The “Am I the Next Bill Cosby?” subject line was the Letter Writer’s own word choice, if that helps you decide whether to keep reading.
Also, comments are closed as of 3/15.
I am a 50’s married man who owns my own business in an obscure, male-dominated field which requires engineering savvy and a lot of building of things by hand. About five years ago I lost all my help within several months due to various things beyond my control ( major events like death, for instance). Desperate for help, since I had two projects, and was already running behind, I very reluctantly hired a 17 year old girl, whose mother thought experience in my field would be great for her daughter. I held out little hope for this arrangement, and was more than a little nervous, working alone with this kid. I never had a daughter, so I entered into the whole aspect of how to interact with this “alien life form” with trepidation. Not to mention that it seemed kind of creepy. Within weeks, still needing more help, I acquiesced to also employing this girl’s best friend: “she’s a really good kid”, I was told. Then the best friend’s sister was available, so I had three. Their combined output, and the painstaking quality of their work exceeded any expectations I ever had, so I have kept working them over the years, watching them blossom from 17 year olds (with no filter who would tell me anything), into young adults who are confident, funny and well-adjusted. Quite a bit of mild drama has gone on, including a love triangle: I hired a guy (Oh, good! A guy! Someone I can relate to!), not knowing he was already completely infatuated with girl “A”, who was herself mildly interested in him. Meanwhile, girl “B”, who was “A’s” best friend, was infatuated with him, but to him she clearly did not even exist. Girl “B” confessed all to me one day when we were working alone together, and we had a long talk. I asked if she wanted to jeopardize her good friendship with girl “A” by making her feelings known. She did not want to take that chance. It all worked out. The guy was not terribly skilled at the work and left soon after to work at a hip clothing store in a mall. I reminded girl “B” recently of the crush she had had on this guy when she was 17, and she was utterly embarrassed she had told me so much. I reassured her she had no need to be embarrassed, that looking back on it, it all seemed pretty funny and sweet.
I often have to travel alone with a helper, so I generally take whichever girl is available and/ or interested in a road trip. Almost all the girls, for some reason, get so comfortable talking to me about all sorts of things that the conversation sometimes veers into bizarre territory before I realize where we are. Telling me about their miserable experience trying to find the right bra (apparently this is a common grievance) and explanations about problems with feminine hygiene products ought to be off limits, and several of the girls have found themselves a little embarrassed when they realize what they have blurted out. I gently try to remind them whose company they are in, and we both have a good laugh. Add to this the fact that this sort of work attracts engineering-minded girls who might score pretty high in the Asperger’s spectrum, and thus prone to say whatever comes into their minds, and you have a combustible mixture of situations which look highly inappropriate, but are completely innocent. For instance, on the job site, an engineering-minded task-oriented girl whips out a screwdriver to help with a very difficult, inaccessible mechanical part, and asks me flatly, “Alright, you want me to screw while you watch?” Or, lovely young lady starts talking about make-up and how she hates to wear it, all while the two of us are pretty physically entwined trying to hold too many delicate parts in one place out of our line of sight while one of us tries to screw an unseen fastener in place. This wouldn’t have been so bad, except she turned to me, our faces three inches apart, and said, “But I have to wear mascara. See, my eyelashes come in completely blond, and it just looks like I have no eyelashes at all.” Then she batted her eyelashes at me multiple times, just as the customer walked in. We couldn’t change position, or all the little electronic gizmos we were holding in place out-of-sight would have fallen into Sheol, so we grimly kept working, still entwined. Or I worked grimly: she seemed cheerfully and utterly unaware that we had been “caught”.
Since the first three girls, I have had quite a few others, all of them in and out at various times what with college schedules. Recently, one of my most skilled and valuable workers, who has been slowly becoming aware of how often I end up in compromising situations, said, “Well, I love the work, but I wouldn’t blame you if you stopped working us altogether. You might end up being the next Bill Cosby.” I thanked her for her optimism, and then we immediately had a wildly funny conversation, analyzing all the other girls to try to figure out which one of them might go crazy-off-the-rails in 15-20 years and accuse me of things that never happened. We reached no conclusions.
So should I keep employing girls, or take the careful route, throw in the towel, and start deliberately looking for men? It certainly would make road trips easier. I did see a psychologist two years ago to try to figure out if there was something weirdly wrong, that young women kept showing up to work for me. She seemed to think that, even though it was pretty unusual, that everything was fine.
So far all the dire warnings I received from pretty much all my friends have not occurred, e.g., “One of those girls is going to get a crush on you! That’s really dangerous, and you’ll be traveling all alone!” or, “You better not do this! You’ll get arrested! And anyway, it looks terrible!” But it has been oddly isolating, because so many of my friends ( not that I have very many) don’t even want to hear about it. Men, in particular, all get the same look in their eye when I attempt to get some advice about the occasional odd problem: it is the look of terror. If I begin an attempt to get a little advice, my question may start out something like this: “I would like your insight on something. Caitlyn and I drove together to Milwaukee, and had to spend several nights on the road. Here is what happened…” By this point they are backing away from me and want nothing better than to not-have-to-answer-the-question-whatever-it-is. So I have given up seeking much advice and mostly wing it on my own. Any advice I do glean comes from older women.
So maybe if I quit employing girls, I could talk to my few friends about my life again. Or as the oldest of my helpers (age 23) suggested, I could just write a book about all the weird and funny stories, and hope to make enough money to quit working altogether. But when she realized she would also be in the book, she suddenly was not so enthusiastic.
I should add that I tell everything to my wife, who gets a real kick out of all the weird situations, but, she admits she has no analytical skill at trying to help me figure out what I should do in situations that might be a problem.
Worried Employer of Competent Women
Dear Worried Employer:
The “surprising” competence of the women you’ve hired is not the problem. Nor is their youthful energy or occasional workplace crushes on young dudes you hire. Nor is the likelihood of “compromising situations” occurring the problem, as you say yourself:
So far all the dire warnings I received from pretty much all my friends have not occurred, e.g., “One of those girls is going to get a crush on you! That’s really dangerous, and you’ll be traveling all alone!” or, “You better not do this! You’ll get arrested! And anyway, it looks terrible!”
Zero of the actual girls have gotten actual crushes on you. How about that.
Zero actual compromising situations of any kind have resulted from your decision to hire young women. How deeply strange.
And yet, you seem to be obsessed with this possibility. Your letter reads like a combination of a Letter to Penthouse, Nabokov’s Lolita (Humbert Humbert would def. keep an accurate eyelash movement count), and a Three’s Company-episode: “All These Young Women ‘Blossoming’ Around Me, Can You Believe Nothing Sexual Has Happened Yet?”
If you had teenaged boys working for you and they made slightly off-color jokes and got twisted up with you repairing things and went on road trips, etc., would it be some kind of dark web of sexy sexual intrigue and fantasy? If a young male employee made a joke that you thought was inappropriate, or talked about something that you thought was too personal or weird, you would probably a) ignore it or b) tell him, “Pipe down, son, we’re at work.”
There was and is nothing stopping you from doing the same with these employees, who, having started working for you at 17, didn’t come in knowing all the unwritten rules of how to behave in a professional workplace and were maybe sorta relying on their first-ever boss (a kindly older gent sort of like their dad or grandpa) to teach them. You have had the power all along to say “That’s not appropriate,” and to set the tone and environment in your business any way you’d like it to be. You don’t need to fire anyone, your employees will follow your lead on that just like they followed your lead on learning the intricacies of the work. Scripts: “Very funny, but we’re at work, let’s focus.” “It’s nice that you see me as a sounding board and a friend, but I’m also your boss, and some topics are really not for the workplace.” “We’ve all gotten very comfortable working together over the years, but sometimes it’s good to redraw the lines of what professional behavior is.” You clearly know this, because you say that when topics got too personal you did try to “gently remind them whose company they were in,” but not until you’d hung on every word and batted eyelash.
If you can’t remember the scripts, and you lose your way going forward, ask yourself, is this how I would treat a male employee? If the answer is no, then don’t do or say that thing.
You say that dealing with all of this “has been oddly isolating, because so many of my friends ( not that I have very many) don’t even want to hear about it.”My read on this is that either over the years you’ve bored the shit out of them with these fantasies thinly disguised as complaints, or, like your psychologist, they don’t see anything inherently weird about working with women. Does solving this really require a) joking comparisons to a serial rapist (which we will get to in a minute, believe me), b) violating federal employment law or c) mess with the livelihoods of excellent employees?
It is illegal in the United States to use gender to discriminate in hiring practices. It is illegal, frankly, because of people who see women the way you see women, as sexual beings first and human beings second. Your letter portrayed women as temptresses (don’t think I don’t smell some of that Old Time Religion in your worldview) and unreliable narrators.Your letter portrays the talents of your female employees as exceptions and flukes, even when you have years of evidence that they are not. You called them “alien” and said again and again that you couldn’t possibly relate to them even though in the day-to-day it sounds like you get along pretty well (probably because they are blissfully ignorant of or have learned to laugh at your fixation). You portray them as more likely to “go “crazy-off-the-rails” or cause “drama” (even though the young man you hired had an equal role in crushing on coworkers). I know I have been pretty harsh on you, but your question wasn’t about how to make your workplace run better or how to be a better boss, it was “Should I discriminate against women to prevent myself from being the victim of these Daughters of Eve and their fake rape accusations when they go crazy in the future.” What.
This “problem” is completely 100% fixable, by you, now, today, if you stop reading sexual subtext into situations that are not sexual, if you reassert some basic boundaries about what kind of topics are welcome in the workplace, and if you find a new topic of conversation for your friends and save the “funny” “stories” about how you work with all ladies for your “book.” Your field is male-dominated…for now. It doesn’t have to be. You can be part of the solution, you can relax and enjoy the company of the awesome people you’ve mentored, you can choose to put this entire burden down and like these people in an uncomplicated way while you help their careers and do good work together. Your employees aren’t into you. Your clients and passersby don’t think you are all screwing. Your wife and your friends aren’t worried about what could happen.
Or, you can literally be the problem as you fire all your best employees because you can’t stop waiting for the the other screw to drop.
Let’s talk about that awkward, awkward Bill Cosby “joke.”
I’m sure Bill Cosby can create a story in his head about how he is a kind mentor who just tried to help all those women succeed in show business, and it’s a shame that (at the time of this post) thirty-four of them independently went “crazy-off-the-rails” and described pretty much the exact same modus operandi of being drugged and assaulted.
I believe Bill Cosby’s accusers.* They aren’t crazy. They were attacked by a man they thought was their friend, a man they looked up to. You think fans of Cosby wish that this weren’t true? Nobody wishes this weren’t true more than those women.
I don’t get the vibe that you are drugging and raping your employees, but I do get the vibe that deep down you are grooming them, and your wife, and everyone you know (and yourself) to accept the inevitability of some sort of “It just happened!” scenario if one of them were to happen to launch herself at you. If shit hits the fan, you want the narrative to be “Look at poor Worried Employer, that’s what you get for trying to help young women” (the narrative that is protecting Bill Cosby) and not “Remember how I constantly thought about how people might think we’re having sex even though we’re totally not (but we could be)?”
Sadly, your employee doesn’t believe Cosby’s accusers, and she made a really unfortunate and joke at their expense. You and she certainly are certainly not alone in those views. We live in a culture where an unconscious girl can be raped on video and people will still try to argue that she caused it somehow. She batted her eyelashes, maybe, or made a bad joke about screwing while holding a screwdriver in front of the wrong boy or wrong dirty old man. Someone is always counting up the things we do so it can be our fault when someone hurts us, so that men can be the “real” victims of something we are.
You changed your mind after you hired that first alien/girl, couldn’t you, I don’t know, change your mind about all of it and decide that women are human?
*Moderation Note: The accusations against Bill Cosby are not up for debate here. If you have doubts or want to explore the truth claims of that topic, post them on your own blog. If you want to meet the banhammer, permanently and without warning, try me with some of that Devil’s-Advocate-rape-apologia bullshit.