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Are Women Still Expected to Be "Lady-Like" at Work?

Vivia Chen

June 19, 2019

Photo: Wikipedia


How often do I talk about sports in this column? Like never.

So you know something must be getting under my skin when I suddenly focus on the World Cup—granted, I’m talking about the Women’s World Cup.

Did you see the hell that the women’s U.S. soccer team got when it creamed Thailand at the opening game last week? In case you missed it (and you probably did because how many red-blooded Americans care about soccer?), the American team played spectacularly, beating Thailand 13 to 0.

After that awesome win, you’d think that commentators would be heaping on the praise, perhaps taking up the cause of pay equity for the team. (The U.S. Women’s National Team is now suing the U.S. Soccer Federation for gender discrimination. Though the women’s team generates more revenues and has a far superior record than the U.S. men’s team, they are paid less and get fewer benefits.)

Instead of adulation, the U.S. women faced a barrage of criticism for celebrating—too loudly and rambunctiously—every time they scored a goal. New York Magazine’s The Cut summarizes some of the criticisms:

“Some commentators took issue with [midfielder/winger] Megan Rapinoe’s joyous twirls following the ninth goal of the match, which ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman, a former player for the U.S. men’s team, said on Twitter left a ‘sour taste’ in his mouth. ESPN’s Max Bretos seemed to agree, tweeting: ‘I would tone down the celebration for the 9th goal, but that’s just me.’ On TSN’s World Cup show, former players for Canada’s national team called the celebrations ‘disgraceful.’ ”

I don’t regularly follow sports, but I have to ask: How much of this is about excessive celebration and how much of it is a gripe about female immodesty?

But what really bothered me was that some of the criticisms came from women, including those who were competitive athletes themselves. On CBS This Morning, soccer legend Hope Solo said, “I truly believe that we have to show so much class, especially coming from the number one team in the world.”

And Clare Rustad, who played for Canada’s national team tweeted: “The USWNT displayed poor sportsmanship excessively celebrating many of the 13 goals against a 34th ranked team.” adding, ”It has nothing to do with the final score. You are one of the best teams in the world. Act like it. And yeah, I definitely would have said the same about a men’s team.”

So did these critics approve of anything that the U.S. women’s team did? Solo cited an example: “What I thought was so classy was after the end of the game, [forward] Carli Lloyd went up to the Thailand goalkeeper, and she put her arm around her and walked her off the field. That’s the kind of class I want to see from the United States.”

That was a nice gesture, but it also plays into a stereotype: Women get approval when they play the role of nurturer and dial down the aggressor part. (Query: Do burly football players comfort the opposing team after a game?)

And all that talk about keeping it “classy,” not being “disgraceful” and living up to the standards of being a member of “one of the best teams”—are those code words for our lingering sexism? Are we talking about behaving like a lady?

What all this brings to mind is the tightrope that women in any competitive situation must walk—you know, that stuff about being tough yet lovable, strong yet feminine.

By this point, I’m sure you can all recite at least one study that shows the centrality of likability for women. For instance, you might recall that women get hammered for giving off bossy vibes or advocating too forcibly on their own behalf for raises or promotions.

And, of course, Hillary Clinton is the cautionary tale of what happens to a hardworking, competent woman whose likability quotient is low: You suffer the ultimate indignity—losing to some loser like you-know-who.

Frankly, I thought by now we’d be free of some of the old expectations about women’s behavior, especially when we’re talking about the literal playing field. I mean, if women can’t be raucous and aggressive in a high stakes sports competition, can they afford to let loose anywhere else?


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





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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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