The topic of sexism – latent or blatant – in the legal profession often engenders (no pun intended) very strong feelings. Nonetheless, having spent much time discussing, reading and thinking about it, I am adding my two cents worth to this discussion.
Most agree that sexism still rears its ugly head not only in the legal profession, but throughout society, and many would like to see it reduced. As expressed by Attorney Sybil Dunlop, sexism “makes our profession a less hospitable place for women and a more comfortable place for men.” Many of us notice it when it is blatant, but we often miss latent sexism, which is much more subtle. For example, it is clear that although they graduate law school in roughly equal numbers, there are more male law partners than female law partners and that salaries and billable rates are higher for men. Those are unavoidable facts that can be statistically proven. But there are other, more subtle aspects of sexism that often go unnoticed – one-liners and other types of inappropriate but accepted conduct that occur daily, leaving many women to feel trivialized, uncomfortable, embarrassed and diminished. Unfortunately, men often have no idea that this is happening.
From numerous conversations I’ve had with female attorneys, I have heard far too many anecdotes to include in this blog (although I hope to follow it up with one or two more on this topic). I have heard how hard it was for a young female associate to be referred to – as though this was humorous – as a “little girl” in front of her clients and other attorneys. Women attorneys are often asked if they are the court reporter when entering a room to take a deposition. One female attorney’s male adversary regularly called her “sweetie.” The only female in a large group of attorneys was singled out as the one with the best legs, and an attorney was told she was too beautiful to be an attorney. These types of incidents occur every day across the country. The speakers may have assumed they were being complimentary, and that their comments should be taken no differently than if they had referred to any number of positive attributes, physical, intellectual or otherwise. From the eyes of the speaker, perhaps they were. But the female attorneys felt embarrassed, trivialized and diminished. They wanted to be viewed as attorneys, not as models. They do not understand why it is acceptable for men, often who they barely know, to single out and comment on their bodies.
The problem itself is often dependent on context. Giving a compliment to someone who you know in a private setting may not be a problem, although there are some concerns as to what is appropriate in the workplace. On the other hand, making an observation about a stranger’s legs in front of a large number of people can result in the person feeling as though they are an object, a thing, a poster – and wondering why such a comment is considered appropriate. Women have worked very hard to be taken seriously in the legal profession and in others, and they continue to do so. Many do not want their looks to be singled out as the main aspect of who they are, the one that separates them in their profession. According to Dr. Sarah Gervais, both critical and complimentary appearance commentary “contributes to negative outcomes such as appearance shame … and such behaviors at work contribute to less productivity and worse psychological well-being in women.” It may be hard to understand how a compliment can cause such strong, uncomfortable feelings, but it is important to recognize that, for many women, it does.
Since Adam, and until the end of time, many men have found and will continue to find some women attractive. As a happily married, heterosexual male, I certainly do. In my other career, as a visual artist, women have been one of my central themes for over forty years.
But I have learned that I don’t need to put into words every thought that comes into my head. As Dylan sang, “If my thought dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” Even Dylan keeps some of his thoughts to himself! When we speak, we should remember where we are, what the situation is, who else is there, and, perhaps most of all, the impact of what we are saying on those who are listening. Sometimes it is very important to express yourself – for example, on issues of politics, case-strategy, law firm management, and many others – even when you know that the listener may disagree with your remarks. But when it comes to comments that can be viewed as sexist, trivializing, and appearance or gender based, if you think that your remarks may offend or embarrass someone or make them feel uncomfortable, it is probably worth keeping them to yourself. Let’s see if we can make the legal profession hospitable for all.