Saturday, November 21, 2009

Back When I Worked in an Office...

A long, long time ago, I had a job in a governmental agency.  There was a single men's room and a single ladies' room on that floor, and roughly 50 employees.  Now, I have no idea if gender politics have improved in the past 20 years, but back then it was possible for a man in the workplace to treat other men differently than how he treated his female co-workers.

[I'll post another day about how women can treat women in the workplace -- gender politics are different but not necessarily better when only women are involved.]

Now I share the fascination with urinals.  Keep in mind that indoor plumbing is a relatively modern innovation and wasn't widely available until the late 19th century or early 20th century.  The urinal was invented (or at least patented) in 1866.  That's smack in the middle of the Victorian era -- weren't they supposed to be all uptight, sexually?  So why don't urinals have more modesty?  Whether men look at each other's equipment is a completely separate question from why they even have the option.

Back to my agency office.  I finally arrived at a theory of gender politics.  In a stable office place, meaning one with a low turnover of personnel, it stands to reason that all the men have at some time peed next to each other.  I figure the subconscious is a fascinating force of nature, so combined with the powers of peripheral vision, it stands to reason that while men may think they're not checking out whether the guy at the next urinal is bigger or smaller, after a while, they probably have some subconscious notions of where they rank in the (cough) pecking order.

And then it hit me:  the man who has a good idea that his is the smallest? -- that's the guy most likely to treat his female colleagues with contempt and condescension.  Because even if it's the smallest, at least he's got one!  By extension, the guy who is particularly fair and treats women with appropriate equality and respect?  He's got the biggest.  Stands to reason -- he's got no reason to make some fallacious argument (even subconsciously) about the value in the workplace of having an external male member.

I've posited this theory on a few occasions.  I worked one summer at the local energy company in an office where the women were mostly support staff.  When I explained my theory, they knew immediately who had the largest equipment and who had the smallest!  They were quite happy with that insight into the office politics, as it explained a lot of otherwise mysterious behavior.

Elsewhere, I've been met with disbelief and resistance.  And I'll admit, my theory is entirely theoretical.  But now I have the advantage of some investigation, albeit highly anecdotal.  Check out Christine Kelly's piece in Vice:  Men & Urinals: An Investigation.  In addition to being delightfully funny, it answers some questions.  I did not know, for example, that men instinctively leave an empty urinal between them and the next guy down.  (Akin to the empty movie theater seat maneuver, thus avoiding the awkward competition with a stranger for the shared armrest.)  On the other hand, nothing in this article disproves my theory that men subconsciously check size and relativity.

Now I just need Ms. Kelly to investigate another pet theory of mine.  Supposedly 5% of all adult men have some non-standard sexual predilection.  So, in an office with 100 men, can you figure out which one likes to wear women's underwear, which one likes to be dominated, etc. on the basis of how they behave in the workplace?  (It's a statistical fallacy to assume any group of 100 men will include precisely one practitioner of each predilection, but then it would be an equal fallacy to assume it includes none.  They can't all work someplace else!)

And yes, there is a reason why I don't work in an office anymore.  But no, it didn't involve any allegations that I promoted a hostile workplace.  I just like to make sense of my environment.

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