Skirting the Ceiling: Standing Up to Gender Stereotypes

This summer we’ve talked a lot about standing up to sexism in the workplace. As summer winds down, I have one last story to share.

Not too long ago, I observed a trial in which the male defense attorney made the following remarks to the young victim on the stand, “Your least favorite subject is math, correct? I’ve always found that females, such as yourself, aren’t as good at math and are better at subjects like English. I know I was always better at math.” He then paused and waited for the victim’s response. Seated in the gallery, my jaw dropped in disbelief. I looked around the room to observe other people’s reactions. The prosecutors on the case, both women, remained calm and made no visible response. The attorneys in the gallery, however, both men and women alike, looked aghast. The jury seemed split—half had no noticeable reaction and the other half had deep frowns and expressions of surprise on their faces. The victim on the stand paused before answering, clearly puzzled, and then simply stated, “A lot of my friends are good at math.” She was too young recognize what the man had said as sexist, offensive, or how it could be accurate.

When court recessed for lunch, the other interns and I could not believe that he had said something so openly sexist in open court. The attorneys in our office explained that that comment alone could have lost that defense attorney the jury. When the young girl took the stand again later that day, the defense attorney himself later apologized to her in attempts to rehabilitate their rapport. 

Walking out of the courthouse later that day, it struck me—what if a member of my team had walked out of that courtroom and said, “What? I don’t see what the big deal is.” What is the appropriate way to tackle gender stereotypes head on in the work place?

Here is some advice as to how to discuss gender stereotypes in the workplace in a polished and professional way:

  • Respond in a collected, even tone. Conversations about gender stereotypes can get heated. You may not know where your colleague stands on such issues. By using a calm and friendly tone, you will be able to address the issue or answer a question in a way that is nothing less than professional and informative.
  • Be prepared to explain the difference between stereotypes and factually-based generalization. I will level with you here, this can be exasperating. A gender stereotype is, “an overgeneralization of characteristics, differences and attributes of a certain group based on their gender.” A stereotype, by definition, cannot be true of all the people it is ascribed to. Sometimes there are stereotypes that seem to have a ring of truth to them; this is often because the stereotype has been conflated with an appropriate generalization rooted in fact. For example, there is a stereotype that, “Women aren’t as good at being firefighters as men.” The corresponding, alternative, and appropriate generalization may be, “Given the physical demands of being a firefighter and the physical differences between men and women, fewer women may qualify to work as firefighters.” The key difference is that the generalization leaves room for the many women who are qualified to work as firefighters and perform just as well in their jobs. There is no sweeping declaration that all women are inherently less capable. Such semantics may seem superfluous, but taking the time to articulate the difference allows the truth to shine through.
  • Ask if the person if he or she has any other questions. Sometimes these conversations require some mental gymnastics. Politely ask your colleague if he or she has any questions. Sometimes clarifying one point can go a long way to helping a coworker wrap his or her mind around a new idea or way of thinking.
  • Rely on your resources. If the person you are conversing with wants to follow up or asks how you know what you know, point to a resource that is considered non-controversial and non-partisan. Ms. JD itself has great resources to educate the public on a wide variety of gender issues—both those unique to legal practice and commonplace in everyday life. The American Bar Association also has great resources on gender issues in law. Recommending resources such as these ensures that the person who wants to know more about the subject won’t be made to feel ignorant or affronted and doesn’t make you responsible for information you’re not familiar with. Citing such sources also enables you to explain what you know to be true with the weight of experts’ findings and countless people’s testimony to support you.

As for that young girl on the stand, no one should tell her she’s not good at math—except maybe her math tutor. She may not have realized it, but she stood up for herself and young girls everywhere that day. I hope I can be as good of a role model as her, and I hope that this advice helps other women and men that choose to stand up to gender stereotypes in the workplace. 



I think there is a tpyo error in the title of the post. ‘Steretypes’ should be ‘Stereotypes’.

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