I can still remember the moment, 30 years ago, when I was slapped in the face with my first sexist comment as a new professional. I was a young attorney just starting out in the District Attorney’s office and had been assigned to work with a senior prosecutor in a new courtroom.
During the trial calendar, I was assigned a particularly brutal sexual assault case. The case lasted a week and I was pleased that at the end of the trial, the jury found the defendant guilty. It was an emotionally difficult case and I had put in a lot of hours working on it.
After the verdict was announced, the Judge asked everyone in the courtroom to be quiet because he had something to say to the Assistant District Attorney who had tried the case. I was surprised but felt pleased that the Judge was probably going to congratulate me on a job well done.
As I listened expectantly, the Judge said, “We have the best dressed Assistant DA in the courthouse.” Whereupon he and several other people in the courtroom smiled and broke out in applause. I was mortified. I pasted a smile on my face and muttered a thank you as I hurriedly left the courtroom.
I went back to my office, found two of best friends who were also prosecutors and shared what had happened. They were just as outraged as I was. But, they also felt as powerless as I did to do anything about it.
I decided to speak with the senior prosecutor I had been working with to get his thoughts. His response surprised me at the time. He felt that I was blowing things out of proportion. I should have been thankful for an innocent compliment the Judge had given me. So, I asked him how he would feel if the judge had told him after his conviction in the murder case that he had just tried, that he was the best-dressed prosecutor in the courthouse. He paused for a minute and said, he hadn’t thought about it in that way. But the Judge hadn’t meant any harm. At that moment I realized that it didn’t matter to him that I felt “harmed.”
It wasn’t a great experience, but I learned some important lessons:
There are going to be times when people will overlook your education, skills and experience.
The compliment incident was not my only experience with sexism. I remember a male attorney once telling me that I was an attractive woman and should use my feminine wiles in the courtroom. As if to say that I could not possibly win a case because I was a competent trial attorney.
The Judge and this attorney both chose to sexualize me instead of seeing me as a professional on their level.
I was 28 years old at the time and did not know how to handle the Judge’s statement. But, with age and time comes wisdom. If this happened today or even when I was 38 or 48, I would have handled things differently.
One thing I could have done was to speak with the Judge privately and explained to him that his remark overlooked the fact that I was an attorney, a professional just like him who was trying to do a good job in her work. When others looked at me in the courtroom, I wanted them to see a fellow professional and wanted my reputation to be made on my abilities and not on how well I dressed. Who knows what his response might have been. But I would have felt more empowered by challenging his perception of me and of women attorneys.
Do not let other people’s bad actions make you feel bad.
The Judge made a sexist comment however, I was the only person in the room who felt badly. My trial partner felt like I was making a big deal out of nothing. But, it was a big deal for me.
Sexist remarks, no matter how benign, often make the person on the receiving end feel like they did something wrong. All I did was my job. The Judge’s remark was uncalled for and unnecessary, and I did not invite it. I had no reason to feel bad. You cannot allow the bad actions of others to influence your feelings about yourself, your skills or your ability to do a good job at the work you’ve chosen to do.
Some people won’t get it.
When I spoke with my trial partner, he didn’t understand why I was so upset. When I shared what happened in court with my best friends, they were as equally outraged as I was. The fact that they got it, helped me to understand that I wasn’t overreacting. And, the fact that my trial partner didn’t get it, took on less importance to me.
Too often women stay silent when they are on the receiving end of sexist remarks and behavior because they don’t want to make a big deal over it. But, sometimes you need to make a big deal because you matter. There will be people who don’t understand, but ultimately, it’s not about them – it’s about you and all the other women like you. And every time you stand up for yourself, you’re standing up for women who don’t have a voice to stand up for themselves.
Today, when I listen to the news and hear stories about the sexism and sexual harassment at NBC, Fox News, in Silicon Valley and other places, I am reminded that sexism in the workplace is still alive. Maybe it always will be. But women are standing up and against it in ways not seen before. And for that reason, I will continue to pray and dream of a time when things will be even better.