Students: Don't make "wildly inappropriate" comments about teachers

Your professor's wardrobe is not up for review

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 28, 2015 7:25PM (EST)

      (<a href=''>wavebreakmedia</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(wavebreakmedia via Shutterstock)

The lesson today, students, is about that oft trotted out vocabulary word: privilege. It's on another word too: sexism. I see you rolling your eyes in the back there. I hear that exaggerated sigh from the corner. So let me suggest you write this down, learn it and remember it, because I promise you, we're even more tired of having to repeat this stuff than you are of hearing it. And here it goes anyway. Again. Don't make "wildly inappropriate" comments about your female professors.

As Above the Law's Staci Zaretsky reports this week, Rutgers School of Law, Camden Vice Dean Adam F. Scales had to open up a little whupass on the students recently regarding how they evaluate their teachers. And as you read this, remember, these are adults he's addressing here. Adults who managed to get into law school and who are ostensibly, serious, studious, intelligent human beings.

"It has come to my attention," he writes, "that a student submitted an evaluation that explored, in some detail, the fashion stylings of one of your professors. It will surprise no one possessing the slightest familiarity with student evaluations that this professor is a woman. Women are frequently targets of evaluative commentary that, in addition to being wildly inappropriate and adolescent, is almost never directed at men." Scales went on to alert students that "Believe me, I am about the last person on this faculty for whom the 'sexism' label falls readily to hand, but after a lifetime of hearing these stories, I know it when I see it. Anyone who doubts this would find it instructive to stop by and ask any one of our female professors about this and similar dynamics."

I would have loved it if Scales hadn't felt the need to beef up his "I'm not being too sensitive here" cred with the declaration that he's "the last person on this faculty" to deploy the word "sexism," especially since he admits to earning "a lifetime" of anecdotal evidence to support his edict to cut the crap. And wouldn't be a wonderful world if Above the Law hadn't had to observe that "Much to our amazement, a law school dean — a male one — decided to take a stand"? But the truth is that these kinds of disclaimers are still necessary when observing how women in the law are subtly put down. Last year, Loyola Law School’s externship director sent out a memo on "Ethics, Professionalism and Course Requirements for Off Campus Externs" noting that "I really don't need to mention that cleavage and stiletto heels are not appropriate office wear." No wardrobe guidelines for male externs were given. Similarly, on his blog last March, Nebraska Judge Richard Kopf offered the sartorial wisdom that "If they are likely to label you . . . an ignorant slut behind your back, tone it down." And in 2013, the Clifford Chance firm offered "Presentation Tips for Women" with advice like "lower your pitch" because "Your voice is higher than you hear" and the reminder that "No one heard Hillary the day she showed cleavage."

If you, as someone who truly has some authority over a staff, want to discreetly and in a non-leering way, offer a dress code to employees of all genders, that is reasonable. I've no doubt there are men and women out there in the law profession who are holding themselves back by not dressing appropriately for their field, who could use mentoring and guidance. What's not okay, however, are blanket statements designed to take aim at larger groups of females, suggesting that ladies just simply don't know how to pull it together for the workplace, because what are they doing there anyway? And if you are a student, your role, as someone who also aspires to be professional, is to keep your aesthetic judgments, particularly about people who are your teachers, separate from your opinions about their ability to educate.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Everyday Sexism Sexism