Q: I’m a project leader. I recently organized a meeting in our small conference room. After I sat down, my supervisor told me I was sitting in “John’s” seat. I apologized and immediately took another seat. A few minutes later, John, a manager, arrived and sat in the seat I had vacated. I felt uncomfortable about being told to move, as I was the only woman at this meeting. I have not worked much with John, although my supervisor says he is considered a “genius.”
When I told a female co-worker about the incident, she said it reminds her of Rosa Parks, with a man telling a woman to get up so another man can sit down. I have been quiet about this event, but now wonder if I should inform my supervisor’s boss about this or consult with the EEOC.
A: My first thought was, is your co-worker seriously comparing this white-collar seating squabble to an iconic event in the struggle against institutionalized racism? Let’s dial that rhetoric back a tick.
Now then. I can see why it might raise your hackles that you, as project leader and meeting organizer, were not afforded the minimal courtesy of being allowed your choice of seats. But I can think of several explanations that would have nothing to do with you or your gender:
John may have a hidden condition, such as claustrophobia or PTSD, that is alleviated by sitting in that particular seat in this room.
The same traits that give John a reputation as a genius may also make him extremely particular about seating arrangements, and management may have decided that’s a small price to pay for his contributions.
That seat may traditionally go to someone in John’s role. (My editor informs me that Washington Post newsroom meetings follow role-based seating traditions.)
Or John may just be a privileged crank with seniority whose preferences are indulged out of mindless habit or fear.
Or I could be completely off base, and this one incident may be symptomatic of a subtly sexist environment in which women are primarily the ones tasked with taking notes, ordering lunches or brokering interpersonal conflicts — acts that individually seem innocuous but collectively seem insidious.
You need a broader context than this one incident. So observe and investigate: Are you and other women generally treated as equals among your male peers? Ask your supervisor: “Were you just pulling my chain? What’s the history with John and his chair?”
Once you’ve done your research and have a better sense of the context, the stakes and the possible consequences of breaking the “John” rule, you can decide whether this issue is worth taking a stand — er, seat — on, or whether it merits nothing more than a shrug and a “Sorry, I’ll try to remember that.”