Friday, October 17, 2008

The sexist Catch-22 of electoral politics

Over the long course of the presidential campaigns, my mind keeps coming back to the landmark Supreme Court case of Price-Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989). This decision sanctioned the sex-stereotyping theory of sex discrimination that has in large part formed the basis for recent decisions on anti-trans bias in the workplace. But more to the present point, the facts of the case neatly illustrate the kind of sexist Catch-22 that women like Hillary Clinton -- and, to be fair, Sarah Palin -- face running for office. Justice Brennan neatly summed up the situation:
An employer who objects to aggressiveness in women but whose positions require this trait places women in an intolerable and impermissible Catch-22: out of a job if they behave aggressively and out of a job if they do not.
Ann Hopkins was denied partnership at the professional services firm that is now PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and claimed that the decision was based on sexism. The company claimed her "people skills" were the reason for the decision. From Justice Brennan's plurality opinion:

The partners in Hopkins' office praised her character as well as her accomplishments, describing her in their joint statement as "an outstanding professional" who had a "deft touch," a "strong character, independence and integrity." Clients appear to have agreed with these assessments. At trial, one official from the State Department described her as "extremely competent, intelligent," "strong and forthright, very productive, energetic and creative." Another high-ranking official praised Hopkins' decisiveness, broadmindedness, and "intellectual clarity"; she was, in his words, "a stimulating conversationalist." Evaluations such as these led Judge Gesell to conclude that Hopkins "had no difficulty dealing with clients and her clients appear to have been very pleased with her work" and that she "was generally viewed as a highly competent project leader who worked long hours, pushed vigorously to meet deadlines and demanded much from the multidisciplinary staffs with which she worked."

On too many occasions, however, Hopkins' aggressiveness apparently spilled over into abrasiveness. Staff members seem to have borne the brunt of Hopkins' brusqueness. Long before her bid for partnership, partners evaluating her work had counseled her to improve her relations with staff members. Although later evaluations indicate an improvement, Hopkins' perceived shortcomings in this important area eventually doomed her bid for partnership. Virtually all of the partners' negative remarks about Hopkins -- even those of partners supporting her -- had to do with her "interpersonal skills." Both "[s]upporters and opponents of her candidacy," stressed Judge Gesell, "indicated that she was sometimes overly aggressive, unduly harsh, difficult to work with, and impatient with staff."

There were clear signs, though, that some of the partners reacted negatively to Hopkins' personality because she was a woman. One partner described her as "macho"; another suggested that she "overcompensated for being a woman" ; a third advised her to take "a course at charm school." Several partners criticized her use of profanity; in response, one partner suggested that those partners objected to her swearing only "because it's a lady using foul language." Another supporter explained that Hopkins "ha[d] matured from a tough-talking somewhat masculine hard-nosed mgr to an authoritative, formidable, but much more appealing lady ptr candidate."

But it was the man who, as Judge Gesell found, bore responsibility for explaining to Hopkins the reasons for the Policy Board's decision to place her candidacy on hold who delivered the coup de grace: in order to improve her chances for partnership, Thomas Beyer advised, Hopkins should "walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry."

The partners, in short, thought she was a man-eating bitch. She was Hillary Clinton. But it was precisely Hopkins's toughness, her formidable personality, that made her potential partner material in the first place. What if she had indeed changed her personal style and appearance, taken "a course at charm school," and adopted a more sweetness-and-light demeanor, who would have taken her seriously as a senior manage or a corporate partner? She wouldn't have been taken seriously. She would have been, in short, Sarah Palin: a bimbo instead of a bitch.

1 comment:

Aviva said...

And while (I hope) a man as incompetent and unprepared to run for office as Sarah Palin would be given (at least close to) as hard a time as she's being given, a man as aggressive and ready to do the job as Hillary Clinton never would.