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Lesson from Hillary: Female Bosses Don't Always Side with Women

Vivia Chen

February 9, 2018

Careerist-Hillary-art

Were you shocked, dismayed or disgusted that Hillary Clinton didn't fire the sexual harasser on her staff during her first run for president in 2008?

Me? All of the above, except shocked.

Of course, we expect better from a female leader, especially one who ran on a platform of women empowerment. But isn't the reality that female leaders are often not markedly better than male ones?

That's certainly been my experience. Many women will tell you that they've been disappointed, hurt or sidelined by a female boss at some point. And, if we're being brutally honest, some women will say that their least supportive boss was a woman.

But enough about me. First, let's talk about Hillary and the way she handled Burns Strider (sounds like a name from a bodice ripper, no?). While serving as Clinton's official faith advisor, Strider allegedly sexually harassed a young woman who reported to him. (Quick digression: Why does anyone need a paid faith advisor? Shouldn't that be gratis?)

It took her almost a week but Clinton finally said what we were waiting to hear. "If I had it to do again, I wouldn’t,” Clinton wrote in a lengthy Facebook entry about her decision to keep Strider on staff.

In that Facebook entry, Clinton also asks the big question on our minds: Shouldn't a female boss do better by her female underlings? She writes:

Does a woman have a responsibility to come down even harder on the perpetrator? I don’t know. But I do believe that a woman boss has an extra responsibility to look out for the women who work for her, and to better understand how issues like these can affect them.

The upshot is that Clinton didn't do better. Instead of firing Strider, she docked his pay and ordered him to get counseling. The woman who complained about his behavior got reassigned and, according to The New York Times, signed a nondisclosure agreement.

Despite Clinton's advocacy for women, she followed the standard corporate playbook in her role as manager: The offending man gets to keep his job while the woman is packed away and hushed up.

So much for female empowerment!

Before everyone jumps on the let's-dump-on-Hillary bandwagon, let's focus on a more critical point: Women can't count on female bosses to come to their rescue and rally behind the cause. If they do, they're likely setting themselves up for disappointment.

We've all been there: In meetings, around the water cooler, in hallways and offices, where a guy—a colleague, partner, client, a nobody—makes an uncomfortable remark full of sexual innuendo. And how many times is that guy called out on it?

In my experience: zero. Partners or managers of either sex almost always let the offending remark slide by. The only difference is that while the male manager might chuckle along, the female manager ignores it or pretends she didn’t hear it.

And even in situations where the offense is more serious, like a male employee or client who persistently targets individual women, I’ve never seen the person in charge (male or female) reprimand the offender.

I think most female managers know exactly what's going on in those situations, but choose not to stick their heads out. Is that because they're afraid? Maybe. Is it also because we're all used to putting up with male garbage? Definitely.

But there's often another calculus going on—and that's that the male offender is usually considered more indispensable than the woman to the firm, company or enterprise. He might be a client, a rainmaker or just someone who's chummy with the powers-that-be.

Which brings us back to Hillary Clinton's handling of Strider. What's so indispensable about a faith advisor to a presidential campaign? Did he have telepathic powers? Or does Clinton have an unusually high tolerance for piggish male behavior?

Perhaps I'm looking at all this through a post #MeToo lens, but it sure beats the hell out of me why Clinton didn't kick this guy out on his ass. 

vchen@alm.com

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About The Careerist

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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