Experiencing misogyny as a female student leader

Commentary

Elizabeth McLaughlin, Editor

Header Image: Philosophy Talk

I’m no stranger to positions of leadership, which is a good thing. What’s not so good is that I’m also no stranger to my leadership being questioned, undervalued and undermined by virtue of my being female. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of my peers respect my guidance and opinions, but the truth of the matter is this: being taken seriously as a leader and a woman is one of the trickiest balancing acts I’ve ever encountered. The fact that I have to qualify that first statement with the disarming notion that it’s not all men who evaluate my leadership through a misogynistic lens is part of the problem, but it’s worth mentioning. Why?

Because although I have encountered sexism in my various leadership positions, I’ve also encountered overwhelming support in identifying and tackling said inequality. So before I get into my gripes, thank you to everyone who has supported me. Truly. You’re all part of the solution. And now, onto the problem.

As I mentioned before, I’m familiar with various leadership positions, but for the purposes of this article, I’ll zero in on the one to which I devote most of my time: La Salle Mock Trial Association (LMTA). To be clear, I am not zeroing in on this activity because it represents an isolated instance of misogyny in my life; rather, it serves as a useful illustration that can be extended far beyond the scope of mock trial. In other words, there is no need to attack or discard LMTA as a sexist institution, it’s not; I’m simply making observations that apply to other instances of female leadership.

I have been consumed by mock trial since fifth grade, and have formally competed on teams throughout high school and college. I truly wouldn’t be who I am without this activity. Each year, I have competed on the most competitive team offered by the organization. Back in the day, I was a much more timid attorney who had yet to fully realize the power of her voice and presence, and I’ve come a long way.

And I shouldn’t have to argue for my right to be respected by enumerating the various awards I’ve earned over the years, but perhaps it’ll provide some ethos to my argument. The American Mock Trial Association recognizes the top attorneys and witnesses at each tournament. I don’t keep track of how many I’ve won because, well, I don’t really care about those kinds of things. I care about performing well; any awards are borderline superfluous to me. (Not to mention that the awards themselves are gavels and, to be honest, a girl can only accrue so many gavels before it gets a little out of hand.)

You would think that the fact that I’ve won awards (as both attorney and witness) at all but one tournament I’ve competed in for the past three years would prompt any misogynist to respect me even just marginally more. These awards are data-driven, determined by the judges’ rankings on each ballot. But for some reason, even the data doesn’t seem to convince the most dedicated misogynists. And that’s frustrating.

As I stated before, mock trial is the activity to which I devote most of my time; it is essentially a third major at this point. I am not ashamed to admit I spend more time on mock trial than some of my classes (all of us do, we’re literally the biggest nerds ever). This is all to say I’ve invested a lot in this activity; I’ve been tournament director, president and captain. And still, the simple fact that I am a woman seems to affect others’ perception of me. Again, not all people; most of my teammates respect my contributions to the team. But why not all?

I can’t answer that, I’m not misogynistic. But I can discuss specific oddities that perhaps lead to an answer; oddities that I’ve experienced firsthand over the years. For example, I started scoring better when I started wearing glasses in trial. In the fall of my sophomore year, I developed this pesky eye condition that precluded me from wearing contacts; since then, I’ve worn glasses quite often. Perhaps they make me seem more competent or intelligent? By extension, I also wear less makeup. If you knew me in high school or freshman year, you’d expect my eyelids to be sponsored by Anastasia Beverly Hills any day of the week. As my use of makeup diminished, so too did my perceived femininity.

It seems that femininity and scores in trial have an inverse relationship. It seems that when I present myself in less feminine ways, people tend to take me more seriously. This isn’t a hunch — it’s evident in the data.

So that’s enough on physical appearance with respect to misogyny. What about communication? I’ve noticed that, around some men, us women have to be careful so as to not insult their intelligence. When advocating for ourselves, we mustn’t dare to broach territory that suggests they are in the wrong. We have to mince words and consider egos in ways that, it seems, men do not. Sometimes, we even have to go as far as convincing a misogynistic person that they were the one who came up with some great idea. It’s like an idea conceived by a woman carries less weight than if it were borne by a man. As a woman who witnesses her fellow women come up with intelligent ideas all the time, this observation is beyond frustrating.

Again, nothing I speak of here is exclusively endemic to LMTA — I love leading this organization and have confidence in myself to identify and correct misogynistic behavior using the tools I’ve developed over years of experience. I also have confidence in my peers to help me help us; LMTA will always have a special place in my heart. 

These are problems endemic to being a woman in leadership. Being a female leader means constant self-awareness and concern for others. It means watching your tone and curating your clothes so that those who evaluate your body have as little to judge as possible. It means minding your Ps and Qs and being careful to not step on anybody’s toes too much, or you’ll run the risk of being called a b***h. Being a female leader feels like constantly having to prove that you are good enough.

Here’s a message to all my fellow female leaders, aspiring and current: don’t listen to the noise. As women, we’re already particularly adept at listening; it’s part of the ancestral job description, in my opinion. Listening is our power. So continue doing that for those who call you their president, captain or whatever your title may be. But don’t listen to the noise. Don’t listen to shallow, empty jabs at your competence. Remember that your femaleness does not preclude you from being an effective leader. It’s quite the contrary, actually: being a woman makes you an extraordinarily effective leader!

It’s no secret that leadership positions have long been dominated by men, and LMTA is no exception — as far as I’m aware, I’m only the second female president and “A team” captain in its history. Mock trial has taken up a significant portion of my time for many years now; I am who I am because of this activity. As my time with it draws to a close, I reflect on my gratitude for every second of it, misogyny and all. Experiencing misogyny seems to be a very unfortunate but inevitable part of life as a woman. In a weird way, thank you to the misogynists for challenging me to identify their problematic perspectives and exceed their expectations of me. Believe it or not, in doubting my capabilities, you’ve given me the chance to prove you wrong, time and time again.

To all my fellow women in leadership, keep proving them wrong. Have these conversations with your peers. Misogyny is an uncomfortable topic of conversation that needs to be broached in order to eliminate it. Keep advocating for yourself, you have so much more power than you might be led to believe.

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