Frailty, Thy Name Is Woman
Posted 07.06.12
Jonathan A. Segal

As published by SHRM’s We Know Next: found here.

From Shakespeare’s Hamlet 1602:

Heaven and earth,
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on, and yet, within a month—
Let me not think on’t—Frailty, thy name is woman!—

Hamlet is angry at his mother for marrying shortly after his father’s death.  He sees her as weak.  He generalizes the weakness he sees in his mother to women generally.

No progressive manager would say a sexist comment like that today. Actually, they might, just when they think they are being progressive!

Every responsible employer has a harassment prevention program.  So, managers are more sensitive with what they do and say. But sometimes their heightened sensitivity takes a dangerous turn.

A business meeting takes place among executives.  There are four men and one woman.  During the meeting, the group realizes they are not going to meet Wall Street’s expectations. One of the men snaps “oh f—”  For my friends in Texas, I don’t mean “federal.”

After he said it, the f-bomber looks to the woman at the table and says “I’m sorry.” Another man at the table digs the hole deeper by adding, “He did not mean to offend you.” (How did he know that?)

By focusing on the one woman at the table, both male executives not only drew attention to her but also suggested that she was a fragile creature who needed to be rescued and protected from their vulgar mouths.

In this not-so-hypothetical example, the woman was not offended by the expletive when it was used in response to bad economic news.  But she certainly did not like the attention being placed on her.  Having finished reading Jane Austen, she was not going to fall off her Victorian chair because of a curse word.  Do you think she never said it, let alone heard it?

In this case, if anything were to be said, it should have been, “Let’s keep it professional” without focusing on the woman.

But what if the comment were blatantly sexist?  Shouldn’t someone apologize to her now?

No!  Again, that only makes her the focus.  In other words, it makes it worse.  And, it suggests that, were she not there, the sexist comment would have been okay.

The focus should be on the troglodyte. And, one of the men should respond appropriately by saying immediately, “I am offended.” After all, you don’t need to be a woman to be offended by sexism any more than you need to be a person of color to be offended by racism.

You need to do more than the right thing….you need to do it the right way.  Pauline does not need to be rescued from her perils. She just needs an equal opportunity to succeed–or fail–on a level playing fiel


About Jonathan A. Segal
Jonathan A. Segal is a partner at Duane Morris LLP in the Employment Group. He is also the managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute. The Duane Morris Institute provides training for human resource professionals, in-house counsel, and other leaders at client sites and by way of webinar on myriad employment, leadership labor, benefits and immigration topics. Jonathan has served intermittently as a consultant to the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C. for more than 20 years, providing training on employment issues to federal judges around the country. Jonathan also has provided training on harassment on behalf of the EEOC as well as providing training on diversity to members of the United States intelligence agencies. Jonathan is also frequently a featured speaker at national, state and local human resource, business and legal conferences, including conferences sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Pennsylvania State Chamber of Business and Industry. Jonathan’s practice focuses on maximizing compliance and minimizing legal risk. Jonathan’s particular areas of emphasis include: equal employment opportunity in general and gender equality in particular: social media; wage and hour; performance management; talent acquisition; harassment prevention and correction; and non-competes and other ways to protect your business. You can find him on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law .