I Called Him Out For His Sexist Email. He Told Me To Put My “Big Boy Pants” On.
It was an ordinary COVID remote work day. If there is such a thing.
Like many of us, my day involved reading and responding to tons of emails. Many of those emails had “tone.” But that’s nothing new. As a litigator, most of the emails I receive from opposing counsel are nasty, passive aggressive, or crafted with the motive of creating a self-serving “record” for the judge’s eyes later on in the case.
This email was different though. Our opponents were trying to get what’s called “discovery” from our side. Discovery is a vehicle in civil lawsuits for obtaining documents and other information relevant to the case.
The thing was, our opponents wouldn’t tell us what they thought we hadn’t provided. There was some back and forth about this. The emails got more and more contentious. And then…
The senior male lawyer on the other side of the case ratcheted up the animosity. Copying the many lawyers involved in the case, he sent an email to a junior woman lawyer on the case that ended with the following statement:
“Have more confidence in yourself.”
When I read this, I felt like one of those old-timey cartoon characters with a red face and steam coming out my ears. To me and many women I showed the email to, this email read as: “Because you are a woman, I assume you have less confidence in yourself than a man, and I need to put you in your place by telling you this in front of all of your colleagues.” It suggested “you aren’t my equal.” And that “you aren’t as confident as I am because you are a woman.” And, most insidiously, it implied “you shouldn’t be practicing law. You’re lesser than.”
What happened next was something I’ve never done in my entire career. I called him out on his sexist email. The call started off cordially. I reminded him who I was, that we had been opposite each other on a prior case (that I won), and that I wanted to talk to him about his choice of words in the email. I said that this email came off as sexist and condescending.
Obviously, I didn’t expect him to agree. But I was shocked at what came next. He blamed the junior lawyer for the tone of his email. And he defended himself with the empty and oft-used excuse that he didn’t “have a sexist bone in his body,” his “wife was a lawyer,” and that he “hired women lawyers.” I guess by that reasoning, no employer married to a woman in the same industry or who hires women could possibly be sexist.
What he said next though made me incredulous. He said, if you’re going to be in this profession “you need to put your big boy pants on.” I paused. And replied: “Did you just tell me to put my big boy pants on?” He backpedaled and said he was using “you” figuratively. Of course, everyone knows litigation is a tough environment. We all grow thick skins as a result. But having a thick skin does not mean allowing a senior male lawyer to send a sexist email to a junior woman lawyer copied to her superiors and several lawyers from other law firms.
I can’t recall the rest of the conversation. At some point I reiterated he needed to think about the impact of words like these, particularly because women are often told to “be more confident.” A few moments later, he hung up on me.
My phone call probably had zero impact on how this individual will conduct himself in the future. But I’m not standing by anymore. After a lifetime of similar statements ranging from the subtle to the outrageous, I am indeed putting “my big boy pants on.” And calling out sexism when I see it.