Debate This: Is “Don’t Giggle” Really Terrible Advice For A Law Firm To Give Women?

Global law firm Clifford Chance is under fire for distributing a five-page memo to female employees with specific dress code critiques and advice for how to conduct themselves professionally.  Not surprisingly, the firm is now being criticized for a “sexist” focus on only their female employees.

I don’t disagree that a focus soley on the behavior and appearance of only female employees is sexist. Specific pieces of the advice are problematic.

But taken all together, is the advice Clifford Chance gave to its female employees wrong or bad? Nope.

Here are some of the specific tips for women from “Presentation Tips For Women, which was distributed by the Women’s Committee at Clifford Chance and leaked to the legal gossip blog Above The Law:

  • “Like” You’ve got to Lose “Um” and “Uh,” “You Know,” “OK,” and “Like.” …  practice dramatic pauses as a substitute
  • Don’t giggle
  • Don’t squirm
  • Don’t tilt your head.
  • Don’t drop your volume at the end of a sentence
  • Don’t jumble your words, “dunno,” “wanna,” “probably”
  • Think Lauren Bacall, not Marilyn Monroe.
  • Don’t hedge: “You may not be interested, if it’s ok…”
  • Don’t qualify: “Kind of, sort of, just…”
  • Don’t raise your pitch at the end of a statement if it’s not a question
  • Practice hard words.
  • Wear a suit, not your party outfit.
  • No one heard Hillary the day she showed cleavage.
  • If wearing a skirt, make sure audience can’t see up it when sitting on the dais
  • Lose the quirky mannerisms that are so charming to those who do know you
  • Don’t hide behind your hair

tl;dr  = dress conservatively and speak eloquently.  What’s sexist about that?

Usually I’m the first person to look askance at laws and dress codes targeting women and teenaged girls. But there’s a large and nuanced difference between the slut-shaming inherent in forbidding women from wearing miniskirts on the street or banning colorful bras and a private law firm’s standards for a professional setting. Law firms are conservative. They just are.  It’s a land awash in pantsuits, neutral tones and exactly ZERO hairstyles and nail art that you will find on Pinterest.  That’s why “Legally Blonde” was a comedy. So, while the specific sartorial tip about Marilyn Monroe relies on a good girl/bad girl dichotomy, their point is clear: don’t wear revealing clothing.  (I do appreciate Above The Law’s dig at the Hillary comment: “Similarly, no one heard Bill the day he waved his dick around.” Zing!)

None of the tips on how to speak are sexist, either. People are taken more seriously in the workplace when they speak declaratively and pronounce words properly.  Additional tips about how to stand and sit in a skirt without flashing your crotch — legs together! — are good common sense.

Clifford Chance reportedly has a culture that’s not supportive of women. According to one tipster to Above the Law, “We have never been a very female friendly firm, but this is beyond the pale.” I think we have to consider the source of this particular presentation: the firm’s Women’s Committee. No doubt women can be just as sexist as men can be, but I’d like to think that motivation by the Women’s Committee is to help their younger colleagues advance in the traditionally macho, dog-eat-dog culture.  Many of these tips are about exuding confidence and authority.  And guess what, ladies?  Men aren’t getting advice like “Take up space” because we live in a sexist culture and therefore they already do that.  Women should have the same opportunities and this advice is trying to help the ones who (as hard as it may be to believe) need to be told these things. And it sounds better coming from a toothless organization like a committee than a senior partner.

Yes, focusing advice that applies to both men and women — like “practice hard words” — only to women is sexist. That’s why the law firm should dispense a version for their male employees.  Men lack common sense, too, with appropriate workplace behavior. Arguably, they need more help, seeing as they’ve gotten pretty comfortable running the boys’ club.  So how about Clifford Chance repurposes the gender neutral tips and then adds some male-specific ones?

Here, I’ll help:

  • “Don’t refer to women as girls or  broads.”
  • “Respect personal space”
  • “Don’t adjust your package in front of others”
  • “No dirty jokes, no porn, no inappropriate messages via interoffice IM”
  • “Don’t ignore a woman’s idea in a meeting and then repeat the same idea as if it was your own.”
  • “Don’t post pictures in your office or cubicle of half-naked women.”
  • “Eyes up here, buddy.”

Lawyers, both male and female, I would be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

[Clifford Chance Memo via Above The Law]

 Email me at [email protected] Follow me on Twitter.