Lady Lawyer Lessons*: When the Misogynist Isn’t a Man

For some entries, Lady Lawyer Lessons will respond to questions from the readership.  Questions submitted will be presented in a way that protects the anonymity of the questioner to the extent possible.

Q.  Hey Lady Lawyer!  I’m having some problems at work with one of my supervisors that feels a lot like gender discrimination.  My boss speaks to me in disrespectful ways — even in front of customers — but treats my male coworker much better.  My boss also says things about preferring having men as employees.  It seems pretty clearly gender-based, but I’m not sure if it is gender discrimination because my boss is a woman.  Can a female boss discriminate against other women and have it still be gender discrimination?

~ Confused in Customer Service

Dear Confused in Customer Service,

I’m so sorry to hear about your trouble, and it certainly sounds like you have a real problem on your hands.  Your question is actually quite common, and the short answer is that you don’t have to be a man to be a misogynist.  Nor do you have to be a man in order to be guilty of or liable for gender discrimination. In fact, in many of the cases I litigate at least some of the perpetrators of gender discrimination are women.

The real question is whether your boss is just an all-around jerk or whether your boss singles out particular people for their bad treatment.  In this country, it is not against the law for someone to be a bad boss, to be a complete meanie, to yell, to scream, or to make the worst business decisions on the planet.  Put another way, it is legal (if imprudent) for a boss to decide to assign projects based on who is wearing purple or what the bird in their dream the night before suggested.  It is, however, against the law for your boss to assign projects based on whether you’re wearing sexy-enough clothing or what the racist robin spewed in their fascist fantasy.  What makes something discriminatory – as opposed to rude and dumb – is who is experiencing treatment and whether that treatment is different from what others experience based on gender (or race, age, religion, etc.).

What you’ve described certainly sounds like classic examples of gender discrimination.  This may be something you want to talk to a lawyer about.  The key kinds of questions that a lawyer is likely to ask you include:

  • what are the kinds of disrespectful things your boss is saying;
  • what are the circumstances giving rise to these comments;
  • how is your male colleague treated differently in comparable circumstances; and
  • what you remember about the conversations where your boss talked about preferring male employees.

Basically, an attorney is likely to want to know more details about the events you described in just a few short sentences to me.

In addition, most attorneys are likely going to want to know some information about what kind of supervisory relationship you have with your boss, including:

  • whether this boss controls your performance reviews;
  • what kind of formal performance feedback your boss has given you;
  • whether you’ve talked to anyone at the company about your concerns;
  • whether you know anyone else who has experienced similar bad treatment; and
  • whether this boss has done anything to deny you raises, promotions, or other advancement and development opportunities.

I list these out for you so you can collect your thoughts in advance and so you can understand a bit more about how we lawyers think about these things.

It’s always hard to deal with a boss who seems hostile to you for reasons that have nothing to do with your performance.  With the stress you’re already experiencing at work, taking the additional step to talk to a lawyer can seem too scary.  However, you should keep in mind that many lawyers will talk to you for a first conversation free-of-charge, and those first conversations are protected by the attorney-client privilege that keeps them confidential.  Getting some outside perspective from someone who handles employment problems can really help, even if it is only to get some pointers on how to better navigate your workplace issues on your own.  I often wish my clients came to me – or some other lawyer – a bit earlier in the process so that they could have benefited from that guidance before things went from bad to worse.  Hopefully, your situation can be remedied at this early stage!

* Lady Lawyer Lessons is a monthly column where Kate K shares tips she wishes her clients knew before they came to her (or any other lawyer) for help or advice. As always, this is not intended to constitute legal advice or to create an attorney client relationship.  Instead, these are just some of Kate’s “rules of the employment road” that are often a good idea but may not apply in a particular situation.

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Katherine Kimpel

Kate Kimpel is the Senior Editor of Shattering the Ceiling and is also an accomplished civil rights lawyer. She represents women and people of color in discrimination cases (and other kinds of employment and civil rights matters).  When not lawyering, she likely is bragging about her hound dog Ulysses, inventing cocktails to serve at her next dinner party, or convincing her husband to watch reruns of a Joss Whedon television show (any of them will do). 

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