced to “and she looks cute today”.

      I feel about my research the way artists feel about their paintings- painful time consuming works that i am deeply proud of and that ive put much of myself into.
      Receiving the attention of senior scientists in my discipline is rare, precious and career making- doubting wherther ive receved those legs up based on appearance or dress is profoundly undercutting to the self confidence i need to think that i can do something crazy like curing cancer.

      Please op, quash this line of thinking!

    2. scooby dooby doo*

      if you’ve ever actually said “thanks! do i look thoughtful too?” out loud to another human being not as a joke i’ll eat my hat. that just sounds bizarre.

      1. Allypopx*

        A lot of tone is lost in text this seems like situationally appropriate cheek to me I wouldn’t doubt someone has said it

      2. Le Sigh*

        I mean, that’s sort of the point, no? It’s meant to sound a bit jarring to get the attention of the other person and get them to recognize the point.

        1. pancakes*

          The point that compliments are so boorish as to have no place in any polite conversation? That’s a bit much.

          1. Le Sigh*

            no, not that specifically — scooby doo was saying it sounded so bizarre to say out loud that they didn’t seem to believe they’d said it. my point was just yeah, it might sound strange or offputting, but that’s kind of the point of those statements.

      3. pancakes*

        It definitely doesn’t seem low-key to me, and I don’t like the implication that it’s possible to tell whether someone is smart, thoughtful, or kind by looking at them. I suppose the point is to try to make anyone who talks about appearances in Audrey Puffins’s presence as uncomfortable as Audrey is, though, and I suppose it accomplishes that.

    3. RagingADHD*

      I would be extremely surprised if it truly doesn’t make the speaker feel bad, because that’s a pretty strong smack in the face. I doubt anyone would say or show to you that they were taken aback, but it comes across extremely snarky.

      I’m not saying it’s not warranted — I’ve done my share of snarky clapbacks when I felt it was needed. But if it’s not your intent, maybe change tactics.

      If your goal is to squash compliments, it would be extremely effective.

    4. Jules the 3rd*

      How about, “She’s actually [achievement in work-related thing], which has [some business impact].” I would not go along with their ‘pretty young lady’ at all, but rather politely redirect them to her skills immediately, and if possible rope them into supporting her professionally.

      “She actually automated our help section, leading to 60% more answers solved by search, leaving our support people to focus on more difficult questions and leading to a 10% improvement in customer sat. She’s here today to talk about how she determined the search and organizational parameters, and we hope to fold her process into the Industry Search Standards v.12.4. I believe you know the Standards chair, Dr. Smith, could you introduce them?”

      1. pancakes*

        This could work in some circumstances, but it requires the presence of an extremely knowledgeable bystander, and doesn’t address the overall problem. Women who don’t have such impressive metrics close at hand should be free of being leered at too.

        1. scooby dooby doo*

          this is a great point imo. even if someone is a poor worker or a bad person or whatever they still don’t deserve untoward comments or harassment.

    5. Amanda*

      I had a professor who, when told by a student, “Dr. Smith, I love your outfit today!” retorted, “Thank you, do you also love my three advanced degrees and multiple publications?” It was a very direct way to get her point across, and I wouldn’t use it in this situation where the power balance goes the other way, but I don’t think anyone in the class missed the point. I certainly no longer compliment the appearance of anyone I’m with whom I’m not very familiar.

  9. Rock Prof*

    I see this is a lot of disciplinary societies in academia. I think we hold people to wildly different standards between their discipline and their human interactions. Like, we expect the practitioners to keep up to date with their practice and disciplinary knowledge but then assume they’re too set in their ways to not say inappropriate things. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a great way to push back on this.

  10. bubbleon*

    For the people already asking “well what are people saying”, it doesn’t matter. Whether it’s well-intentioned “oh don’t you look lovely today dear” from a kind 80-something or leering from a 40-someting, the point is that it’s making women in the organization uncomfortable and it needs to stop. The end.

    It’s exhausting as a woman to constantly be told just to take a compliment, as if “you smell good” is the same as “you did a great job on the Wandsworth report.” Please, just take our word for it.

    1. Crivens!*

      Seriously. I don’t know what it is men who push back about this think it is they’ll be losing, unless the ability to comment on a woman in any situation ever is just that valuable to them.

      I don’t go to work to get complimented on my looks. Full stop.

      1. Lynn Whitehat*

        They would lose the ability to blurt out whatever’s on their mind, without having to take into account how it’s being received. I’ve noticed, that’s what all pushback of this type boils down to. “So I would have to *think about* how someone else who views things *differently* than I do will take something? Ahead of time?”

      2. Mynona*

        At least on this post, a lot of the “men” pushing back are actually women who probably think of themselves as empowered and still want to be complimented on their appearance and don’t understand why it’s a problem. This is what upsets me most about these conversations: the women who really are so totally blind to their own internalized misogyny, young women too.

        1. MK*

          I haven’t seen a single comment from anyone saying they want to be complimented on their appearance. Just people drawing a distinction between commenting on someone’s looks and complimenting their fashion choices.

          1. Tali*

            But that distinction really doesn’t matter here. Two women in the breakroom complimenting each other’s shoes is one thing, a 90-year-old man complimenting a younger woman’s shoes in the middle of a work meeting is quite another. The former, while it may take place at work, is a social conversation between equals, not a work one. The latter is an established senior member talking to a junior member in the middle of a work conversation.

            It is acceptable to compliment fashion choices of your close friends and colleagues and those you know socially. It is not acceptable, in any industry I know of, to compliment someone’s appearance in any way in the middle of a work meeting, or to highlight their appearance as if it is decoration for the room. People focusing on looks vs. fashion are disregarding context because they don’t want to examine their own habits.

            1. Tara*

              “Highlight their appearance as if it is decoration for the room” is exactly it. Thank you, great phrasing.

            2. MK*

              I agree with you about what is appropriate and I don’t think I’ve seen a single person here say anything different. I think people are just being very uncharitable to the other commenters. I was specifically responding to this: “women who probably think of themselves as empowered and still want to be complimented on their appearance and don’t understand why it’s a problem.” I don’t think there are any women who “probably think of themselves as empowered” or who “still want to be complimented on their appearance” commenting here.
              It’s more than fair to say the looks vs. fashion debate has sidetracked what the post was supposed to be about, but I don’t like the misrepresentation of what other commenters have said. They’re just pondering the nuances of the topic in general, not saying the letter writer didn’t have anything to complain about.

    2. Jennifer Strange*

      THIS. You will never hear someone say that to a man in the same situation, so it’s diminishing the worth of a woman to her appearance rather than her skills.

      1. Nicotene*

        Next I’d like to work on “So-and-so (f) is so nice/sweet/kind/warm” but … baby steps.

        1. Panhandlerann*

          Indeed. When I was younger and looked even younger, I would get “She’s so sweet” all the time. I absolutely hated that.

    3. londonedit*

      Absolutely. These people would never go into a meeting and say ‘Oh, isn’t it lovely to be meeting so many handsome young men!’ but I can imagine they think it’s perfectly acceptable to say ‘Oh, isn’t it lovely to be meeting so many pretty young ladies!’ They probably do think it’s a compliment. They probably don’t see how it’s problematic. But it is problematic, because it perpetuates the ‘young women are just there to pretty up the place, they don’t do actual work’ attitude that leads to women always being asked to get the coffee or tidy the cups away or run off and photocopy something while the men have the ‘real’ discussion, even when those women are the subject experts at the meeting. It is exhausting for people to say ‘Oh, just take it as a compliment’ because it’s not ‘just’ a compliment, it’s part of an attitude that holds women back and it has no place in the 21st century.

      1. PT*

        When I ran senior fitness classes, we actually would get comments like “so many handsome young men!” if we had male instructors (a lot of our instructors were volunteers from a local college) and yes, I would try to put the kibosh on them just like I would if we had men making icky comments about female instructors.

        But it is tricky, because by definition senior fitness classes are 90% female due to the life expectancy gap and they’re often taught by younger senior women. They tend to get this silly “just us girls” Judy Blume Novel dynamic that is surprisingly hard to combat from a program-management perspective, because it’s part of the camraderie that brings people to class. I still didn’t like it when it involved dragging in the unconsenting.

        1. zaracat*

          We had that going on at my aqua fitness classes and it made me very uncomfortable (I’m a 56 yo woman). I could tell it made the men it was directed at uncomfortable as well – men may well say “they’d love to be complimented” but it turns out that when it actually happens, they *aren’t* that happy about being objectified or made the subject of sexism comments and jokes.

          1. Tabby*

            This actually reminded ne of a recent interview wirh Danny Pino that I was watching. He’s an excellent actor, and yes, rather startlingly handsome. He’s also startlingly uncomfortable with being bombarded with “YOU’RE SO HOT/HANDSOME/SEXY! *heart eyes emoji*” every five seconds. Usually he deflects and ignores it really well, but in that interview done via Instagram, there was a look he gave that was markedly ANNOYED (I had to laugh, because up until this interview, he hadn’t ever shown the slightest hint of irritation, but homie was OVER IT that day. Of cours,no one seemed to take the hint, because why wouldn’t he want to be told how handsome he is, ad nauseum, by women he doesn’t know?). They were talking about the show Rent going to Cuba, which is pretty historic! But here were all rhese people acting like the man was there to be eye candy! One person even said, “Come on, folks, stop.” Totally, people need to read the room.

    4. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I think intention does matter some though in the approach used to correct the unwanted comments. For the kindly meant bus misdirected compliment one would focus on guiding the well meaning person in how to better compliment and mentor the younger group.

      For the leering jerks, it’s more about shutting them down and making very clear they are fishing in the wrong waters – and may find themselves pushed out if they can’t conform to societal standards.

      1. bubbleon*

        their intention matters only if you’re trying to tailor a reaction to it. it doesn’t impact the fact that it should stop.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          That was what I was trying to say – it needs to stop regardless. How you approach the person whose behavior you want to reform can be adapted to take their intentions into account. More of a the social rules have changed – here’s the new ones educational approach for good intentions but bad approach; with the more leering folks it can be a far more blunt “this needs to stop yesterday” approach.

        2. Simply the best*

          OP *is* tailoring a specific reaction to it. Simply responding to her question with “it needs to stop” is A) not answering her question and B) not particularly helpful seeing as she already knows that.

          Knowing what kind of comments they are can change the advice. If they’re nasty and leering, OP may need to give up on the idea on changing minds and just shut it down. If they are individual benign but still unwanted and inappropriate compliments from a few individuals, OP or someone she feels has better standing can maybe speak with them. If they are compliments made at the beginning of presentations (“and now the lovely Ms X will present on Y” for example), presentation guidelines can be created and enforced.

    5. singlemaltgirl*

      it’s depressing as hell that even in this comments section, we’re having to educate anyone on why this is inappropriate, unprofessional, and NOT okay. wtf? and this is just 40 comments in. several posters, right off the top explained why it’s problematic and we’re still having people question why? and what good would it do to call out this behaviour in a kindly old man? i just can’t today.

      1. Sparkles McFadden*

        I know… It’s crazy. The LW stated the issue very clearly and is asking for advice and is getting crap in the comments section to rival the original crap she wrote in about. The LW has PROVE it’s a problem?

    6. Aquawoman*

      +1. I couldn’t help but notice the paragraph and a half about this guy’s feelings without a commensurate amount of time spent on the feelings of the probably-many women he’s left demoralized by objectifying them. What he’s doing is a bad thing; that is not saying that he’s a bad person and having to spend time on that is a lot of unnecessary emotional labor.

      Also, there is a whole “older white men cannot be expected to get with the times,” which, if true, suggests that they shouldn’t be running things anymore? Companies, countries, what have you?

      1. pancakes*

        Yes – to the extent they’re as slow on the uptake as they’re made out to be, they need to get out of everyone else’s way instead of clinging on like barnacles.

    7. Le Sigh*

      People who want to litigate what exactly was said are exhausting. Yes, a single compliment or joke, on its face, may or may not be a problem. Much more often, the issue of what was said is only a fraction of the problem and focusing on that ignores the volume of what people are dealing with and the way it undermines people, wears them down, and leaves them exhausted from the totality of it. It’s like a steady water drip wearing down a stone — one drip is whatever, maybe five drips is annoying, but after years of steady dripping, the stone is a worn-down nub. And when people proactively ask for help stopping or slowing or managing the drip, they have to justify it and defend their own damn experiences instead of getting real tools for the solution. So they clam up and feel more worn down, or they get angry and everyone tells them they overreacted.

      That doesn’t even touch on the fact that so many commenters won’t take LW at face value, as if they instead get to be arbiters of what is offensive or a problem. How often have we seen white-identifying people do this around racist comments, as if they somehow have more authority to judge a situation than the people who live it? It’s derailing and takes the focus off the bigger question and the real problems — and people, including in this comments section, who do this should really interrogate why this matters to them so much and what it is they think they’re accomplishing.

      1. Jay*

        My current boss started with us precisely a year ago. I’ve never met him in person. For the first three months he was in the job, every 1:1, every small-group meeting, and probably 50% of the larger group meetings featured him making some kind of remark about women. It was always in the jokey genre of “look how smart the women are/us dumb men need to be kept in line/hah hah hah.” DROVE ME BATTY. I was intensely aware every time that I am a woman and he is a man. He never said anything demeaning, he never mentioned anyone’s appearance, he never said anything “wrong” – and it was wildly inappropriate nonetheless. I’m an MD. I’m 60 years old. When I was in medical school, the locker rooms in the OR said “DOCTORS” and “WOMEN” on the doors. So yeah, it used to be worse – and that doesn’t make this kind of crap OK.

        After three months, I happened to have a private conversation with the other woman MD in the group and we immediately realized that we were both deeply uncomfortable and we both thought it was just us. We went to his boss, she went to HR, and it stopped.

        1. zaracat*

          Haha that locker room labelling thing hasn’t gone away entirely even now. I’m a female doctor working as a surgical assistant in the Australian private health system in a major capital city. One day in the early 2000’s I worked for the first time at a small suburban hospital and when I saw the change room labelled “doctors”, naturally I went in! Much to the horror of the male doctor I encountered who was half naked (cue eye roll from me, I mean seriously, what do we both see every single day in the course of our jobs …. ?). Anyway, turns out that “doctors” change room really meant men’s change room, and the women’s change room was the (windowless, cupboard-like) room marked “nurses”.

  11. mreasy*

    Have the most senior person possible address this privately with the people making the comments. Let your team know separately that you find it inappropriate and are addressing with them. Let your team members know that you are supporting them as professionals, period.

  12. anonymouse*

    Here is another approach, but I’m afraid I’m going to awkwardly explain it. Please hang in there, while I try, but what about:
    “Oh, you don’t have to compliment women on their appearance anymore. I know it used to be a thing, like part of the introduction, “hello, Sarah, you look very pretty today.” We don’t expect you do that it. We just want to talk business as much as you do.”

    I don’t know if it throws the older generation of women under the bus, like “I know THEY did” because I want a more “You missed how THEY fought for you to stop this” vibe, so I’m open to criticism, editing.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      I wouldn’t interpret this as throwing older women under the bus since they had to expect it whether they liked it or not.

    2. Threeve*

      For sure. A message like this definitely ruffles fewer feathers when instead of “norms have changed,” you make it “norms have changed relatively recently.

    3. Student Affairs Sally*

      I worry about the “you don’t HAVE to do this anymore” framing, because I think the men who are guilty of this would think either a) “I know I don’t HAVE to, but I want to!” This could even still be coming from a “kind” place, thinking that these compliments brighten our day, without realizing that we don’t want them to compliment us in this way/in this setting; or b) that it’s akin to the trope of a woman saying she doesn’t want a birthday gift when she actually does, which I don’t think actually happens much in real life but it definitely shows up a ton in media portrayals of women and relationships.

      I think it’s really important that we name this behavior for what it is – inappropriate, uncomfortable, and unprofessional, even if it was well-intentioned.

      1. Aquawoman*

        Maybe, “you’d be better off skipping the compliments nowadays” would be a better phrasing.

        1. old biddy*

          As a 50 year old, I prefer this to implying that now older women might still expect it.

          1. Aquawoman*

            As a 55 year old, I find that these kinds of “benign, neutral” compliments from men don’t come my way nearly as often anymore. Go figure.

          2. anonymouse*

            Being in your cohort, that was the part of my own answer I found problematic.
            I want to find a way to state, “Dude. Nobody wants you do to this anymore. Yes, we all got together. Yes, we took a vote. Stop.”
            Maybe more like, “everyone just…” but there again, see Sally above who points out this leaves wiggle room for “oh, it’s no bother, I want to!”

    4. Barbara Gordon*

      My worry with this approach is that “you don’t have to do that anymore” doesn’t go far enough. I can see where it would be easy for one of the older men doing this to think, “Well, I don’t *have* to do it anymore, but I like doing it/the young ladies like it/whatever other reasoning so I’ll continue”

      1. SgtWidget*

        “Oh, you don’t have to compliment women on their appearance anymore. I know it used to be a thing, like part of the introduction, ‘hello, Sarah, you look very pretty today.’ We don’t expect you do that it. We just want to talk business as much as you do.”

        I like the overall tone of this and it could be adopted for an older male ally to pass it on, if that’ll be received better. If it’s coming from an ally type position, could it be useful to add something about, “if you know anything about what they’re working on, I know compliments on that front can be a huge boost for our younger members”?

        That gives a direction for the well-intentioned to go in and lets them know that there’s a way for them to extend compliments that would not only be welcome, but that They, in their Status as the Old Guard of the Society, can do this thing that will have particular value to the younger generation.

  13. I edit everything*

    For people like the example, I think something like this might work: “I admire all the mentoring and guidance you’re offering younger people in the profession. I know many of them/us would love your advice on [X, Y, Z], more than the comments on their/our appearances–unless, of course, someone is about to give a speech with spinach between their teeth!”

    Compliment/gratitude, then a specific request about what’s helpful, makes the correction both gentler and more actionable. Then a little joke at the end to defuse any discomfort–and it’s a comment on appearance that would apply to both men and women.

  14. SeattleSue*

    Does it actually bother the people he is complimenting. If so, they can tell him. If not, mind your own business.

    1. Crivens!*

      It is likely to bother a significant number of people. Rather than ask every single person an inappropriate man interacts with if they were made uncomfortable, would it not be easier to ask inappropriate men to stop being inappropriate?

      1. ThatGirl*

        Also, a younger woman who’s new to her field may not feel like she has the standing to say something about it! Lots of us swallow uncomfortable feelings to spare social awkwardness, which is of course part of the problem.

    2. Jill*

      Ah yes, to have the confidence of a new-to-my-field 24 year old telling off a well-established 90 year old retiree/possible mentor, no one needs advocates anymore.

    3. Jennifer Strange*

      If the OP is hearing about it second-hand (which was the case in the example) then it likely bothered someone, making it their business. Also, it’s possible the person being complimented will say it’s fine because they’re afraid of being perceived as “difficult” if they complain. You can still address the fact that this is happening frequently and shut it down for any future members who WILL be bothered and WILL bring it up.

    4. Nesprin*

      I wish i had been issued the armor of general bitchiness i have now when came out of college, but no. I was a tender young thing and completely unsure of myself And I would have been terrified to speak up. And would have spent the night worrying that maybe im only there for my appearance.

      1. Pippa K*

        The ‘armor of general bitchiness’ is exactly the mental image I need sometimes, so thanks for that! I shall accessorise it with the Lance of Pointed Humour and a nice handbag.

    5. tinybutfierce*

      Or maybe the dude who is being objectively unprofessional could stop doing that, regardless of anything else, because that’s what he should do.

    6. Mieki*

      It’s bad form to compliment professional women (and women in general) on their appearance, particularly in a professional setting. You don’t need to take a survey to find out who was offended. This sort of thing is everyone’s business. That is, if you want women to be taken seriously as professionals, and not just as décor.

  15. MightyRosebud*

    I disagree with the idea that older people can’t always change entirely and that we need to continually let things like this roll. You can start by addressing these things in blogs and newsletters. You could even send an email about it. Make it part of your ID&E efforts. If you don’t have ID&E efforts, you should start incorporating them. I’d also look at SHRM for more advice on this. Also, stop referring to women as females. We’re women. When you use female to conflate it to woman, it erases gender non-conforming people and member of the trans community. It’s dehumanizing and exclusionary.

    We recently had a townhall at my 6k+ person company and when the president’s chief of staff handed the call over to him, he remaked on her wardrobe. The women on my team were furious, esp, since this guy touts himself as an ally. Towards the end of the call, he stopped and said, “I need to address something I said earlier on this call. I’ve been called out on it and I need to correct it. I remarked on Sally’s appearance, when I should have focused on her great work and all that she brings to her role. I apologize, Sally. I promise to do better.” We were floored! It’s rare that men in leadership roles acknowldge things like this, let alone in real-time.

    1. Damn it, Hardison!*

      Wow, what a great way to handle that! I hope that made an impact on others who might otherwise not think twice about what he said.

    2. Formica Dinette*

      Yes to addressing this in blogs/newsletters/email! It sends a message to both the older men doing it and the women on the receiving end.

    3. mf*

      Wow, I’m impressed that this man admitted his mistake and publicly apologized. That, to me, is a sign of a good leader.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, and it also shows that he is the ally he says he wants to be. Decades of conditioning and habits that used to be acceptable can be hard to eliminate entirely even if you really want to do it, but the fact that he apologized publicly for what he said might actually drive the point home better than if he’d been simply a supportive person. It will also probably make it easier for him to avoid saying these things in the future. The wish to avoid embarrassment is a great behavior modifier.

  16. That's Just My Face*

    Him: Jennifer is really pretty.
    You: Did you see her presentation on jet propulsion? I hope she comes by so we can ask about her research!

    A quick subject change – especially if you’re always moving from X to Y – can get the point across if you’re not into direct confrontation.

    1. High Score!*

      Or just say, “Pete is pretty too, but since this is a professional society, let’s recognize their contributions instead. Jennifer’s presentation was well thought out and I enjoyed her breakthrough comments on fuel efficiency!”

    2. Higher Ed*

      I was thinking the same thing. If you’re in a position to advocate for “Jennifer” by bringing up one of her accomplishments, do so!

  17. No Tribble At All*

    For all y’all who doubt that this happens, I’ve seen it at almost every professional event I’ve attended except for ones specifically for women in engineering. I’ve seen it when the guest speaker or a panelist is a woman (“and let me welcome to the stage the most beautiful member of the committee, Hermione Granger!”) I’ve been on the receiving end of it when raising my hand to ask a question (“yes, the lovely young woman in the front”) and it gets real old. Even if it’s meant as a compliment, stop commenting on women’s appearances. Just stop it.

    1. Nicotene*

      Sadly I’ve even fallen into doing it myself (as a woman speaking of/to other women, or female children). It so such an ingrained habit. Now I make a point of practicing other gender-neutral positive adjectives.

  18. cosmicgorilla*

    Are any educational emails/news letters/blog posts/videos being sent out? I recognize that some of the oldest members may not be as apt to use these things, but I’m thinking first, you address the audience in broad terms. Talk about the changing rules of business etiquette, and outline inappropriate vs appropriate compliments in a communication (or multiple communications, and multiple communication vectors). Plant the seeds Then, next time kindly old man says the wrong thing, then you can fall back on, “I don’t know if you saw the article in the snailmail newsletter last week, but we’re asking that our mentors stick to compliments about skillset/accomplishments/things directly related to society.”

    1. Cranky Lady*

      Yes, and take it up a notch. An email from the Board. Don’t make this an add-on to the weekly newsletter. This needs it’s own call out from leadership.

  19. Sam I Am*

    To the receptive ear: “You know, it’s fallen out of fashion to say x. Saying x represents y. I first learned this a little while ago, when I read a.”

    1. Dust Bunny*

      I would not go here because it implies that the current trend is a fad, and there will always be guys who pride themselves in being “old-fashioned gentleman”, and this phrasing gives them a ready-made loophole.

      1. Sam I Am*

        It definitely implies language norms change over time, and they do.
        Sub in “we no longer say” at the beginning of you like, but in my circles this would be heard as more of a dressing down. I chose the opening phrase to keep it friendly, which absolutely is in different styles with different people, so ymmv.
        And of course, this is for the receptive ear.

      2. Reba*

        Yes, I understand Sam I Am’s script is meant to give the older member some cover by acknowledging changed norms, but I worry that this would invite grousing about being “politically correct” people these days are so sensitive etc. etc.

        That said, the formula “I recently learned about X, you should consider it” is good, it’s a sort of collaborative framing that I have found to be effective.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I wouldn’t go there–I’d say, “it send a message to women that they are mostly valued for their looks, and it’s very demoralizing to them. It can be very harmful, too, because that subtle message goes to everyone in the room.”

      Be specific! Point directly to the actual problem. It’s harmful.

  20. That'sNotHowYouSpellThat*

    I’m wondering if your society has an forums about “how the industry has changed since ___” and if there’s a way to address it there, pointing out that any comments on anyone’s appearance are not professional and can cross lines.
    Also, the LW can encourage others to change the subject back to work topics, the person being complimented’s experience in the field, etc. when they hear these types of remarks or even to directly remind the commenter that what they’re saying has nothing to do with the field and how it comes off. The more people who challenge this, the more likely that change that will occur.

    1. NotMyRealName*

      I’ve generally found that the people who need to attend those forums the most, don’t.

  21. Meg*

    Does your society have staff, or a board of directors? I work for an association and we have a harassment policy for our events, and in the past our CEO had to “counsel” someone who was sexually harassing staff. He ultimately was banned form attending events. What you’re describing is slightly different, but I think society staff or even board members would be well placed to have that conversation. Then it’s not coming from a random person, but with someone who has authority/a leadership position.

  22. Paris Geller*

    There’s only 49 comments on this post as I start writing this comment, and already there seem to be a lot of “What exactly is so offensive/there’s actually not a problem here as long as people aren’t being creepy/etc.” questions–can we put a moratorium on that, please? It’s not helpful and women in male-dominated workplaces face this kind of scrutiny and subtle sexism all the time. Sure, maybe the actual comments aren’t creepy, but if the women are being complimented on their appearance and outfits rather than the actual work they do in the field, it’s a big problem. Full stop. The last thing women need is others questioning their perception of a sexist problem.

    1. Paris Geller*

      Alison, if you’re so inclined, is it possible to request maybe a stickied comment on the top of the comment section to get people to stop speculating about this particular aspect of the issue? I’ve known you’ve occasionally done it for other sexism-related topics when you thought it warranted.

  23. Bee Eye Ill*

    I work in a male-dominated industry where we have a group of over 20 workers and only 2 of them are female. One just got a new haircut and I was tempted to at least acknowledge it, but decided not to just because we shouldn’t be focused on appearance. BUT…there’s also things like office dress codes, professional vs. business vs. casual attire and all the gray areas that go with that, and that does bring some attention to appearance.

    1. londonedit*

      If you’d just as happily give a breezy ‘Hey, great haircut!’ to a man, then there’s no problem saying it to a woman. But if you’re saying ‘Wow, Jane, that new haircut of yours is seriously sexy’ or ‘Ooh, I love a woman with short hair’, or you’re introducing someone at a meeting with ‘I’ll hand over to Jane, who by the way is looking absolutely ravishing with that new haircut of hers’…nope. That’s how NOT to do it.

      1. londonedit*

        (I realise that probably sounds like I’m talking to you in particular, Bee Eye III – I mean it more as ‘if one is saying…’)

      2. Bee Eye Ill*

        People take compliments differently. You might say, “I like your new haircut” but what she hears is “I want to nail you” even if that wasn’t the intention. It’s best just not to say anything.

        1. Sigh*

          I completely disagree with you and so I very much agree with you.

          If “I like your new haircut” comes with an eyebrow waggle and a grabby hand motion, it means something VERY different from a conversational, “btw I like your new haircut” at the end of a chat, and women, who are on average no less rational than men on average, can tell the difference.

          However if your experience of complimenting people on their haircuts is that they take it as a come-on, while you re-evaluate just how you say “I like your haircut” you probably should take some time off from saying it at all.

        2. mf*

          Trust me, women know the difference between the guy who says “I like your haircut” and means it vs. the guy who says “I like your haircut” and actually means “I want to nail you.”

    2. The Happy Graduate*

      There’s a difference between complimenting someone’s choice of appearance in a casual, “pass-by-your-desk-and-noticed” comments between friendly coworkers (emphasis on friendly), and detracting focus from someone’s work and accomplishments in a strictly professional setting between essentially strangers, especially when the person making the comment has more seniority/respect.
      It’s fine to comment on a noticeable change in appearance or say they got a new blazer that you really like the colour of if you’re already friendly with each other and it’s a casual setting. It’s not fine to comment on someone’s appearance in a setting where the whole entire point of you even being in the same room as them is to share knowledge, network, learn about the field, etc. Especially so when the same comments are almost never directed at both genders, which adds to the issue.

      1. calonkat*

        Agreed. I spent money on clothes online during the lockdowns, and for the first time ever, 2 people at work complimented my clothes (and asked for the company name, so there was a purpose to the comments). Both female, both have worked with me for multiple years and knew what I dressed like before and were recognizing that this was a change. NO ONE who didn’t know me before the lockdown has complimented my clothing and that is a good thing.

    3. TootsNYC*

      I think that’s the comment you make at a time when you might say, “how was your weekend?” or “did you ever get your water heater fixed?”

      It’s a personal, social comment, and it should only be made at a personal, social time.

      We’re not in person right now, and we’ve said things like, “Hey, did you get a haircut, or did you just pull it back? It looks great!” or “look at that barn in Michael’s backyard, over his shoulder there.” or “gee, your deck looks like a great place to work from” or “I like that T-shirt.” At the beginning of Zoom meetings while we’re gathering. When it’s not work.

  24. ATX*

    Perhaps a “times have changed, here’s what’s appropriate and not appropriate these days” meeting is necessary?

    1. stopmakingsense*

      I agree because I think the best way to address this is not playing whack-a-mole with individuals but to address it wholesale with the entire organization. Try to enact a code that says “It is considered unprofessional and inappropriate to make comments about people’s bodies, attractiveness and physical qualities. As a professional organization, we want to focus on the skills, knowledge, experience, intellectual and behavioral qualities of our members and peers.”

      1. MissInTheNo*

        Yes, I never understood why sny people employ the whack a mole approach. Why not get everyone on the same page about it at the same time?

  25. HailRobonia*

    I love it when men say “it’s not a sexual thing, it’s just a compliment!” I bet these same men would never compliment a guy on his appearance in the same manner. Sure, they might say “sharp suit” or something but never “wow, you look great today!”

    1. Littorally*

      Can confirm: the compliments tap turned right off as I transitioned. There were definitely times I wished I could call it out — “Last year, I was ‘the lovely’ Littorette, now I’m just plain old Littorally?” but sadly that takes more chutzpah than I’ve got.

  26. Sled dog mama*

    Wow, OP I think we might belong to the same professional organization. If so I can say that the biggest thing is advocate for the change, vote for female/minority/unrepresented group candidates when they run for offices. Promote their talks, encourage older members to engage with them, encourage older members to keep up to date on changes in the field.
    In my field I am an expert in some of the newer techniques but I find it difficult to engage with older members of the field as they want to tell me how things were in the good old days rather than have any substantial conversation about now or going forward. I end up having many conversations where older member is seemingly put off by my lack of experience with X. X was cutting edge 25-30 years ago but really fell out of use 15-20 years ago and has been replaced by Y (which I am an expert in) and Z seems to be very promising too.
    Maybe speak with one or two of the older members you are best acquainted with and get them to do the same things. You don’t necessarily have to tell (most) people that complimenting a woman on her appearance in a professional context is inappropriate, if you go about making sure that older members have something else to say to younger members.

  27. LDN Layabout*

    For everyone saying the world’s changed etc. I’d like to point that I have stories from my grandmother (when she was the first woman to work in a STEM organisation who wasn’t a secretary) about how angry she was about the treatment she got, even when it was meant to be ‘a compliment’.

    These comments, well-intentioned or not, have been a thorn in the side for women for generations now. The very least that can be done is to stop excusing them.

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      I mean, when people say the world’s changed what they really mean is that now people are being held accountable for bad behavior.

  28. Knope Knope Knope*

    I’m also curious about exactly what was said. Why does the OP assume it was well-intentioned? Who brought it to OP’s attention and what was the context? There seems to be a big gap between yelling at someone and turning them into an advocate, yet both are tossed around as responses. This could be read as either OP trying to do the right thing but glossing over something truly serious like harassment or a genuine and simple misalignment with current standards and expectations that can be corrected. I am not really sure which it is without more details, but I have a different response for both.

    This gets more complicated to distinguish because there are men who will act in this gray area to gain plausible deniability. For instance, “That’s a lovely dress” can be generally harmless as a single comment. It’s true that this isn’t something men have to deal with as a distraction from their work in the way women do, and someone who is simply oblivious to that fact can probably be turned into an advocate. On the other hand “That’s a lovely dress,” said while staring directly at a woman’s chest is a whole different thing that needs a whole different response.

    1. mediamaven*

      I agree- I feel like it’s a tough call without knowing exactly what the comments are.

    2. Wisteria*

      We could take OP at face value and assume they know the difference between well-intentioned comments and plausible deniability.

      1. Knope Knope Knope*

        I guess I am just skeptical that this guy is so well-intentioned that he can be turned into an advocate. A third party witnessed the comment and was bothered enough that they felt the need to bring it up to OP. Sadly, many guys choose the benign-sounding comment so they can claim ignorance. Yes, it is totally a problem that women are given the message repeatedly that their value stems from their appearance, but it is also a problem that men inappropriately sexualize women in ways they can cover up precisely BECAUSE that message is so common.

        I personally have had a boss give me the “nice dress” comment in a way that felt off but that I couldn’t describe at the time. You could talk to him all you want about gender equality and he would have probably had the perfect response and plenty of people would have called him well-intentioned, even an advocate for women. But he probably still would have cornered me at drinks one day and stuck his hand down my pants.

        My point is, there are many problems that stem from this kind of commenting behavior and they don’t all require the same approach to fix. And there are men (maybe women, but in my experience it is men) who really try to play this to their advantage. You don’t want to give someone like that more power or authority in this situation. It’s better to be direct and call it out.

        There are also men who, well-intentioned as they seem, aren’t sexualizing women for their own pleasure but are simply happy to benefit from the power imbalance that exists when women are valued for their appearance. And without knowing someone very, very well, it can be hard to tell who is who.

        That said, the advice I see to keep working to bring women to positions of power and authority within the org is a great one, and one I suspect will have the most impact regardless of this particular man and his intentions.

        1. Knope Knope Knope*

          Also to be clear, I am not trying to blame or second guess OP. I just think as women we are conditioned to be accommodating and it can be hard to break out of that mindset.

          1. Wisteria*

            You are not *trying* to 2nd guess OP — but you are. You are assuming that you can better discern what happened in this interaction than she *even though she knows the dude in question and you don’t.* Let’s take her word for it that this guy (and there are multiple guys, she just chose one most recent example to give). was well-intentioned.

            1. Forrest*

              But the thing is, that makes it easy. If someone is well-intentioned, you just tell them to stop and they do because they don’t want to upset anyone. But frequently, “he’s well-intentioned” is code for, “he’s not well-intentioned but because of his status we have to pretend he is.”

              1. Cordelia*

                yes, if they are well-intentioned you can explain that their intention is not matching up with their action, and they will change their action to match their intention. But OP says it has been pointed out to this man a number of times and the behaviour still continues, at which point you have to wonder about his intentions.
                And if you are standing on my foot, it doesn’t matter whether you intended to stand on my foot, you still need to get off. If you are still standing on my foot after being told many times that you are doing so and it hurts, then I am no longer going to describe you as well-intentioned.

                1. Knope Knope Knope*

                  Yup. This is the kind of additional detail I was referring to in my parent comment. It changes my advice. I really feel for OP because it’s obvious she respects this man and doesn’t want to see him canceled. She’s frustrated that he won’t respond to being told directly multiple times, and I see why she wants to try a different approach. But I don’t think the one she’s proposing for this guy can work. I’d suggest just making it clear that this kind of comment isn’t appropriate in this environment. She says he makes these comments on large conferences calls. I’d suggest responding publicly and directly “Bill, we’re here to talk about widgets, let’s stay on topic.” It’s not disrespectful to his expertise but it’s a direct message to stay on topic.

            2. Knope Knope Knope*

              To be clear, I don’t second guess OP when she says it is a problem. But, the truth of the matter is men benefit from being viewed as “old fashioned” “harmlessly ignorant” or “well-intentioned” and this a power structure that is way is bigger than OP or any individual person. I think it is always imperative to question how well-intentioned the men in question really are when it comes to this stuff. Even if they aren’t a “creep” or actively malicious, they benefit from the status quo. And as another commenter mentions below, different people experience things differently. In my own example, the “lovely dress” comment was made in a room full of people, which made me tell myself I was being crazy for feeling weird about it, when in fact, I should have listened to my gut. It was easy to blame myself, but I see now we are conditioned to look at a lot of harmful behavior as harmless, and the people who benefit from that assumption will use that to their benefit. I really don’t see that as second guessing OP so much as calling out the dynamic that exists.

        2. nimble*

          “There are also men who, well-intentioned as they seem, aren’t sexualizing women for their own pleasure but are simply happy to benefit from the power imbalance that exists when women are valued for their appearance. And without knowing someone very, very well, it can be hard to tell who is who.”

          Um… they BOTH sound like crap? I hope that’s what you meant.

          1. Knope Knope Knope*

            Oh definitely! My point is just kind of that it can be easy to say a man “didn’t mean anything by it” with his comments if he doesn’t turn out to be a “creep” in the sense of overt sexualization/harassment/assault. But there are levels, and just because a guy isn’t out forcing himself on women, plenty of guys–unfortunately–just aren’t really as well-intentioned or harmless as we are often conditioned to assume.

    3. AnotherLibrarian*

      As someone once regularly worked with old men of the Traditional Gentleman type, you can tell the difference between “creepy old man”, “old man who is stuck in 1970” and “old man who doesn’t understand being told described as a “lovely young lady” when you’re an adult is patronizing.” I would take the OP at their word that this particular person is not of the creepy variety.

    4. A Library Person*

      I came here to say something similar. It’s very possible that OP does not view this man (these men) as at all threatening, but other colleagues may well interpret this behavior quite differently. And how many people are capable of being charming in one context and harassing in another?

      I don’t want to cast aspersions on this specific dude, but instead to remind everyone that these comments land very differently to different people. This is why it needs to be shut down; speculating on motivations isn’t particularly productive. It’s the outcome that is the problem, and this could be a sign of worse behavior in other contexts.

      1. Knope Knope Knope*

        I completely agree! I absolutely take OP at her word that this is a problem. But so much really is contextual, and the fact that another person in the org felt the need to mention it to her tells me the comment may not be seen as simply an innocent gaffe by a respected colleague.

  29. Don’t hide my straightener*

    No advice, but I get it. We have two male employees that are over 80, and the things they say to women blow my mind. Like last week when one of them introduced me to a guest in our studio as “my girlfriend.” I always call it out immediately (in that example I said, James that’s totally inappropriate to say), but they usually respond with, “Well! I’m old.”

    I’m not in a position to discipline them. My boss knows this happens and does nothing.

      1. Pippa K*

        The HR person giving a talk to a friend’s department about sexism in the workplace said “I can see why it comes up so often with two such lovely blonde ladies in this department!” There were three women department members present at the meeting. And the HR person was a woman.

        1. Sigh*

          ahahahahahah *sob* I am so sorry. It’s always especially painful when women promulgate sexism, because it’s doubly destructive — there’s both the sexism, and the fact that every man seeing the woman promote sexism now feels justified and emboldened in promoting sexism as well because “women do it so it can’t be a big deal.”

        1. Don’t hide my straightener*

          In the example I give above, when i called it out, my coworker said, “Oh, guest’s name, I forgot we can’t joke anymore, you’ll have to forgive me, I’m old!”

    1. Forrest*

      Fuck this shit. My dad is 77 and my father-in-law is 76. They both spent decades working in science jobs in academia and they both know better than this.

      “in their 80s” is someone who probably retired in the mid-00s. They were in their 30s when the second-wave feminist movement was at its height. They ABSOLUTELY know better, and they are choosing to use their age and status to make women uncomfortable.

      1. TIRED*

        Hear hear!! This is such a great point. Retiring in the mid-2000s is clearly someone who should know better. This is a choice people are making. I suspect there’s a lot of “oh he can’t possibly mean it THAT way” that apologizes this behavior. It’s not OK.

    2. Suzy*

      “I’m old.”
      “I’m aware, and I’m not allowed to harass you about that, either.”

    3. Lizy*

      I’ve found it’s rather effective to reply “I know that’s not what you intended, but regardless, it’s not ok. I do not deserve to be treated like that.”

      Or in this case, “Old people can be nice, too.”

    1. Nicotene*

      It says he compliments their appearance. I know I would be so sad if I was like, an eager young scientist at my first conference with all my idols and some expert in the field singled me out to comment on how attractive I was. If you can’t understand why, it might be better to sit out this comment section.

      1. KHB*

        I’m fully on board with (and have a personal stake in) the idea that singling out women based on their appearance is a big problem, and I had the same question. “Compliments their appearance” can span a huge range of things, and the best approach to dealing with it might depend on what exactly he’s saying.

        1. Anonys*

          I think the fact that OP didnt elaborate and stated the man was otherwise nice and meant well means that he is complimenting them in a “nice” way – maybe even a way that would be totally fine if say a friend or even male family member did but still not the thing to focus on in the workplace (Think: “oh, what a pretty young women you are”, “you look especially lovely today Karen”). If the comments were more like “nice ass”, “sexy thing” or whatever I’m sure OP would have mentioned and the tone of the letter would be different

          1. quill*

            I mean, the main problem the OP is working on here is that very genial comments (Hello jane, you look nice today) end up reinforcing that attention is paid to women’s appearances and not men’s. And this reinforces that women in this field are not solely, or even primarily, known for their professional achievements… but because the comments themselves are a symptom, not the main problem (if they were sexual they would definitely be their own problem) they’re harder to treat.

      2. Artemesia*

        I am decidedly elderly and began my career in settings where although there were many women in the lower reaches of the field, in the advanced professional settings I was the rare young woman. Many men could not help but start any comments to the group without singling out the women and how they improved the looks of the room. It was rare for a man t begin a speech to a group without making that kind of remark. `Immediately every woman in the room was ‘othered’ and devalued as a professional. And often the guy doing this was otherwise not particularly sexist; it was like a reflex perhaps learned by seeing other men routinely start conversations that way.

        Over the years while many things changed this really didn’t. What it showcases is that men’s first response to professional women is that they are eye candy for men. The comment doesn’t have to be ‘offensive’ to create this space for women. It is enough to comment on the ‘lovely ladies’. I imagine that if there are two black people in the room and the comment is about ‘happy to see diversity’ that they probably feel it too.

        I think men need to handle this and it probably needs to be a message that goes out to everyone. I remember a conference where EVERY dang speaker started this way and I was soo tempted when it was my turn to begin with ‘It is so delightful to see so many handsome men in the room, right ladies?’ But I knew it would sail right over their heads.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          You absolutely nailed it.

          It IS ‘othering’ and it feels gross. I’m in my late 40s now but can remember several comments in meetings from blokes about how good I looked, or my smile brightens the place, or it’s good to see diversity (I’m disabled, not white, openly pansexual and a woman) or, or, or…

          I just wanted to scream.

        2. Mimi*

          The remark doesn’t even have to be about my appearance in order for me to feel othered. I used to work side-by-side with folks in construction, and would get comments along the lines of “It’s so nice to see a girl with a screwdriver!” They all came from well-meaning men who were genuinely pleased to see more diversity in their field, and I mostly managed to take them in the spirit in which they were intended (and absolutely preferred them to comments on my ass, etc, or people who talked over/around me), but also it was so, so tiresome to immediately be seen as A Girl when I just wanted to be seen as a professional.

      3. Reba*

        Yeah, it can really take the wind out of your sails when you think you’re a part of something because of your talents, and a comment like this shows you that that isn’t how other people see you in that space. It can lead you to doubt yourself of look on all professional relationships with suspicion.

        And a remark doesn’t have to be “offensive” to have that affect! The older member could be perfectly polite, but he is still treating the others in an entitled way as a social category, casting them as young/feminine/attractive, rather than as professional peers.

      4. SheLooksFamiliar*

        Exactly this. Through the years I’ve been complimented on my appearance but men at my level were complimented on their accomplishments. Yeah, I had accomplishments, too, all ignored because I was a ‘pretty face in a sea of grumpy old men.’ Someone said that.

        Worse, I’ve been the sole woman on a panel at industry events, and was introduced as ‘The lovely and talented SheLooksFamiliar.’ I pulled those announcers aside after the meeting and told them it was not helpful or appreciated. Of course, they protested that I was reading too much into the intro, they were just being playful or funny, etc. I said they might as well pat me on the head next time. Sometimes, I am not diplomatic.

        Calling attention to anyone’s looks, even as a well-intended compliment, undermines the person as a professional.

    2. Dasein9*

      It’s right there in the letter: complimenting women on their appearance in a professional setting is inappropriate.

    3. Aunt Vixen*

      I’m sure you’re asking out of curiosity only, but it really sounds like you’re trying to litigate whether it’s reasonable to find a thing offensive, when the question was actually about strategies to get the offensive thing to stop.

    4. ThatGirl*

      It’s not that it’s offensive, per se, it’s that he’s (they are) focusing on young women and their looks which is inherently unprofessional and somewhat condescending.

    5. Sally Ride*

      It is inappropriate for this man to be complimenting young women on their appearance in a professional setting. It does not matter if what he said was “offensive” – he shouldn’t be doing it at all. There are other ways to spark conversation with young professionals in your field, and I would wager that he is already using other conversation starters with any young men in the same situation.

      1. TootsNYC*

        it’s not really appropriate to be complimenting them on their appearance in a social setting either. Unless he’s their date or something.

      2. Czhorat*

        Totally agreed. The easiest test – and one you CAN use with them – is to ask if they’d say the same to a man. If not, then it’s not acceptable to say in a professional setting.

    6. Eeyore's Missing Tail*

      I’m not in the OP’s industry (to my knowledge), but when I was a graduate student in agriculture, this happened fairly often. When the growers or even old scientists would comment on my appearance instead of my work, it can feel like slap in the face. Instead of being interested in discussing my research methods or new cultivars that were being released, they saw me as “just a pretty face” and not a competent scientist.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        Absolutely this. Every time an end user or coworker or boss tells me ‘oh you look pretty’ when I’ve just finished repairing a complex error or implemented a new system it’s just a roundabout way, to me, of saying ‘I don’t care about your brains or your skills – you’re a woman, your job is to be attractive and pleasant’.

      2. Artemesia*

        I remember how crushed I was when I would be singled out for a professional conversation about the work I was doing and it quickly lead to being hit on.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          Oh, the old bait and switch guy. ‘Let’s talk about the work you do’ becomes ‘what are you doing Friday?’ in 0.6 seconds.

    7. Empress Ki*

      Commenting on someone’s attractiveness is okay on dates, not in a professional context.

    8. Richard Hershberger*

      Among my vices is watching old episodes from the 1950s and 1960s of What’s My Line on YouTube. An attractive female contestant will invariably draw compliments from the male panelists. It is extraordinarily rare for an attractive male contestant to get an equivalent. I don’t doubt that the LW is talking about the same thing. In the context of What’s My Line it is fascinating and cringeworthy, along with watching guys light up cigarettes and the racial nuances whenever there is a Black contestant. I commend it as a period piece and cultural education. In current time? Not a good look.

    9. Boof*

      I imagine “complimenting on appearance” might sound neutral, and sometimes it can be “you’re looking sharp/rested/well” I think (?) can be a common thing that’s said to anyone without trouble. But if there’s eyebrow waggles, winks, then no. If it’s “you look beautiful / gorgeous / pretty” and more… specific, things, it starts getting to be weird. If a bunch of people compliment you on appearance and not the reason you are actually at the conference (learning, research, projects, etc) it starts to build up make you feel you are valued for things other than why you are there.

    10. kittybutton*

      I am hoping that Enough is trying to learn and not just stirring the pot here.

      Commenting on a woman’s looks is such a great example of how an action can be harmful without being hurtful. It is not offensive to compliment someone’s looks, but it is unwelcome by many people because it puts the focus on looks and appearance and not on professional accomplishments and skills.

      The letter writer understands beautifully that the people who do this do not mean harm; in fact they mean it as a compliment! But many women in the workplace will tell you that a focus on their looks results in a lack of focus on their actual value in a professional setting, which can lead to women’s accomplishments being overlooked or downplayed.

  30. High Score!*

    When I’m around family, the fact that I don’t wear enough make up, my clothes are not fashionable enough and I weigh too much are noticed frequently. It is rarely noticed that I was the first one to get a college degree, I have a successful career, I’ve done all sorts of cool things and I chose my husband for compatibility and not his income.
    It would be horrible is my workplace or professional societies focused on how I looked instead of my accomplishments as well.

    1. Allypopx*

      I’m sorry that happens with your family :( But yes, if there’s one place we should be able to have our career accomplishments focused on, it’s in a professional setting.

    2. old biddy*

      It makes me ragey how much everyone was/is conditioned to comment on womens appearances. It’s like this stupid conversation filler that people use without even realizing it. My 82 year old mother does it constantly.
      I have gotten more compliments on losing weight that on getting a PhD from MIT or any of my substantial professional acheivements over the years.

      1. High Score!*

        It is annoying. But old people can change, if corrected enough. Lately my extended family says things like, “oh no, you said (insert misogynistic thing here) now she’s going to go into Femi-nazi mode…”, Not much better but I’m working on it. It is so exhausting, but I don’t want my daughter to hear those comments go unchallenged.

  31. hlyssande*

    This reminds me of a conversation I overheard in the cafe I used to visit for lunch before my office moved.

    One man, who’d been discussing management issues with his colleague, shifted the (loud) conversation to his daughter who was playing softball and had planned to attend a prestigious summer camp for it.

    The first thing the head coach of the camp said when meeting the daughter was that she had gorgeous eyes.

    And the father could not wrap his head around why she immediately withdrew from the camp and refused to go back. Neither could his colleagues (all white men).

    I still wish I’d said something to them about it. Both to let them know exactly why she was mad and also to let them know that everyone in the damn room could hear what they were talking about.

    1. Elaine Benes*

      wowwwwwwww. wow. I can’t believe he remembered what was said by the coach, and STILL couldn’t figure out why she would be uncomfortable going to spend lots of unsupervised time with a coach who opens with that.

    2. Pomegranate*

      I’m quietly proud of the softball player daughter here. Good for her! She had to choose between professional advancement in her sport and putting up with sexism. That’s a tough choice!

      1. hlyssande*

        I was also super proud of her for standing up to that grossness! Didn’t catch her actual age – she was either in high school or early college, so still pretty young.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      That is creepy beyond belief. I mean, aside from it being generally sexist . . . this was the male coach saying it to a (teenaged girl?)? I wouldn’t have been happy about that as her parent, either.

      1. hlyssande*

        I didn’t catch her age (either high school or early college-ish I think), but I was astounded that her dad didn’t seem to care and blew off/mocked her concerns to his friends. So creepy.

        1. allathian*

          Yeah. Sadly it wouldn’t come as a surprise to me to learn that the dad comments on the looks of the women he works with, either.

      2. SnappinTerrapin*

        Neither would I. That was a missed opportunity, I’m afraid, to shift some perspectives.

        Sometimes, reasonable minds can differ about whether something well-intended is forgivable.

        Sometimes, we need to step 90 degrees or so to the side, and look at it from a different perspective (or two, or three, if needed) to see how good intentions can have bad results.

        The point of compliments is (or should be) to show courtesy and respect. If the compliment is missing that mark, it undermines both parties to the conversation.

        I’m pretty old-fashioned, but I grasp the basic concept that I should consider whether my (intended) courtesy is actually courteous and respectful, or if it is putting up an unnecessary barrier to communication and getting the job done.

        I appreciate the women here who are considerate of older men’s good intentions, but I am firmly on board with the notion that it would be a kindness to explain this concept to any man who hasn’t figured it out for himself.

        And it’s not even that times have changed, and expectations have evolved. It’s the fundamental point that showing courtesy and respect starts with consideration of the other person’s perspective. Otherwise, well intended or not, the remark is in fact discourteous and disrespectful.

        I’m sure I still have some blind spots I haven’t learned to recognize, but I reckon that just means more opportunities to learn and grow.

  32. High Score!*

    When I’m around family, the fact that I don’t wear enough make up, my clothes are not fashionable enough and I weigh too much are noticed frequently. It is rarely noticed that I was the first one to get a college degree, I have a successful career, I’ve done all sorts of cool things and I chose my husband for compatibility and not his income.
    It would be horrible is my workplace or professional societies focused on how I looked instead of my accomplishments as well.

  33. Stevie*

    I was staff for an association that represents an industry a lot like what OP described.

    This might not solve the immediate issue, but is your organization doing any sort of diversity and inclusion initiatives, and, if so, could something related to this topic be added? My organization put a lot of emphasis on diversity and inclusion for the industry within the last few years, and heavily promoted it at all meetings and in their communications.

  34. Czhorat*

    49 year old cisgender male here. If you can do so, speak up, when it happens, every time.

    If you want to keep it light, that’s fine, “Cassandra is here as a subject matter expert on experiential installations, not as a fashion model.”

    I’ll also sometimes ask why they didn’t compliment *my* looks with a hint of mock indignation, but that runs the risk of blunting the seriousness too much. Eventually, if they’re corrected enough times, people will take the hint.

    I’ll add that we shouldn’t assume that old people are incapable of changing; that’s a form of ageism. Have some of them been raised with different norms? Certainly. Are they capable of overcoming that and learning better? They should be.

    1. Sled dog mama*

      As a woman I have pointed out men complimenting other women on their appearance but not me and strangely enough they seem to stop.

  35. AskJeeves*


    How do you know he meant no offense? Why should I accept a compliment that makes me feel uncomfortable? Why should I “move on” from something that is inappropriate and undermining, rather than asking the other person to not do that again?

  36. JT*

    Have a conference or a session that surrounds all aspects of “then vs. now” – talk about technology, methods, science… AND the changed demographics. A speaker from the older generation to talk about their perspective. A speaker from the younger generation for their perspective. A panel on generations learning and working together that dedicates a huge chunk of time to discrimination within the field. The fact that compliments on a woman’s looks USED TO BE the norm but now is considered patronizing and diminutive.

    1. tamarack and fireweed*

      Good one. The presentation should pack as much as possible of the message “imagine this stuff used to be ok! they used to completely ignore how harmful, infantilizing and deeply unwelcoming it is”

  37. outdooreducator*

    So, it sounds like this is a structural problem, and likely needs a structural solution. Are there ways to integrate equity/inclusion workshops into your conferences/gatherings? Could you create a new mentorship structure where one mentee is assigned three mentors to meet with through the conference, all of various ages? (See here for an argument for a younger mentor: Is there a way to create some affinity groups that address equity/inclusion issues and have experienced facilitators who can share tips/create space for growth among all people? Can you have a keynote speaker who is a younger woman speak directly to her experience in the field, and open these folks’ eyes to the impact those sorts of comments/actions can have? I also really like the leadership story shared above by MightyRosebud–Having a man get up and share his own story/journey toward inclusion may have more of an impact on these older folks–Maybe your well-intentioned person in this story could be a person to have that conversation with, and ask for allyship through?

    My personal experience of this sort of behavior (and, to be clear, I’m a cis white dude, so it’s only be in observation not direct experience) in older people is generally well-intentioned, but the understanding of the impact of their words/actions is not contextualized in today’s society. If there are ways to create that understanding and context, I feel like there’s more hope for change than telling someone they’re wrong or yelling at them.

    I also want to just take a quick moment and acknowledge that this is NOT a women’s issue; it’s a men’s issue, and men need to take the leadership in making this change happen, need to call in colleagues and mentors when they make mistakes, and need to make this behavioral change happen. As many commenters have said, these sorts of comments are inappropriate in professional contexts, and should not be made.

    1. CSI*

      I think this is great advice. One thing I’ll note: schedule the keynote speaker at a high-value, society-wide event. Do not schedule it at a special equity focused event, as these people will not come.

    2. mf*

      Great comment, and thank you for pointing out that this is a men’s issue. I think it’s actually super problematic that the OP (who is female) feels like she has to tackle this issue alone. There should be men in the organization who can take on the job of speaking to this older male colleague about how he interacts with women.

  38. HannahS*

    It’s sort of two different questions: one is, “What can I, as an individual speaking to other individuals in the field, do to change things in our one-on-one conversations,” and “What can I advocate for at a systems-level in a huge professional network?” Those are two very different things!

    In conversation, changing a well-meaning person can look like this:
    “John, I know you mean well, but complimenting women on their appearance isn’t seen as polite anymore.” Depending on the person, you might be able to stop there. Or you can continue: “A lot of our female members have shared with me that they find it demeaning/disrespectful when one of the first things they hear from our more senior members is something about their appearance, because its not the way that people speak to men. They’d rather be asked about their work. I wanted to tell you because I know our younger members look up to you, and I would hate for anyone to get the wrong impression of your intentions.”

    I’ve had conversations like that go successfully. The mention from someone above about seeing these people as being from a different culture resonates with me as someone with an immigrant family. Sometimes my relatives mean super well and wind up being really offensive because they don’t always get the cultural context. If a person is genuinely well-intentioned but just unaware of how they’re coming off, it’s helpful to just point it out to them.

    At a systems level, it’s different. Emails about manners and codes of conduct…I think they tend to get ignored. So I don’t know about that.

    1. Trisha*

      I would say that you have softened the message too much.

      “John, complimenting women on their appearance isn’t polite anymore. Its demeaning/disrespectful when women hear something about their appearance, and its not the way that people speak to men. Ask about their work. Our younger members look up to you, and I would hate for the wrong impression.”

  39. Forrest*

    >>I know that sometimes we need to understand that older people can’t always change entirely and that it is important to know when something is meant in a mean fashion and when it is meant kindly and you need to let it roll off your back

    I really want you to think very hard about this sentence, OP. If something is meant “kindly”, then you say to the person doing it, “Don’t do that, it’s extremely unpleasant for the women you’re talking to.” If they mean it “kindly”, they are horrified and stop immediately. Because they are kind. They react badly when they actually relish the fact that their power, status and their age means that they are protected and other people have to bear the consequences of their actions. That is not kind.

    Also, my dad and my father-in-law are both in their mid-seventies, and spent years working in science. They know better! These men make these comments because nobody has ever called them on it. Call them on it. Focus on the future of your profession and centre the people who are being harmed and pushed out of the field by your preference for tolerating rude old men.

    1. Jay*

      My husband is 60 and has spent his life in STEM work. He has taken it as his late-career mission to provide feedback to other men on the impact of this crap. If they really didn’t know, then they stop. 99% of the time, they do know, they don’t care, and they will keep doing it. When a man speaks up – especially an older man with a white beard – they can’t complain about “oversensitive women” and they are more likely to knock it off.

      1. Sigh*

        Please tell your husband that a random person off the internet is incredibly grateful that he’s doing this. My daughter and nieces may suffer less than my generation did because of his and others’ efforts.

  40. Rachael*

    I’m conventionally attractive and, while I don’t take offense to comments, I get very embarrassed by them. People are born with what they are born with and I don’t think of it as a special “feat” that I have this face. It embarrasses me when people comment about it because there is more to a person than looks. It is sad that when someone is attractive they automatically get points added to whatever they are doing. There isn’t any talent or hard work involved with looking “pretty” and it doesn’t add anything to the conversation for me. I’ve had people interrupt me and tell me that I have “striking green eyes” or that I look “beautiful today”.

    “Umm….thanks? I was born with this face….now….back to what I was saying”…..You might want to add that piece when talking to the gentleman that it may make women uncomfortable because they don’t want to feed that they are getting added attention or praise just on their looks and not on their work. It is not fair to other workers who work just as hard and are as talented. And it really just makes me feel that they aren’t even listening to me and all my hard work is for nothing.

    1. Lecturer*

      You don’t need to be attractive. I’m not and I’m still harassed on a weekly basis. Being conventionally attractive does not matter. 99% of the perverts imposing themselves are old, obese and ugly in my case. It is a myth that only attractive people are harassed. I’ve seen women who are leered at who wear the hijab and you can’t see anything!

    2. mf*

      Yep, this has been my experience too. It’s a lose-lose situation: if you’re an attractive woman, you’re often treated like an object whose work and talent isn’t valued; if you’re not conventionally attractive, you may be ignored, criticized or even discriminated against in the workplace. :(

  41. Blisskrieg*

    This sounds like the type of organization which, if not academic, would at least have curious people with an academic interest. Can you have a meeting (or breakout session at a conference) that addresses how different generations approach the workplace and how that impacts your field? Just a gut feeling based on what you describe of your organization–I would approach this not as sensitivity or compliance training, but almost as a sociological or anthropology lecture. That can be a really fascinating way to approach and also very eye-opening.

    1. Cranky Lady*

      The LW highlights the older gentleman but I doubt the issue is limited to older generations. I’m in my 40s and have seen plenty of this from men my age and younger.

      1. Blisskrieg*

        Yes, I see what you’re saying–but because this is not a workplace but rather a professional association, I think it might be a good way to introduce that norms have changed. It might get dialogue going, and doesn’t have to be stand alone as the only approach.

  42. CheeryO*

    I would just like to offer my perspective as a young-ish woman in a field dominated by 50-65 year-old white dudes. I’m a government regulator, and I have vastly different experiences with internal vs. external folks. Internally, most people are fine, but there are definitely men who continually cross boundaries, although they are becoming fewer and fewer as the older generation retires. On the other hand, the people I regulate are VERY careful not to say anything inappropriate. Me being in a position of power over them changes the equation. I say this just to point out that people who are of normal working age DO know better and should absolutely be called out on bad behavior. Don’t give anyone a free pass.

    1. old biddy*

      it’s funny how most of the dinosaurs have no trouble regulating their speech when their talking to their boss or someone else with power.

    2. Kaitydidd*

      Good point! I promoted up within my government organization, and haven’t gotten compliments on my appearance from older men like I did when I had no power over them. And when I work with outside, smaller government organizations it never happens. Usually I’m the subject matter expert on an issue they need to solve in order not to lose federal funding, so they’re listening carefully to what I have to say, and we work together to correct the issue.

      I used to experience the compliments similar to hearing “Run, Forest, run!” shouted at me while running. Predictable background noise that is not original, unwanted, and definitely said for the benefit of the person saying it, not mine.

  43. HereKittyKitty*

    Exactly this. I’m 29 now but at my first job I was 26, my manager was in her early 30s and my coworker later on was 28/29 and our 35-40 yo grandboss always addressed us as “the Ladies.” Ladies ladies ladies and not in the Fiona Apple way. It always made me feel like I wasn’t being taken seriously. It was always “these ladies did a good job,” “we’ll let the ladies handle it, “you ladies are the best.” And yeah, I get that he’s trying to be “nice” but it’s honestly really weird when you call a group of women “ladies” but you refer to everyone else by their names. Or you don’t call a group of men “the gentlemen.” It’s infantilism.

    1. Wisteria*

      “Ladies” is the word people use when they know they can’t get away with “girls” anymore. Hearing it chaps my hide, to put it mildly.

      1. HereKittyKitty*

        There’s a satirical book called “Hey Ladies” based on a Toast column from years ago and every time I would get an email beginning with “Hey Ladies,” it would ring out in my head. Whew.

        1. Pointy's in the North Tower*

          I always hear “Hey, ladies” like the line from that one Beastie Boys song.

    2. Lizy*

      I’m in a pretty male-dominated field (fuel) and while there’s plenty of women, most of us are in admin-type roles. I’m not going to be able to change the whole company, but I definitely will call the guys “guys” or “boys” in my subtle stab-back.

      1. HereKittyKitty*

        We had an inside joke of referring to the owners and president as “The Boys” as well lmao

  44. Business Socks*

    This may come off as passive aggressive, and perhaps it is, but one trick I’ve picked up over the years when trying to change a behavior in someone that you believe may become defensive if confronted directly about it, is the “let’s both get haircuts” talk.

    What you do is you speak to the person on casual conversation, and drop something in like “hey, I just got talked to about commenting on people’s appearance in the office. We should all make sure we don’t do that going forward”.

    Now, people aren’t stupid, often they will see right through you, but the point is it gives them plausible deniability and the opportunity to change behavior without thinking they were scolded for it. Generally I’m not one for coddling people with problematic behavior, but if the offenses are relatively minor a softer touch is sometimes worth a shot.

  45. Undine*

    Some people are saying that it’s okay to compliment women on things that are a “choice”, like clothing or a haircut, but that is also a huge problem, and one which is well known as an burden for women in politics. Links to follow.

    1. Undine*

      Sites and a quote:

      In an experiment, they found that focusing on Palin’s appearance reduced perceptions of her competence and humanness. Furthermore, those exposed to appearance-focused coverage of Palin were less likely to express intentions to vote for the McCain/Palin ticket than those who were not exposed to it. Another study finds that objectifying commentary on social media can impact the evaluation of women candidates. More specifically, those who saw the objectifying commentary about a hypothetical woman candidate were less likely to perceive her as credible and suited for public office.

      1. Jack Straw*

        TY for sharing these. I am a proponent of the “compliment choices” in social settings (or with random strangers at the grocery), and I even commented something similar above. This has given me some things to think about. :) I love AAM commenters!

    2. Littorally*

      Right. The “compliment choices” rule works fine for one-on-one, social (not professional) interactions, but it doesn’t change that female professionals still get treated as primarily decorative, and that’s an utterly unfair burden to carry.

  46. Beth*

    OP, you state, “I know that sometimes we need to understand that older people can’t always change entirely and that it is important to know when something is meant in a mean fashion and when it is meant kindly and you need to let it roll off your back.” With all kindness, I think this positioning is actually part of your problem.

    Older people can change. Unless we’re talking about someone has poor enough memory that they’re not capable of remembering a conversation you had yesterday (that would be a different case), older people are very much capable of taking in new information and changing their behavior based on it. It can take work, I’m not denying that! And it can take someone sitting down and kindly explaining why the change has to happen; it can be harder to see the necessity for change when you’ve been doing something one way for decades. But I think you’re doing a disservice to your older members when you assume they’re not capable of this. Assuming their comments are truly kindly meant, I suspect your older members would actually like to know that this is no longer considered appropriate and they need to change their behavior to actually have a kindly impact.

    Similarly, you’re doing a disservice to your young women by assuming it’s desirable (or even possible) to let these comments ‘roll off your back’. Things that you let roll off your back are things that ultimately don’t matter that much. But these comments DO matter. Members of your field—junior members who are trying to build a career, who are coming to you for career-centered mentorship—are instead only being recognized for their appearance. That actively perpetuates inequality! During the time that they’re spending being told how pretty they are, their male peers are spending getting recognition for their work and advice on how to progress further. Even if it’s only a minute or two per conversation, that adds up fast. That’s a big deal! You do a major disservice to them by assuming it’s something they should simply accept.

    I can’t tell from your post how much influence you have in this organization. But if you have any pull at all, or even if you just have enough interpersonal connections there to start raising it as a topic of conversation, I would strongly encourage you to advocate for change on this. You might see more success than you expect—and even if it is just as much of an uphill battle as you imagine, just seeing that there’s someone doing that work may make a big difference for some of your junior colleagues.

    1. Forrest*

      “let it roll off your back”– you should absorb all the discomfort so the elderly white guy doesn’t have to.

      1. Beth*

        And so that whoever is in charge of running this organization doesn’t have to confront the elderly white guy about it. :|

  47. Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii*

    A male of similar age can take him aside and tell him that these days complimenting women on their appearance is considered rude. He should either compliment their work (if appropriate) or forgo the compliments and stick to business.
    Similarly they can talk to all the men who are doing this and explain the same thing. Its probably not a good idea to round them all up and explain this in a group because that will land badly, but a colleague explaining the norms of today in a friendly one on one helpful way has a higher (but not guaranteed) chance of success.

    1. irene adler*

      Yes, this.
      Not all men ‘of a certain age’ are like what the OP describes.
      The chair of the local chapter of the professional organization I belong to, is a man in his mid-60s who is quick to take to task the gents who do make the condescending/appearance comments to women.
      It is such an uplifting thing to experience a man explaining to another man that it is very important that women are taken as seriously as men in any organization. Cut out the superficial complements and pay attention.

  48. ForgetMeNot*

    I find that with the well-intentioned, it can often be more effective to tell them what they ought to do instead, rather than what they should stop doing. If you have the opportunity, a well-timed comment to the gentleman in question, or even the older members in a group setting could do a lot of good. Like: “I’ve heard from other younger members how empowering it is to them when you take note of their professional accomplishments. That kind of recognition is especially meaningful from established industry leaders like yourself.”

  49. Book Badger, Attorney-at-Claw*

    My rule of thumb for coworkers (which I’ve explicitly said) is that I’m fine with being complimented for things I have control over, not things that just are an aspect of existing. So complimenting my work is good, because that’s something I control. Complimenting my dress is fine, because that’s something I control. But I can’t control, say, my eye color, so something like “you have beautiful eyes,” though perhaps well-intentioned, is still weird and creepy. (You can see how this applies to other body parts as well)

    I agree that the focus should be on work over appearance, and certainly stuff like “nice shoes” can be creepy if said by a creepy person. But if you can’t get them to change that – and you might not immediately – I think a good intermediary step is “only compliment things the person can control.”

  50. Nicki Name*

    I would stay away from a “times have changed” framing for two reasons:

    1) It has always been disrespectful to professional women to react to their appearance rather than their accomplishments.
    2) Younger dudes will start doing this too as they move up in the hierarchy. It’s less an age-related phenomenon than a feeling entitled to say certain things due to status phenomenon.

    I second the suggestion above about trying to improve the organization’s code of conduct. And on an individual level, normalize pushing back and emphasizing a professional perspective. “You’re… Heather? You look lovely!” “Ted, I wanted to introduce Dr. Smith to you because she’s made some amazing discoveries about Ruritanian sparrows.”

    One thing that’s really helped me adjust my thinking about how to change behavior like this is to remember that it’s about changing the behavior— you don’t have to educate people or try to change the thoughts in their heads in any way.

    1. Littorally*

      +1 to your last paragraph. There’s a lot of power in “you don’t have to agree but you have to behave yourself.”

  51. a thought*

    This line from the LW stood out to me … “It is important to know when something is meant in a mean fashion and when it is meant kindly and you need to let it roll off your back” – I think this mischaracterizes the problem of women being complimented on their appearance at work. It’s not that this is a mean v. nice spectrum, it’s about women being taken seriously for things other than their appearance. You can mean it nicely and it can still be a problem.

    But! I think one answer here for the LW is to not get caught up in the question about the appearance comments (which are actually a symptom of a bigger problem) and to try to draw this gentleman into an advocacy role for younger women and underrepresented minorities in the field in general. If you can get him engaged in the bigger issue (that women/minorities are not being given equal opportunities/training/pay/respect) the appearance comments might take care of themselves (if he realizes the problem) or at the very least some good actions will offset some of his problematic habits…

  52. Janeric*

    I am in a field full of detail-oriented, majority introvert, high social anxiety people. At conferences, I act like compliments on appearance are equivalent to someone saying something slightly awkward and that I’m taking a beat to reorient — as if they’d admitted to cutting someone off in traffic or sharing details about their last bout of food poisoning or suchlike. I also talk up other people in the field a lot and often specifically note how nice it is that X person doesn’t do this — people take a lot of social cues from what is admired in others.

  53. sparkly mouse*

    I work in a very public, very niche, very male-dominated field. Similar to the OP’s field, it is thankfully much more open than it was before, but the “old boys club” is still there and still strong, and I have struggled with similar issues. For this comment, I would like to relate two spectacular stories:

    1. I was at a conference. Nearly 80 percent of attendees were men. One of my female colleagues and I (she/her) got into an elevator. An older gentleman looked at us and delightedly exclaimed, “Lady Teapot Makers!”

    Without missing a beat, my colleague replied, “I prefer the term ‘Teapot Makers.'”

    2. I was working at an event and one of my colleagues was very, erm, friendly toward me. Think a little too touchy-feely. One of my other male colleagues, also a good friend, had been observing these activities for quite some time. At the end of the event, Sketchy Male Colleague goes to say goodbye to me and KISSES ME ON THE CHEEK. Then he turns to my non-sketchy male colleague to say goodbye, presumably in a less invasive way…but my non-sketchy colleague, to prove a point, embraced him and kissed HIM on the cheek! Loudly, with a resounding smack.

    The point was made and I’ve never been so hilariously grateful in my life.

    1. TvH*

      this is brilliant! lol well done, by your colleague! I think this is the way forward, for everyone around to back each other up.

    2. Former Young Lady*

      I find myself longing to kiss your non-sketchy colleague on the cheek, myself!

  54. GraceRN*

    Hi OP: I belong to several professional societies myself. I agree that yelling at them wouldn’t be the way to handle it. Relying only on speaking with individuals would likely have a limited effect.
    My suggestion would be to bring this up to someone the board of directors for your society. Bring it up in writing, clearly describing: the behaviors, the negative impacts of these behavior, including impacts on individual members, on the society, and on y field of practice, and what needs to change. I wouldn’t suggest starting with filing a formal complaint or grievance, but contact them and bring it up as an issue that you and other members would need to see addressed. You probably would want to strategize on which board of directors member to approach on this. Maybe don’t overly focus your efforts on one individual person. He may or may not turn into an advocate.

  55. 867-5309*

    This falls to me under “benevolent sexism” and there is a 2013 Scientific American piece that addressed it in 2013. Will post the link below. The article is especially useful for people who wonder why “complimenting someone is so horrible.”

    OP, whomever has the conversation should do so matter-of-factly. Do not make it a big deal and approach under the assumption that OF COURSE they would want to know.

  56. Name Required*

    “I’d like to turn this retired man into an advocate. How do I best do that? How do I take a person with great desire to mentor and support those newest to our field and teach him to do this better?”

    I would ask him to coffee during your next conference to ask his advice, and then propose the question to him as if he doesn’t do this behavior, i.e. “John, you have been such an excellent mentor to our newest practioners, and I’m grateful for the help you’ve offered me in the past. I’m wondering if you can help me with something. Some of the mentors in our organization have been making comments on the appearance of our younger members, such as [xx]. As you know, we want to focus on the achievements and opportunities for our newest members, which you are so good at doing. How do we help our fellow colleagues move towards this type of mentorship? I know none of our colleagues would want to unintentionally make another member uncomfortable.” And go from there. His reaction will tell you whether he’s open to change or not, and you can decide how much you want to invest in changing his mind.

  57. Jaydee*

    Commenting on someone’s appearance at work rather than on their actual job performance signals that their value is based on their looks, not on their knowledge or skill or achievements.

    That applies regardless of gender. But then when you add in the historical context that for a long time women *were* valued more for their looks than for their knowledge, skills, or achievements, and that women *were* excluded from educational and career opportunities, and that men were the gatekeepers of these opportunities, that adds another dynamic beyond just the meanings of the words themselves.

    As women have moved into traditionally male roles, they have often become enforcers of those old expectations. We might expect this type of comment more from older men, but older women would have “grown up” with those same expectations and some have internalized misogynistic attitudes or otherwise perpetuate the challenges they faced in their careers.

    So an older woman commenting on the appearance of a younger woman at work may not be quite as common, but it certainly does happen, and it’s not any less problematic. In fact, sometimes it’s even more hurtful because women kind of expect this stuff from men but feel like other women should be their allies.

    1. MissInTheNo*

      This exact thing happened to me, older woman commenting on my appearance, frequently, in front of my boss.

  58. Kay*

    If these men still attend conferences, why don’t you (or someone) set up a session in that setting? It would be interesting to make it a panel discussion with several ages of women represented. Include “mentoring” in the title to encourage the right people to attend. Then use that session to politely call people on their behavior throughout the conference. Then it’s not as much “I’ve been doing it all my life and NOW you have a problem?”

  59. Youngin*

    I am the youngest woman in my company, by far and I work in construction. So I unfortunately deal with this constantly. I have found some variation of “if you wouldn’t say it to a man, you shouldn’t say it to a woman” is best. They always push back, which leads me to “it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand why speaking about my appearance is offensive and it doesn’t matter if you think you are complimenting me. It makes me uncomfortable and you need to stop”.

    Because at the end of the day, its not my responsibility to educate them and I refuse to argue with a man that doesn’t respect the fact I’d like to be treated equally and professionally.

    They dont need to understand but they need to oblige. Treating women with respect is part of their job, they need to do it.

    1. Youngin*

      Also I hate the “I know that sometimes we need to understand that older people can’t always change entirely and that it is important to know when something is meant in a mean fashion and when it is meant kindly and you need to let it roll off your back.” line. I should not let weird behavior roll off my back because you deem someone harmless and nice. You SHOULD expect them to change. Old people are capable of changing and quite frankly it think its silly to infantilize them like that. I am not going to deal with behavior that makes me uncomfortable at work because you don’t want to set a boundary and make him follow it.

      Aside from the fact that they are certainly capable of change, just not willing, if I found out that you weren’t protecting employees from uncomfortable situations because you felt that person was too old to change, or because you perceive him as nice, I’d be offended.

      I get that she’s using a kind, sweet, typically well intentioned man in her example so my response may seem harsh but it needs to be a no across the board, for everyone. He shouldn’t get a pass because he is usually well intentioned (aren’t most people). He needs to be told not to comment on people appearances, and then stick to it.

      If you tell someone (anyone) that their behavior is making you feel uncomfortable and their immediate response is not “I’m sorry” followed by changed behavior that person does not have great intentions and you should definitely expect them to change.

  60. Beth*

    LW — any change you can make, or foster, or support, will be better than no change at all.

    You can look for opportunities to promote general discussion about How Important Professional Standards of Behavior Have Changed, which might help some people, but (in my experience) is unlikely to sink in with most established men who are well up the food chain — that is, the ones you most want to reach. For them, some might respond to quiet one-on-one communication, from yourself or from others whom you recruit to the task.

    It can be very effective to intervene in the moment, but that does depend on actually having the opportunity. If you don’t have a convenient moment for intervention, it has to be a deliberate conversation, which is harder to set up — but might work for individuals who really do have good intentions and a genuine wish to be mentors and models.

    The information does have to be specific, though. “Be supportive of professional achievements” will not convey the message “STOP complimenting women on their appearance, or their clothes, or their hair, when you’re relating to them as professionals. And while you’re at it, don’t be passively accepting when other men do it in your presence.” Making it their job to spread the lesson can sometimes get them more on board with the change.

    FWIW, I had the surreal experience just yesterday of calling out my own boss on an utterly inappropriate remark he made to a younger female colleague. I don’t know yet whether he’ll cross that particular line again, but I do have some hope.

  61. OtterB*

    I find the Better Allies book and social media sites have good suggestions about how to speak up.

  62. Been There*

    I sometimes wonder if it would help, after a person makes an inappropriate comment like that, to immediately stop the conversation, stare at the speaker blankly for a few beats, and then totally change the subject away from the comment. The stare has to be blank, I think, and the new conversation has to completely ignore the comment as if it weren’t there–no rebuttal, no ‘but see my work’ reply.
    I’m thinking this might work because it’s a total lack of reinforcement for the remark, neither positive nor negative. Just nothing.
    One-on-one, this could be pulled off. If the speaker were speaking to a group, it wouldn’t work so well. Unless the whole group responded that way.

    1. Sparkles McFadden*

      One boss used to have team building seminars. At one of the seminars, the speaker stopped what was going on and said “I have never seen so many examples of gender bias in the workplace, so I am going to put what we are doing on hold so I can point these things out…” He spent the next half hour pointing out how I’d say something and be ignored and then when the guy sitting next to me would repeat what I’d said, everyone would say “Great idea Bill!” He then moved on to the various ways people had “un-personed” me or how they belittled or nullified me while telling themselves they were “being nice” or that I was “just too sensitive.” It was magnificent.

      After the class was over for the day, I thanked him profusely and said “You know my boss will never hire you again, right?” He said “I know. Especially after I write my summary explaining how she is the biggest problem of all. I just can’t stand there and let that happen right in front of me.” Sure enough, the rest of the seminar was canceled and we never had another one.

  63. Underemployed Erin*

    From the professional societies that I have been a member of, there have often been affinity groups for younger folks to get them to join their professional society. I wonder if there are affinity groups for some of the more senior members of this professional society.

    If there are affinity groups for the more senior members of this society, then have a very introductory diversity and inclusion talks for these members. People who are working may be having diversity and inclusion sessions at work. Your senior retired members are not hearing these discussions anywhere, and your society may need to fill this gap for them.

    Make it explicit that you know that they are all friendly folks and that asking a woman about her work is more polite than complimenting her looks. Open it up to discussion on why that may be and go from there.

    I am seeing a lot of older people trying to be supportive of diversity and inclusion when it comes to race, and they are doing a terrible job because they are living in whatever they considered progressive thirty or more years ago. I tend to not engage these folks, but there are people with more patience than I have who will offer them some resources.

  64. Policy Wonk*

    If the person is on the very high side of age of your members, 80+, let it go. But if we are talking 75 or younger their working years were when this was all changing. They know it’s not appropriate and you should call them out on it! If you witness it, something like Fergus, you know that it isn’t appropriate to comment on a woman’s appearance. We are at a professional conference, please focus on our profession!

    1. pancakes*

      This is pretty arbitrary. People who are 80 right now were in their 30s in the 1970s. Jane Fonda is 83. It’s not as if dinosaurs were still roaming the earth while that generation’s careers were getting started.

    2. Jill*

      This is horrible advice, someone who is still acting as a mentor to young professionals should be able to accept criticism and apply it regardless of age.

    3. Former Young Lady*

      So often we hear about how older workers face discrimination because of the stereotype that they can’t learn new skills. This kind of benevolent spin only points the weapon at younger workers, because the assumption is that younger workers just have to suck it up until their geriatric colleagues retire.

      If your job requires you to be computer literate, reload toner cartridges, manage your own schedule, or refrain from unsolicited appraisals of a colleague’s appearance, that requirement doesn’t magically expire on your Nth birthday.

  65. PivotPivot*

    I know that when my appearance is commented on, I internally seethe. Why?

    Because I know the reason Fergus comments on my appearance, is because that is the filter in which Fergus *sees* me. Fergus’s comment lets me know he sees me as decorative, supplementary, lesser.

    When Fergus comments on Jim’s presentation of the Flux Capacitor upgrade, I know that’s how Jim is *seen.* Fergus sees Jim as a professional, competent, and (potentially) a peer.

    The difference in how we are *seen* should be unilateral and when Fergus makes comments on appearance, it because blatantly obvious that he does not.
    For those wondering what it’s a big deal, this is why.

  66. Lora*

    Gosh, you inspired me to look up my old genetics professor who spouted the most amazingly inappropriate comments (to the point that his grossness made other men uncomfortable in the early 1990s). He’s unfortunately not dead yet, though older than dirt, and I guess we can all just be grateful that he is seemingly too frail to accost anyone at conferences anymore.

    He would definitely be the guy at any given conference saying, “and I would like to extend a special welcome to all the lovely young ladies here, it’s a wonderful thing to see more beautiful young ladies at conferences these days!”

    There is also the horrifying story of Dr Brindley, a drug researcher who tested erectile dysfunction drugs on himself, and the story of his lecture at a urology conference in 1983. Don’t google it on a work computer.

    If your meetings don’t already have general guidelines about harassment and behavior, now might be a fabulous time to set some up and send them out to the membership; additionally I would try to correct the “lovely young lady” comments in the moment with something like, “ahem, I think the focus here is on Dr Smith’s *research* – she just gave an awesome talk on llama toes, it was a really complete well validated data set” and then afterwards have a quiet word about how personal compliments are not the done thing and can be taken to mean you weren’t paying attention to her brains, grandpa.

  67. Another health care worker*

    It’s so telling that these comments are full of similar experiences. Yet none of the solutions sounds like it will work (to me, a woman who’s dealt with this too). Here has been my experience with various options:

    –Redirect back to work topic: the offender makes no note of anything and does not change.
    –State that he wouldn’t say it to a man: the offender thinks you’re making a HUGE DEAL OF IT and being SO CONFRONTATIONAL and writes you off. May carry negative professional consequences.
    –Telling the offender that professional norms have changed: the offender enjoys doubling down on an identity as “old-fashioned,” which emphasizes his seniority and experience in the field while disregarding legitimate feedback.
    –Holding a diversity or inclusion forum: None of the offenders attend because they’re not interested.

    The only thing I can think of is including it in a keynote PSA or something, so everyone hears it at the same time in the same way. But I’m sure that would have pitfalls too. I just don’t know what to do about this.

    1. Beth*

      You’re right that there isn’t a single go-to action that will immediately halt this behavior. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done about it! The thing is, changing this requires a broad culture shift. It requires people to look at women as professional colleagues, not as objects of beauty/examples of feminine appeal/potential dating partners. The language we’re talking about is a sign that the broader culture shift around this has not yet happened in OP’s organization.

      Changing culture requires long-term, consistent effort. It’s not a one-step thing. One element might be cracking down on this specific behavior and telling men to cut it out. Another might be following up every single time a man does it anyways (because, as you note, some won’t change). Another might be holding diversity and inclusion forums–not because the worst offenders will opt in, but because it shows the majority that this is something the organization is consistently working towards, and because it might raise new opportunities for improvement. Another might be to take steps to remove the kind of man who would be offended at being called on this from any position of power in the organization, so women don’t need to fear professional consequences if they push back on his behavior. None of these are likely to cause massive change on their own, but layering them on top of one another and maintaining those layers over time probably will have an impact.

  68. Lizy*

    call it out every, single time. Not in a mean way – just simply point it out.

    “Jane always dresses so professionally!”
    “Can we focus on her accomplishments and not her looks? She’s very good at her job!”

    “Sue, you look great doing that presentation!”
    “Let’s focus on the presentation itself. There was a lot of useful information!”

  69. Incognito for this*

    This has been an issue for me for decades. Even as recently as this month, I had to remind my female coworker (I’m also female if it matters) to stop calling me “beautiful lady” or “my pretty girl” or other “compliments”. In her case I think it’s a power move to make me feel “grateful” for the fake compliments. I mean, I’m kinda cute, but not get carried away cute. I very clearly and politely told her to stop, just use my name. At a later time, she complained that she has to walk on eggshells around me because she’s afraid I’ll be offended. The old “you can’t say anything anymore because people are too sensitive” argument. I kept my cool, and reaffirmed my boundaries in a respectful and professional manner. She finally backed off.
    But I’m hearing she’s having boundary issues with other female coworkers.
    Sorry, don’t mean to sidetrack things.
    But, for OP, maybe redirect the comments with something like “thank you, but my purpose here is to bring XYZ skills to the group. I hope you can appreciate that. ”
    It is harder when we’re dealing with kind well-meaning people who come from a different perspective.

    1. Lizy*

      I’m sorry, Incognito. She’s a jerk.

      I’m normally a very nice, upbeat person to work with, but I have a hard stop on people who try that crap with me. I’ve definitely told a (male) coworker to not talk to me “like that”. He did the whole “oh well I didn’t mean it like that”. “Yeah I know, but it’s still inappropriate and not ok.” There was some awkwardness for a while, but I refused to acknowledge it and continued to act as if his comment never happened. We now have a perfectly amicable working relationship, and if he ever starts to say something inappropriate again, I simply side-eye him or say “hey – not ok”.

      If someone tried the “people are too sensitive” I’d probably hit back with “yep – I’m absolutely sensitive to being treated as an object” or “nah – I just deserve to be treated as a person and not looks”. If she said it around me, but not *at* me, I’d probably say (extra loud, so bystanders could hear) “most people are grown-up enough to just be nice and not make snarky remarks when someone’s asked a completely reasonable and simple request”.

      Granted, I’m definitely not the type of person to shy away from confrontations like that so…

      1. Incognito for this*

        Thanks, Lizy! Yeah, she is a jerk. But I simply remain professional and that leaves her twisting in the wind. She can’t accuse me of being mean or rude. My demeanor is polite, but firm.
        A wise friend once told me that sometimes it’s best to let things fall my their own weight. And in this case I think that applies. She either reforms or faces natural consequences. She has contact with others who are noting her behavior. It will eventually get to our manager.
        In the meantime, I continue to keep my work relationships healthy, and appropriate.

  70. TvH*

    Oh, wow…. I totally get this, I work in a male-dominated industry, and it’s really difficult. When I was younger, I got constant comments about my appearance, and when I shifted by making sure I was wearing simple jeans and t-shirts, and chose to cut my hair short – back in the wild 90’s when only brave women, apparently, cut their hair short – then I got extra comments about how I had ‘ruined my looks,’ and was ‘obviously a dyke,’ etc etc… Then when I hit 50, I was told that I was ‘past my prime,’ and ‘you were hot once, what happened,’ etc… either way I struggled to be taken seriously. Most comments came from peers my age and older.

    Well now I’m in my 60’s, and times have changed, thank the gods, but in my industry (performing arts), apparently it’s still on to comment on someone’s body or appearance, and complaints to supervisors are still not taken seriously. I have been literally shoved out of the way by males so they can reach a younger female standing behind me. However, I have noticed a sea change in how what I have to say is responded to. Apparently I’m now the wise old lady in the group, and people actually listen to me. I do find this baffling, as I haven’t changed in my character or content. I guess as a female when you go through this “invisible” phase, something shifts in other people’s attitudes, and, most of my age group aren’t working anymore, and I do find the younger people just don’t do this kind of thing. The whole age thing has made being a female interesting, in a weird way. We just can’t win. You’re either ‘too pretty’ or ‘to young, or ‘not hot enough’ or ‘too old,’ or your hair is too short/too long, or just lacking in some way, as if whoever would say these things to another human being is struggling to find a way to control other’s behaviour.

    The one tactic I have found that helps me in situations where unwelcome comments are made is this: I stare at them, then loudly state, “did you just say, _________?” repeating their words back to them. This gets everyone’s attention really quickly. Then I tell them, fairly simply, to “never speak to me that way again.” They usually do not.

    I think calling it out is, in my industry, the right way to go. It is aggressive, but it works. I am sure this would be too much in many fields, but I’ve been reading here for some time, and now I would, thanks to Alison’s tutelage, soften it by simply telling them that this is not how we do things now. But publicly. And politely.

  71. OrigCassandra*

    One thing OP doesn’t mention is the contexts in which the older men are encountering the younger women. If they are society-specific contexts, especially events run by the society, there may be approaches that don’t involve direct confrontation. (Not that I think direct confrontation is off the table — just that other harm-reduction strategies may also help.)

    These men should not, for example, be involved in one-on-one career advice sessions, resume/cover-letter reviewing, industry panels aimed at new professionals, meet-and-greets with or at professional schools, or anything else specific to students or new professionals. Do not let them moderate conference panels or introduce speakers, because they WILL shove their feet down their throats. They also should not edit the society’s publication outlets, because that’s a breeding ground for biased editorial judgment, embarrassing editorials, and (worse) quid-pro-quo. Find other society tasks for them to do, if they still wish to do tasks. Treasurer work is often okay.

    Does the society have a code of conduct? At least for events? If not — it will be an uphill battle to write one, especially if these men still have organizational power, and an even uphiller battle to build the infrastructure necessary to ensure the code has teeth. It’s worth it, though. Always easier to blame a policy during a necessary confrontation.

    I am tangentially involved (due to some of the topics I teach) with a profession whose professional societies strongly resemble that described by the OP. I’ve had to guide several of my students/graduates through a morass of sexism, racism, creepy stuff, and straight-up harassment coming at them through these societies, almost entirely from older cis white men. (Older cis white women in the major national society have also committed acts of racism, ageism, and other exclusions.) It’s deeply frustrating and disheartening, and it absolutely causes skilled new professionals to flee the field (among other things, like the low pay and decent-job scarcity).

    Good luck, OP. Thank you for your concern and for wanting to do something about it.

  72. MissInTheNo*

    OMG OMG OMg!!!!! I am a female in a predominantly male field and have had sooooo much trouble with this from one other woman! This blog is slowly but surely helping me feel less alone.

  73. Casey*

    On this note, any good ideas for a response when a man (nicely) compliments your appearance at work? I never know what to say. I certainly don’t want to say ‘thank you’. But all the responses that go through my mind are probably too harsh.

    1. Robin Ellacott*

      If I want to be gentle I say “well thanks, but what I REALLY want to know is what you thought about [the report, or whatever].”

      1. pancakes*

        This sounds good. Redirect the conversation and don’t dwell on the unwanted moment. It’s a way of taking control without being heavy-handed about taking control.

    2. Trisha*

      “I don’t discuss my appearance at work. Please respect that.”

      As a very fat woman, I have had to use that line a lot when people mention that an outfit makes me look “slimmer” or “oh, it looks like you lost weight.” or “Hey, want to try Herbalife?”

    3. New Jack Karyn*

      “Huh. That sound like something my father/grandfather would say to me, not a coworker.”

  74. learnedthehardway*

    Perhaps ask these guys how they would feel if – instead of acknowledging their expertise in the field – all the young professional people commented to the effect that the guy in question reminds them of their elderly Grandpa?

    Ie. put it back on them in terms that resonate with them, personally – no senior professional wants to be seen as someone who is past their prime or only to be related to in a non-professional context, when the context is professional.

    Of course, you might have to spell that out somewhat to point out that implicit agism is as offensive as implicit gender discrimination.

  75. CSI*

    I suggest scheduling educational programming about equity in your industry that includes a talk by an external equity consultant about these kinds of issues. I then suggest you publish guidelines about communication within society events, and scheduling reminders about the society’s commitment to equity, safe spaces, and appropriate professional communication at the openings of events.

    It won’t fix the comments, but it will clearly communicate that the comments are not endorsed by the society and will help shift the tide. One the challenging issues with these kinds of comments is that those who make them legitimately feel like they are unchallenged leaders in their area. It’s unfair and impossible to put the onus of challenging these comments on their recipients.

  76. DocVonMittens*

    Why is it always in women to be gracious in the face of inappropriate behavior but never on the person being inappropriate to change?

    1. Sparkles McFadden*

      Yes, yes, a thousand times yes..

      An upside of wearing a mask was not having to have random men tell me to “Smile!”

  77. FinanceBroette*

    I’m reminded, unfortunately, of a woman I worked with in an office that was only 30% female. She was given a compliment on her outfit and the male speaker added “I hope that’s appropriate to say, you know… in this climate” and she loudly responded that she loved compliments and she wasn’t “one of those women” who wanted them banned in the workplace.

    Has anyone encountered that professionally? I doubt I’d ever initiate a conversation over that kind of opinion, but I’m curious to know if there’s a script that wouldn’t backfire.

    1. Student*

      This behavior has the desired effect of teaching women to compete against each other and view each other as rivals for the special attention of men. It also has the desired effect of undermining the ability of the woman who fell for it to push back against increasingly creepy remarks on her appearance. She gave him carte blanche to talk about her appearance ad nauseum, and just publicly promised to put up with whatever he dishes out. Now it’ll be hard for her to back out of that when (not if) he gets worse.

      Pity the women who fall for it, but keep your powder dry; aim your wrath on the men who are driving it instead of on the women who are suckered in. The guy knew exactly what he was doing. Turn to the guy and be clear that it does bother you when he focuses on women’s appearances, instead of their work contributions. Point out he doesn’t chat up the men’s appearance and how inappropriate it’d be for you to compare his appearance to that of other old men.

      1. Student*

        Also, to actually answer your question, FinanceBoette – I was that woman for a while. I’m not proud of that, and glad I made it out. Nothing you can say *in that moment* is going to help your fellow woman turn herself around. She has bought into the ideas that (1) women are inferior to men (2) she is a *special* woman – she is either more womanly or more man-like than other women; therefore, she is better than *other* women, who are either too shrill or too stupid, but she herself is still inferior to men.

        She’s only going to break out of it when she realizes other women are also legitimate people – that she’s not as special as she wants to believe she is. And she has to realize that the men driving this particular crap cycle are not acting in her best interest, and never will. For your part, you could , if you are feeling terribly ambitious, try to demonstrate to her that you are a legitimate woman-person and you do not look down on other women or view them all as competition for men’s attention. But really, your influence on her is very limited because she sees you as sub-human due to your gender, so I wouldn’t recommend investing much time. After she gets burned enough by men treating her badly, she’ll either come around, or she’ll live the rest of her life trying to shove other women underfoot to get a man’s attention.

  78. Just another publisher*

    If it’s a Society that also publishes research in journals, and it’s prestigious and large it’s likey they have a publisher? I currently work in academic publishing and work a lot with Societies both large and small, and yeah, this is a common difficulty. If you’re part of the editorial team or board and have contact with the publisher they may have some suggestions for how to raise this within the Society and reduce how often comments like that happen.

    Your Society leadership needs to take this seriously – there are solutions between waiting it out and yelling at the person. Single voices are so easy to ignore. If other members of the Society are as uncomfortable as yourself with this behaviour I’d recommend as a first step as a group approaching whoever is in charge. That can even be done as a signed letter/email, as your members are probably spread out across the country. The Society needs your membership to function, especially people new to the field.

    Also, it’s not the most professional way to fix an issue (or discreet) but I have noticed how frequently Societies, journals and publishers take action when they’re embarrassed on Twitter by people complaining about issues like this…

  79. MissIntheNo*

    I have often found that it is better to just ask or tell….”Don’t do that” “Don’t make those types of comment” etc rather than try to explain why.

  80. WantonSeedStitch*

    I’d frame it as “Reginald, I know your intent when you compliment women on their appearance is to be pleasant and friendly, but think about it from this point of view: women tend to get judged and valued on their appearance all the time in the world, and when a woman has worked hard in a professional career like ours, that’s really frustrating, because they want to be appreciated for their work and their skills, rather than for their appearance. And when you’re being pleasant and friendly to men, you compliment them on their work and their skills. When Fergus hears, “Fergus, you sure have become an expert in X!” and Victoria hears, “Victoria, what a lovely dress!” can you understand how that makes it seem like you see men as valued contributors and women as ornaments? Now, I know you DON’T feel that way, of course, so I’m asking you to be conscious of that when you talk to people, and remember to show the women in our organization that you value them as peers as colleagues, just as you do the men. It will make people respect you all the more as a mentor and role model in our field.”

    1. Trisha*

      Your message is getting lost in the softness – of trying to make “Reginald” not feel bad.

      “Reginald, women tend to get judged and valued on their appearance all the time in the world, and when a woman has worked hard in a professional career like ours, that’s frustrating. When Fergus hears, “Fergus, you sure have become an expert in X!” and Victoria hears, “Victoria, what a lovely dress!” it seems like you see men as valued contributors and women as ornaments. I’m asking you to be conscious of that when you talk to people, and remember to show the women in our organization that you value them as peers and as colleagues.”

  81. Robin Ellacott*

    This stuff is insidious. When I gave my first ever big work presentation to our contract holder, I thought it went well and ended it feeling pretty good. Then I asked for questions, one person (a woman) immediately raised her hand, and asked about my hair.

    It was a complimentary question, and about something I do have control over – to a point, ha – but it still felt pretty deflating.

    Kudos to my older male boss who immediately said “hey, nobody asked about MY hair!” but more than 10 years later it’s still what I remember most about that day. I don’t remember if any other questions were asked.

  82. Comrade Mewtwo*

    I’ve found that focusing on concrete observations and acknowledging that we all have things to work on can be helpful for navigating conversations like this. So something like, “Can I check in with you about something? I’ve noticed you have a tendency to compliment younger women attendees on their physical appearance. I know it comes from a well-meaning place, but this can make women feel like their looks are valued above and beyond their professional contributions. I believe that as our field becomes increasingly diverse, its important that we all consider the ways that we may unintentionally send messages like this to people from historically underrepresented backgrounds. I know I’ve had to do some self-examination related to this myself, so I wanted to respectfully raise this with you.”

  83. Eliza*

    I recommend being as straightforward as possible.

    “Steven, I so value the way you mentor younger people and make them feel welcome, and I know that others do too. I wanted to point out something you might not be aware of: You have a tendency to compliment women in the organization on their appearance, and that can make them feel less welcome. I know that’s not what you’d want.”

    Do NOT assume or worry that he can’t change when no one has even asked him to!!

  84. MissInTheNo*

    The concern for how the men will react supports the idea that the men are making these comments for their own benefit. Why else would they get so upset when asked to stop?

  85. Humorless Feminist*

    Sometimes they mean well, sometimes they don’t. If pointing out privately and gently that this behavior is no longer acceptable doesn’t do the trick, it works well to turn it around publicly and in direct response. “And Dick here means it as a real compliment, as he is always a model of professional attire for us younger people! Look how well he shines his shoes/ties his knots/froofs up his pocket squares” (preferably something that no younger men do any longer).

  86. Monica*

    I vote you find ways to exclude them from certain events. Hold smaller events specifically for people early in their career or with other characteristics in common. If you include mentors, choose the mentors based on the makeup of the group. I’ve found that while older members enjoy things like social mixers and annual galas, sometimes younger members want different things out of a professional group. Why not target your events for the attendees you’re hoping to attract, you might find you attract and retain more members.

  87. Akcipitrokulo*

    Enlist the kind, gentle one in helping you to find a solution.

    – he will be more likely to change his behaviour while working out how to explain to his peers

    – he may have insights into how to approach

    – peers more likely to listen.

  88. Van Wilder*

    Yesterday I was on an internal webcast where a prominent partner at my firm introduced the panel, introducing the female member of the panel as “the Fabulous Jane Peppercorn.” It just rubbed me the wrong way. Like “hey everyone! Look at this woman doing a man’s job! Isn’t she just like people?”

    I know I’m type to find sexism everywhere, but that’s only because sexism is everywhere.

  89. in a STEM field*

    “I know that sometimes we need to understand that older people can’t always change entirely and that it is important to know when something is meant in a mean fashion and when it is meant kindly and you need to let it roll off your back”

    I’m not sure this is true. People CAN change and if these men do mean well, they would probably want to know the terrible impact these “compliments” are having. I remember an older man I worked with coming over after the sexual harassment training horrified after what he had learned women deal with at work.

    Would it be possible to have a bias training or similar programs for these older members?
    With someone explaining the larger sexist (or even other bias) context, they might be more understanding of the overall issue.

  90. Despachito*

    I was wondering whether it is EVER appropriate to mention anyone’s appearance in a work setting, and I find this thread be very helpful to figure it out.

    It is an absolute no-no to comment appearance of someone I do not work closely with.

    As for people with whom I am in a regular contact and on friendly terms, I would not find totally inappropriate to comment on a new haircut/great shoes/stylish combination of a tie and jacket, but I’d be careful not to do it very often and make it sound like “that’s a nice object you have” rather then “you look good in this”.

    1. pancakes*

      I think that’s key, yes – infrequent comments about an admirable choice are probably fine, but “you look good in [whatnot]” is more objectifying and/or more sexualized than work chat ought to be.

    2. Beth*

      I would agree that commenting on a friend’s styling choice is a very different thing than what OP describes. If you’re close enough with someone to notice their shifts in personal styling, it’s not out of place to compliment their great new haircut or interesting piece of jewelry or cool patterned tie! But if you’re that close, those comments make up a pretty minor part of your relationship; you presumably see each other most days and spend most of your time talking about other things, like work, what you’re doing this weekend, the latest lunch place that opened in the area, etc. Between the context and the personalization, that’s a very different thing than a senior member at a networking event issuing comments about how pretty all the young ladies are.

      1. Angstrom*

        Right. The compliment is not the focus of the interaction. With someone I’ve worked with for a long time it might be “Those are some fun earrings! (Reply) What needs to happen to get the llama shipment out the door today?….”

    3. londonedit*

      I think someone further up defined it well – in the general chat-time before a meeting starts, for example, or if you (in Normal Times) bump into someone in the office kitchen, then there’s no problem in saying ‘Oh, that’s a fab dress’ or ‘Nice haircut!’ just as you’d say ‘Hey, how’s the house move going?’ or ‘Good weekend?’ But if you’re in a situation where the focus should be on work, then that’s not the place for comments about someone’s appearance. And in any case it definitely needs to be a ‘that’s a nice object you have’ sort of comment rather than a ‘look at your legs in that skirt’ sort of comment.

  91. theletter*

    My dad described the situation as being very generational, and I think when seen in that light, it’s possible to explain and implement change.

    In the 1950’s and ’60’s, (according to Pops) giving the ‘you look lovely today’ compliment was expected from men to women in any social gathering. It’s easy to see how someone in their 70’s might not register that it’s not a normal part of the conversation for anymore.

    The deal is of course, it’s very much not expected in professional environments, where everyone would rather be complimented on their work. Complimenting a young man on his work and a young woman on her appearance would put her at a disadvantage.

    I think there has to be some consideration to the PSAs on stranger-danger that many, gen-x and younger, experienced as youth – a phrase that might have been complimentary at a nieghborhood BBQ in 1952 can seem downright terrifying at a conference in a strange town.

    In that sense, it’s not a ‘yelling’ situation nor an ‘ignoring’ sitaution – it’s an explaining situation. It’s easy to switch “you look lovely today’ with ‘it’s great to see you,’ with a little practice and context, and I think any reasonable person should be able to do that.

    1. Student*

      Older men have adapted to figure out so many other things in life – how to use smartphones, for example!

      They can learn that it’s time to treat women like people they work with, instead of like decorative houseplants.

  92. JessicaTate*

    It needs to be called out one-on-one, calmly, professionally, directly, and very near the time it happens. This isn’t yelling, this isn’t accusatory; it is shining a light on the behavior, what it means, and asking them to stop. And then repeat if the behavior repeats.

    I say this, because I have done it and I have witnessed it. And for an old guy who’s more obliviously sexist than intentionally sexist, it works.

    There was a guy I’d worked with for a very long time. And it took a while, but one day it struck me that every time I saw him – literally, EVERY time – the first words out of his mouth were a comment about my appearance. Not sexually charged, always a compliment, but about my appearance. And post-MeToo, I made a vow not to let that shit go anymore as “Well, he didn’t MEAN it in a bad way.” So, the next time we were at a big meeting, and the pattern repeated, I waited until a break in the action, and said, “Hey, Bob, can I talk to you for a sec.” I pulled him aside — no need to publicly shame — and told him what I’d seen: “You know, every time you see me, the first thing you say to me is a comment about my appearance. I need you to stop doing that.” I had more prepared if he got defensive, but he didn’t. He was apologetic, and it hasn’t happened since.

    A colleague and her team did something similar with an older, well-meaning man on their staff used the old, “You should smile more.” They called it out: “You can’t say that to people, especially women.” When he didn’t understand why, they explained the background to him.

    Sure, an old guy might be oblivious when they make that comment. So, step one is to remove plausible obliviousness. Then, if they keep doing it, and you keep reminding them, it becomes intentionally unwilling to change and the community makes it increasingly uncomfortable to pretend to be oblivious. “Hey, Bob, remember when I told you about the problem with commenting on women’s appearances? You just did it again.”

    1. The Wandering Scout*

      This ^

      In my first job – retail – I had a customer in his 60s who for several months kept commenting how I had a lovely smile and how nice my face was, and then started calling me Smiler whenever he came in. I was like, 16 or something.
      After another month or so of that he came in and chatted with my boss for a while, then came over to me and said “Do you know why I call you Smiler?”
      I made some passive no in response and he said “I think we got off on the wrong foot. I have a really stressful and busy job that isn’t always positive. And when I come and buy my paper each weekend you are so welcoming and friendly, and you remember if I’ve said I was doing the garden one weekend and ask about it the next. It sets me up on a good foot for the week. I am sorry if it has made you uncomfortable, I’ll call you Wandering Scout from now on.”
      In the end I said I was okay with Smiler (I was) and he went on his way. It turns out my boss had talked to him and said that it came across pretty creepy and not to comment on a woman’s appearance like that. I loved that boss.

  93. Jon*

    Where does the power lie in this field? Who do the commenters look up to or respect? That’s the guy who needs to deliver the message that this isn’t ok.

  94. Phil*

    Maybe a selective pruning of the membership rolls of the worst offenders “pour encourager les autres” with a public statement why.

  95. Despachito*

    I share the opinion that commenting on women’s appearance in a work setting is not an appropriate thing to do, it almost always made me feel awkward and inappropriate, and I would be happy if.

    BUT: I’ve heard some comments from men and often women basically saying “you b.. feminists want to suck all the joy of communication, slight flirting and being perceived/feeling like a beautiful woman.”

    My personal opinion is that if someone needs so badly being complimented by strangers, there is something wrong with their self-esteem, and I always wondered if I come off as a bit tight-lipped party pooper for that. I would perfectly thrive in an environment completely free from compliments related to beauty, but then again there is the little devil whispering in my ear: do I really have the right to take the pleasure of being complimented from all those who want it?

    (I´d be relieved if you say I do ;-))

    1. SnappinTerrapin*

      I believe in old fashioned courtesy, which is based in respect. The objective of extending courtesy and respect is to smooth the path for both parties to achieve some accord, whether it is social or professional.

      Compliments that don’t further that goal miss their intended mark, assuming the best intentions. Some (Some people are, in fact, deliberately discourteous and respectful, while pretending to be the opposite.)

      A compliment that fails to take into account the perspective of the person being complimented is, intentionally or unintentionally disrespectful and discourteous to that person.

      We should aspire to show actual respect and courtesy to the people we meet or work with, which means making the effort to consider the effects a remark might have, whether intended or not. Not every thought that crosses our minds needs to be uttered. I see many thoughtful suggestions on how to shift perspectives, and I appreciate that. I don’t even remember how long it has been since I shifted my choice of phrasing to compliment in the workplace, but I changed my behavior (by realizing that some “compliments” failed to meet the standard above) because I did listen to and consider other perspectives.

  96. Mo*

    A very good*, egregious example of this can be found if you search “BBC 1970 Election Night – Janet Fookes Interview” on youtube. It starts with “we’ve got a new MP, a lady MP” and goes downhill from there. The ending made me gasp the first time I watched it.

    I genuinely think it is a great video to watch for people who don’t get why women don’t like compliments – in particular the fixed smile of the MP.

    *as in very bad

  97. The Wandering Scout*

    I have had some luck in situations like this by starting with modifying the complement style – much as people have above suggested commenting on a choice someone has made (“I like the shirt you are wearing today!” “Those are awesome shoes!” etc), another baby step can be things like “you are so approachable when you interact with clients, it’s great to have you on the team” or “you have a really welcoming style which puts patients at ease” etc. and can also lead into opportunities for mentorship as the older member can follow with a question, or can ask if the younger member wants advice on, as an example, difficult conversations, or managing larger projects for clients while still being friendly and such. I’ve noted that this approach can work with older people as they still feel like they are complimenting the person rather than an object (shirt, shoes).

  98. nnn*

    I’ve had some luck with changing my father’s mind about these kinds of things, so I’m going to share the kind of script I’d use with him in this situation. Obviously the OP’s relationship with this man is not going to have an identical dynamic, but I’m putting it out here in case there’s something you can use:

    “I know you have no way of knowing this, but one thing unkind men do to diminish women professionally – especially younger women – is talk to and about them in terms of appearance, thereby creating and perpetuating an environment where they’re seen as just a pretty face rather than a competent, accomplished professional.

    So when, for example, you compliment Jane on how she’s looking today like you did back there, you come across exactly like these unkind men who go around deliberately diminishing women professionally. Not everyone here knows that you’re actually a kind person, so you’ve inadvertently given them the opposite impression, and may have given Jane the impression that you’re deliberately trying to diminish her.

    If you’re trying to think of what to say in the moment, you could just say “Jane! Great to see you!”

    If you want to correct the impression you may have given, the best thing you can do is compliment and talk up your female colleagues – especially younger women – on their professional accomplishments. Then they’ll know you’re not trying to diminish them professionally. As a man, you could also do a lot of good by talking up women’s professional accomplishments if you hear other men talking about them in terms of appearance.”

    Note: The “kind/unkind” and “as a a man” wordings, and the general emphasis on how people perceive you rather than on outcomes, are things that get results with my father specifically. I wouldn’t necessarily copy them whole cloth for other audiences.

    1. TeaCoziesRUs*

      I like that script! I find it better to encourage change in others behavior by first seeing the good in them and encouraging it.

  99. judyjudyjudy*

    OP, you have really prioritized the comfort and feelings of this older man over the comfort and feelings of the young women trying to engage in professional development in your industry. He is not coming from place of kindness because he is not considering the harm he is doing to those young women — professionally, emotionally — at all. That is UNKIND behavior. He is being UNKIND. You are a bystander to this behavior, and bystanders have power! You don’t need to yell at him; you just firmly and consistently point out this behavior EVERY TIME. I think you should reflect on the ways that you have tried to minimize the negative experiences of these women in regards to his comments and absolve him of responsibility because he’s old and you want to believe these comments are kindly meant. Maybe that reflection will drive more effective action from you, even if it it hard, and awkward, and you wish you didn’t have to be the one to do it.

  100. rabbitround*

    It seems to be comments like ‘it’s maybe not a big deal, but address it’ or ‘it is a big deal and address it.’

    What about ‘it is a big deal, but you don’t have to address it.’

    Is it worth spending career capital on changing the behaviour of mostly irrelevant old men? I’m not sure its worth spending too much time and effort to change old people.

    That said, I am shocked how many seemingly women commentators think these comments are harmless or not badly intentioned. Oh please, these guys would jump a 25 year old if they could. They absolutely would. It is not benign at all. It’s sleazy and some old guys are delusional and believe young women might be into them if they gave it a crack. I’ve known guys that even use the harmless grandpa thing as a cover. Don’t buy it. It’s not innocent at all. But that doesn’t mean you have to bother to do anything about it, you could just brush it off and move on knowing these guys are on the way out.

    1. allathian*

      I’m not so sure about that, given that it’s a professional association and the idea is to mentor young adults early in their professional careers.

  101. C.H.*

    I’m baffled by how many of the comments seem more concerned with not hurting this man’s feelings than they are concerned with how this made the woman feel. Comments should never be made about a woman’s appearance or clothes. Full stop. It doesn’t matter what the man’s intentions were and he needs to be told clearly that this type of language is not ok. If he doesn’t stop he should be removed from the society. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to endure this as a female and I don’t understand why this is still tolerated by so many.

  102. Nope, not today*

    Given that this isnt a ‘this particular older gentleman’ problem but rather a more pervasive problem, could the society itself do something? Have some sort of training at the next conference, have a speaker address it and outline the ways it is problematic, put it in a newsletter? I mean, getting one man to change is great, but it sounds like something that would benefit everyone.

    1. MissInTheNo*

      Because women will do it too, I work as a professional where most women occupy clerical positions and have been treated this way by other women.

  103. Funeral Director*

    As someone who works in a field that has been historically dominated by men, I can relate to this entirely.
    Contestant stream of comments: “oh you are way too pretty to be doing this job” “you got it, sweetheart?” “Didn’t expect you to say that you did that type of work” etc.
    These instances make me want to show these men up with my skill and knowledge.
    Maybe “ha thank you, this isn’t a fashion show ”
    It truly sucks and I wish it were different.

  104. Green Mug*

    In the moment, can you simply turn to him and say, “It’s demoralizing to hear remarks about appearance. Those comments minimize her standing as a professional and as a .” When he protests how about he didn’t mean anything about it, you can respond warmly. Reassure him that you know he didn’t mean anything negative, and that’s why you are helping him by telling him how his ‘compliments’ are being received – with discomfort and disappointment. If he is kind, then he will want to know that his words are having the opposite of his intended effect.

  105. TeaCoziesRUs*

    OP, I empathize with your dilemma. On the one hand you have a kind, wise mentor who is too set in his ways to change even though it has been brought to his attention. On the other, you have women who are exhausted having to explain repeatedly that even though he means no malice his words are unprofessional at best because it’s not just him saying it and the woman hearing it, it’s everyone around them who hears and then subconsciously infantilizes, dismisses, or leers at the person being complimented. My biggest thought after reading your post and most of the comments is to turn this into either a panel discussion or series. Have men you know and respect as professional allies, men who are known and senior hotshots who have done their work, give a panel to everyone about how to be allies in the workplace. Have them talk about their own growth, how THEY realized commenting on appearance rather than output or productivity made their female colleagues and subordinates seem less capable, and other things they realized as part of their growth as allies. Then have them possibly create some sort of guideline that helps men who want to be allies but don’t know where to start. Then for breakouts, divide in small groups by sex so that women don’t HAVE to become a mouthpiece in a group where the men are asking them invasive questions about their own experiences, rather than reflecting on what they themselves have seen and done. (Then possibly do this for racism, LGBTQIA+, reality between workers and management, etc.)

  106. bopper*

    “Thank you for the complement…but it would be more meaningful if it was about my Teapot making abilities, not how I dressed. Please consider seeing us as fellow professionals, not by how we look.”

    “Would you say that to a male Teapot maker?”

Comments are closed.