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Vivia Chen

June 16, 2017

  Emaifeatures

 

Lordy. Lordy. Lordy.

Are men really this terrified of us?

In case you're not keeping score, the sexist comments are flying these days! I can't parse all of them, so let's just focus on two recent incidents.

First, there was that meeting at Uber in which Arianna Huffington mentioned that having women on boards helps encourage more women to join. In response, her fellow (now ex) board member David Bonderman said, "Actually, what it shows is that it's much more likely to be more talking."

Then there was this: California Senator Kamala Harris was called "hysterical" by CNN pundit and former Trump advisor Jason Miller for the way she questioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions before the Senate. (Worth noting: CNN political analyst Kirsten Powers immediately criticized Miller for his word choice.)

Beside reinforcing stereotypes about women, these comments convey another message: Women should shut up. Or at least tone it way, way down.

Bonderman's remark is stunningly condescending. He's essentially saying that women add no value to serious discussions except suck up valuable air time from men. (Never mind that many studies show that women don't talk nearly as much in meetings as men. And never mind that Bonderman made his remark during a discussion about fixing Uber's problems with diversity and inclusion.)

As for Miller's "hysterical" comment, that's an oldie but goodie; he's suggesting that women who do their jobs zealously are emotionally unstable and shrill. (As we all know, the best way to attack a woman  who threatens the male order is to label her unhinged, vengeful and maybe a bit slutty.)

Ironically, the two comments represent two extreme views of women who operate in male dominated arenas: They're either not up to the job (vapid chatter boxes, in Bonderman's view), or castrating careerists (Miller's view of Harris' advocacy style).

Speaking from the New York bubble, I think most people would find Bonderman's attitude antiquated. (Haven't we all been in enough meetings where men hog the stage with their not-so-brilliant comments?)

Our feelings about assertive women? Well, that's more complicated.

As any female over the age of three knows, it's really, really important to be well-liked if you want to get along in the world. And guess what? We tend not to like women who are aggressive or ambitious. (Studies show that women are penalized for the same behaviors that are acceptable for men.)

Which means that Harris' problem is what a lot of women face, particularly in fields like law where you are suppose to be aggressive. Her "style" problem, I think, is that she behaved like a lawyer during the hearings (remember, she was California's attorney general)—meaning she was tough and direct.

Do we need reminding that a Congressional hearing is not some sort of high tea where Harris is tasked with serving finger sandwiches and making polite chit-chat? I don't know if Harris was measurably harsher than her colleagues on Sessions, but I'd argue she was doing her job. What's wrong with roughing up Sessions, who was so evasive during the hearings, when the whole point of a Congressional investigation is to probe the murky relationship between the Trump administration and Russia?

But for a host of reasons, we cringed at such directness from a woman. Sessions, for one, acted like he deserved to be treated with more delicacy. Responding to Harris, he said: "I’m not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous." (Luckily for him, Senator John McCain swept to his rescue, chastising Harris for being overbearing.)

So there you have it: An assertive woman is so scary and menacing that even the attorney general of the United States quakes in his boots, melting into a helpless Southern belle.

Come to think of it, I'm okay with that.

Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. On Twitter: @lawcareerist

Photo: Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

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There's great irony in Harris being labeled as hysterical while Sessions was acting as the delicate flower.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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