If You Can’t Beet ‘Em, Join ‘Em: Professionalism and the Use of Sarcasm

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em:  This column will focus on using humor to deal with sexism.  After working for over 10 years in the in the public and private sector, I have found that men seem to have the unique ability to use humor when interacting with each other regardless of whether there is a hint of seriousness to the "joke" that is being made.  Women face sexism in many different forms through many walks of life - while this is an issue that should be taken seriously, we are still faced with the task of balancing our own reaction to this with our day to day interactions with fellow colleagues.  I think there is something to be gained by trying to use humor, the same way men do, in striking this balance.  This series will focus on all of this and hopefully will provide some clarity on striking a balance.

The first time I really put legitimate thought into sexism in the judiciary became glaringly apparent when I was in law school and a close friend of mine was a young prosecutor.  She told me this story about her experience when she was once on trial with one of the most difficult cases she had every litigated.  Putting aside the different roadblocks regarding the actual case itself, the judge she stood before exacerbated the experience all together.  She was told to shut up in front of the jury when trying to make a legal argument and was repeatedly cut-off when arguing motions before the court.  As the trial progressed and his behavior increasingly worsened, she thought that perhaps they just didn't get along.  However, by the time the case was over and the "honorable" judge compared her to his grandmother because of her mannerisms during the closing argument, she came to realize that his remarks and behavior were specifically as a result of her gender. 

One of the most frustrating aspects of all of this was that she found that she just shut down whenever the judge would say anything offensive to her.  When I heard this, I have to admit, I was surprised.  She is one of the few people I know that are very quick on their feet and always has a clever retort.  She told me that she found it infuriating that she would not have a response or even much of a reaction as all of these different things happened.  I suspect part of the reason for that is because she was in shock which rendered her speechless.  Prior to being compared to the judge's grandmother, her supervisor told her to just shake it off and stay focused on the trial.  When I heard this, I found it very difficult to stomach this type of advice on many different levels.  Based on her boss's reaction to everything that transpired, I assumed that he had never encountered anything like this.  The reality is that in the midst of trial, there was absolutely nothing she could do since it always happened in front of the jury; however, when it was all over and she told me this story, I really began to think about how I would handle this myself, if ever faced with this situation. 

I spoke with fellow colleagues, close friends that worked in different industries and mentors about my friend's experience in an attempt to gain some perspective.  Once everyone got past the initial shock, the one thing I repeatedly heard was that this behavior was all too common in different realms of the working world.  Much of the conversation revolved around rising above and using humor in that circumstance.  I thought to myself, how could you possibly find humor when someone is being so blatantly rude and disrespectful?  Upon further reflection, I realized that humor (or in my case sarcasm with a hint of humor) really would be the only way to tackle this issue if it were to ever arise for me.  With the use of sarcasm, for me, I know that I would be able to maintain an appropriate level of professionalism while also being able to stay focused on the issues in a case rather than all of the drama that a judge might create.  I also think that the cause of this behavior really just boils down to one party taking advantage of the other party's inexperience.  For me, the most effective way to combat this is to arm myself with knowledge on whatever topic is being discussed and sprinkle in a little bit of sarcasm (with a hint of humor) to make it known that the behavior is unacceptable. 



I bet your friend would have been able to address the situation more effectively if the remarks weren’t made by a judge—especially if she had to appear before him for other cases.  I agree that the advice tends to be to just let it roll off your back, but it’s ridiculous that women are expected to handle being treated differently because of their gender by ignoring it!


I think you are right about humor/sacrcasm being the only way to deal with this in many situations.  See my post about it here:
Unlike your friend, I am not always quick on my feet or quick to retort.  Like her, I am usually speechless when faced with unexpected and cruel or sexist comments from people.  However, I’ve vowed to be quicker and to use humor/sarcasm if that is the only appropriate response available to me.  It’s better than nothing.

Write a comment

Please login to comment

Remember Me

Become a Member

FREE online community for women in the legal profession.



Subscribe to receive regular updates, news, and events from Ms. JD.

Connect with us

Follow or subscribe