Coach at work: boobs in the office
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Coach at work: boobs in the office

We put your workplace conundrums to an executive coach.

I just returned from another meeting where my boobs got me in trouble. As a buxom lass I always choose my work attire extremely carefully, which I have learned through hard experience now precludes button-up shirts or anything with a V-neck. Despite all this effort, it never ceases to amaze me that men in the office stare openly at my chest. And I'm talking senior managers, and men of all ages and ethnicities.

I don't feel I should hide my body as though there were something wrong with it, and I'm happy to wear appropriate clothing at work. But at what point am I allowed to say: "Hey you! Eyes up here!"

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– Buxom in Belconnen

The coach:

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In some countries, drawing attention to behaviour that makes you uncomfortable can get you shot, demoted or fired; particularly if you're a woman. In the relatively benign halls of the Australian Public Service, however, there's never been a more exciting time to assert that certain behaviours are not OK with you; no matter your pay grade or the extent of your, um, mammaries. Communicating where you stand is a great thing for all of us to become expert on, no matter how dumb you feel in the minute before you muster your courage and speak those hard words out loud.

The coach: Jacqueline Jago.

The coach: Jacqueline Jago.Credit:Sari Sutton

In the office, first let's assume that ogling the breasts of a female colleague is not on. Second, let's poll the men in our lives about the breast thing and its slightly abashed younger sibling, the staring thing.

Gentle readers, I've learned that lots of straight men love boobs, notice them all the time and work pretty hard to avoid being caught in the act of checking them out. While this is deeply shocking, I'm also informed that, as a species, men have their own special words for boobs, and none of them start with B.

Now: let's poll the women. My scientific research suggests that the number of women made uncomfortable by men's chest-staring is much higher than most men would think, not least because few women arrive at adulthood in good shape about their size. To women, boobs feel private, in inconvenient contrast to the upfront nature of their location. At work? Pretty much all women really hate having their boobs instead of their eyes talked to. About as much as men would hate women staring at their genital area in the tearoom as if imagining it unclothed.

The part that's harder to untangle seems to be that some men think women like having their boobs looked at as much as men enjoy looking; that the fact of having boobs is an invitation to inspect. I'm sorry to say that my diligent search has also uncovered a creepy train of breast-related commentary that's all about the entitlement of men to look – even into locked hotel rooms. This is a failure of empathy. It doesn't add up to mean or nasty, or to a lawsuit (except when it does).

What might seem to be faux pas is a general vibe of unchecked visual greed (i.e. ogling). Male readers: it's safe to say that, if you have this, your female colleagues have noticed.

I know you'd never ogle a female colleague but, if you're caught in a glance, just pull an abashed face and move on. Who or what you check out when no one's looking is really between you and your maker. I also respectfully suggest that you just politely look away from any feelings like "well, if she didn't want me to stare she would have [worn an item of clothing I approved of in advance]". The art of politely overlooking things belongs to your adulthood, and boobs at work are not the only thing you'll need to get over if you want to be the man your daughter, and your team, can look up to.

Buxom in Belco: your response will depend on how creeped-out you feel in each situation. If amused (he's a good colleague, you don't find him creepy, he's just out of uni) but wanting to communicate a request for more professional behaviour, smile and cross your arms while holding eye contact. If unamused, do the same minus the smile. You could also look down at your chest and pretend to search for whatever he's staring at: "what, did I spill my coffee?" "eyes up here" sound like great responses, though if the dude is clueless rather than creepy, I'd recommend you keep the tone light.

One more thing, Buxom. Don't overdose on the covering-up. Dress professionally, but it's fine to send a signal that you expect, indeed have a hard-fought right, to be a woman at work without being treated like someone else's entertainment.

Boobs at work are not the only thing you'll need to get over if you want to be the man your daughter, and your team, can look up to.

Jacqueline Jago is an executive coach and the principal of Bloom Coaching & Consulting. Send your questions to counsel@canberratimes.com.au.