When a little girl kicks a little girl in the shins, pulls her hair, or calls her names- we tell the abused child that her bully is mean (because nobody calls children bad names). The same holds true if a little boy kicks a little boy, or if a little girl kicks a little boy. But, when a little boy kicks a girl in the shins, pulls her hair, or calls her names- we tell the abused child that the boy probably just has crush on her and is trying to flirt with her. We tell her to not take it personally, boys will be boys.
And when those little kids grow up and become engineers (as some children are known to do), it becomes unacceptable to pull anyone's hair, or kick anyone in the shins. But for some reason, if a man is personally a jackass in the work place to a young woman- he is still somehow occasionally able to keep that "flirting" card that parents made up in grade school to avoid disciplining their children.
For example, I once asked a coworker a question about some work he had asked me to review, and he came to my desk not one, not two, but three times to tell me how stupid the question was. I would like to note here that the question was not stupid, but was actually me kindly pointing out that he had made a significant mistake (which he realized a week later, after having wasted a lot of time on his project). I knew his boss would catch it later if he was too proud to fix it at the time, so I didn't feel like it was worth the argument. And yet he not only defended the mistake vehemently, but he spent over half an hour reaming me as I continued to try to work on other tasks.
"I can't believe you would think that there was any foundation for a question like that," he said in an even tone. "If you had more experience you'd know that was a ridiculous thing to ask."
But after the fact, when I recounted the story to a coworker and friend of mine, he said, "Vanessa, you are overacting. He's not being mean, he's just flirting with you!" And coworkers who witnessed the whole affair and had texted me and emailed me at the time asking if they needed to step in all said afterward that "he must just have a crush on you" because it was "totally out of character" for him.
I don't believe this was flirting (because if it was, it was the worst flirting I've ever experienced in my life). But even if it was flirting, I don't think it is fair to write off being mean just because the perpetrator wants to get into your pants. There have been other cases (although none quite as bad) where men have been outwardly rude to me at work, and others have commented later that "he must like you" as if that will somehow make everything better. I know there is such a thing as playful teasing, but this behavior is a step beyond that. If the same thing was said to any man in my office, there would be hell to pay. But if it's said to a woman, it's excusable. He just likes her. Everyone's made mistakes.
I realize that people typically say this with the intention of making the woman feel better about a bad situation, because somebody likes her so that must be good news. In my opinion, it actually just makes it seem like a woman should be striving for a man to like her regardless of how he treats her. It makes it seem like the woman somehow deserved to be mistreated, because somebody liked her. But, being respectful and kind to other people should be something we all strive for regardless of gender. So, next time you see somebody being a jerk in the workplace- don't write them a "get out of jail free" card if they are being mean to someone of the opposite gender.