It’s sleazy at the top: on women, power and body policing

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There’s no question that we need more women in power. But if we ever needed a reminder that climbing to the top doesn’t insulate women from sleazy sexism, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) gave us one this week:

“In Off the Sidelines, Gillibrand, 47, shares a sobering incident in the congressional gym, where an older, male colleague told her, ‘Good thing you’re working out, because you wouldn’t want to get porky!’ On another occasion, she writes, after she dropped 50 lbs. one of her fellow Senate members approached her, squeezed her stomach, and said, ‘Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby!'”

The People interview is short, but the New York Post filled it in with some more examples from the book, like the time a congressman told Gillibrand, “You know, Kirsten, you’re even pretty when you’re fat.”

It’s not just boorish politicians. Once, a labor leader decided to give her advice on her appearance. “When I first met you in 2006, you were beautiful, a breath of fresh air. To win [the special], you need to be beautiful again,” he said.

Women around the country were shaking their heads, not in disbelief but in sad recognition. We’re used to having our bodies policed, of having how we look be the most notable thing about us. I was recently at an event with a bunch of fired up activists, and a man took to the podium and commented on how great it was to be around so many beautiful women. I remember canvassing once and talking to a man who kept saying I was beautiful while I tried to talk to him passionately about taking action to end the war in Iraq. He ended with “I’m not interested…but you’re beautiful.” The present-day me would have laid into him, but the inexperience canvasser just walked away frustrated. There are far too many out-of-touch men who somehow think that ignoring our achievements and our intellect is perfectly acceptable because we’ll just be so overjoyed that they noticed how hot we are. And if we don’t meet their standards as hot, they’re more than happy to tell us why and what we should be doing differently.

What Gillibrand’s story tells us is that it’s not just happening to young, inexperienced women (which would be bad enough), but it happens to women who have fought their way to top of their fields. Think Progress talked to a CEO of a tech startup who talked about the flood of inappropriate comments she gets:

There are pluses and minuses to being a female CEO of a technology startup. For Yunha Kim, CEO of Locket, one of the minuses has been getting inappropriate emails from men.

In a post for Medium, she shared an email response she got from a developer she reached out to about potentially hiring him, in which he suggested that if she dated him or offered him “some unconventional ways to lure me way from my company,” he might consider it, ending with, “if you know what I mean ;)”

Never mind tropes about women sleeping their way to the top. Women at the top have to deal with men who expect you to sleep with them even though you’re presumably the one with leverage in the situation.

For women, and also men with even a scintilla of awareness, Gillibrand’s story rang true. But of course some people just couldn’t possibly believe that a bunch of men situated in an old boys’ club would act this way.

Just a few hours after Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) went public with accounts of sexual harassment from her fellow lawmakers, a cadre of mostly male reporters took to the airwaves and Internet to question her credibility.

Politico’s senior congressional reporter, John Bresnahan, posted “I challenge this story. I don’t believe it” on Twitter in response to Gillibrand’s interview. Bresnehan later deleted the tweet and called it “moronic.”

Other reporters, including the New York Times’ Nick Confessore and Politico’s Alex Burns, have gone after Gillibrand for telling the truth, but not the whole truth.

“Shouldn’t Gillbrand name these Senate guys who fat-shamed her? Doesn’t she kind of have a responsibility to name them?” Confessore tweeted.

Women who report harassment  often face retaliation and accusations of being liars and/or humorless feminists. Gillibrand has soft-pedaled her follow up response to these stories:

Gillibrand isn’t especially offended by her coworkers’ remarks. “It was all statements that were being made by men who were well into their 60s, 70s or 80s,” she says. “They had no clue that those are inappropriate things to say to a pregnant woman or a woman who just had a baby or to women in general.”

First of all, this kind of comment was gross and offensive when they were doing it 30 or 40 years ago. I’m also guessing that these guys have caught up with the modern marvels of cell phones, the internet, microwaves and lightbulbs. They can wake up to the fact that women aren’t around to be groped, ogled and commented upon.

Of course, Gillibrand is in a difficult situation here. Women are constantly treading a careful line so as not to come off as too uptight, bossy, or pushy. This phenomenon that we know well was illustrated in a linguistic review of men’s and women’s performance evaluations:

It’s a scenario that could be straight out of a textbook on gender bias:

“Jessica is really talented, but I wish she’d be less abrasive. She comes on too strong.” Her male counterpart? “Steve is an easy case, smart and great to work with. He needs to learn to be a little more patient, but who doesn’t?”

These statements, uttered by an engineering manager who was preparing performance reviews, were the catalyst for linguist Kieran Snyder to see if she could quantify the double standards in the way male and female employees are evaluated…

…Abrasive alone was used 17 times to describe 13 different women, but the word never appeared in men’s reviews. In fact, this type of character critique that was absent from men’s reviews showed up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.

This all amounts to a daunting situation for women. It’s a sad reminder to anyone who thinks this pressure to act exactly the right way, and the objectification, will go away once you rise to the top. But it’s not something that can’t be overcome. Gillibrand’s story has been received with far more outrage and support than it would have 20 years ago. Just having it out there helps to move this debate forward and expose behavior that should no longer be tolerated. We need to come together to support women who call out this behavior and create an environment where it becomes less culturally acceptable. That means the rest of us have to speak up when a woman who reports such abuse is called a prude, a liar, or (oh no!) one of those evil feminists. We need to have each other’s backs in a way that makes it possible to not just sit silently by and take this kind of abuse.

Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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