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Q. I am a woman who has been very successful in the legal profession. As a result, I am often the only woman in the room, like at a settlement conference or at a partners’ meeting. I get frustrated by how often I’m shut out by sports talk. I’ve tried to get interested, but it’s just not my thing. I don’t think anyone does this maliciously, and of course I know that this is a topic of genuine interest to many women, not just men. Any suggestions on dealing with this? A. I’ve talked with many women who’ve complained about this. There is a natural tendency for groups composed mostly of one sex to talk about topics that form a common bond. Actually, there are a fair number of guys out there who are similarly turned off by all the sports chatter. And you can be sure that a mostly female setting features topics that exclude men. However, the fact remains that professional workplaces remain dominated by men. And studies have shown that sometimes men consciously or unconsciously use this sort of conversation to reinforce masculine bonds and subtly draw a line between insiders and outsiders. At least as likely, though, is that they talk about what they like, which happens to be sports. As Dr. Ellen Ostrow, a psychologist/coach based in Maryland who counsels lawyers, remarks, “Men tend to talk about sports. That’s unlikely to change. Although the result may sometimes be the exclusion of a woman from the conversation, I don’t think that’s the primary motivation.” Sports is a safe topic for most of those present; it is helpful for defusing a loaded atmosphere and finding common ground between adversaries. I think there are responsibilities on both sides of this issue. For the men, basic politeness counsels that it’s inconsiderate to constantly talk about a topic that leaves out a member of a group. So men should be aware that a lone woman or two might not be thrilled with endless Devils and Nets talk, and introduce topics of greater common interest. Women, too, have responsibilities. While it’s legitimate to feel that men are being thoughtless when they engage in relentless sports talk, women can do something about it rather than stewing resentfully. The response would depend on the setting. If it’s a group that it’s important you be part of, for career reasons, and there’s no cracking the sports monopoly, join in a little bit by introducing sports topics of actual interest. As Kathleen Wu, a partner with Andrews & Kurth in Dallas and a workplace columnist for Texas Lawyer, says, “These days, Annika Sorenstam is a subject that even the most golf-a-phobic female can find interesting.” Bringing up a sports topic signals that you are genuinely trying to connect. Otherwise, suggest broad topics of general interest such as movies, kids, families, etc. Wu advises, “If sports talk seems to be the default topic among your colleagues, arm yourself with an equally compelling � and equally non-controversial � topic and switch to that. Movies like ‘The Matrix’ attract men and women alike and open up a wealth of discussion topics. Current events are equally gender-neutral, although you should steer away from those that might polarize the room, namely politics.” You could enlist trusted colleagues to help cut the sports talk as well; they may not be aware how often it dominates. You can get the point across in even more specific ways, counsels Ostrow: “Another alternative is to make use of a situation where one of the men who is typically involved in sports talk happens to join a group of women lawyers. Some advance planning can have the women discussing some interest they share, but doing this in a sufficiently exaggerated manner so that he gets the point.” This is an example of a relatively little thing that over time can build up into a source of resentment. Both men and women can take steps to find some common ground rather than just sticking to familiar habits. Q. I’m a man, a lawyer, and not at all a sports fan. . . . I have no choice but to either relegate myself to being one of the few oddball attorneys that every firm has, or swallow my loathing and learn to talk sports. Any suggestion? A. This question demonstrates a truism about many gender issues: that while they usually affect women, when they affect men, the result is often much worse. (The prime example: that women are given at least some room to take time off or go part-time due to parenting concerns, but that men are given far less leeway.) To the man, I’d suggest slightly different strategies in dealing with this dilemma than I recommended to the woman in the previous question. First, you should set your expectations realistically and assume that men are going to talk about sports pretty often. However, I don’t agree that your only choices are to relegate yourself to oddball status or join in through gritted teeth. I think instead you need to get comfortable and stop feeling like you don’t measure up or are somehow at fault because of your sports-a-phobia. Rather than emphasizing your lack of interest in sports, think about yourself as a person who has other stellar qualities. Amazingly, it is possible to be a perfectly good guy and not like sports. I talked with another man who said, “Early in my career, my lack of interest in sports used to make me question my manhood � just because I couldn’t spout out statistics on every game and every player like some guys. I was embarrassed and definitely felt pressure. Then I finally realized that many of these couch potatoes were not only lousy and/or has-been athletes but didn’t even have the ability to run around the block without having a heart attack. So I now switch the topic to the sports that I do myself: mountain biking, hiking, running, skiing, dirt biking, etc. This tactic has always evened out the playing field for me, so to speak.” Even if you’re not a jock at home, just say neutrally and without embarrassment that sports isn’t your thing and turn the questions to family, movies, current events, whatever you actually are interested in. You’d be surprised how many guys out there aren’t interested and are also going along for the ride, or are perfectly willing to talk about something else. The key is to stop feeling guilty or downgraded about this. If you do, you’ll communicate this to others, who will feel more inclined to view you with suspicion or disdain. If you’re comfortable with it, they will be more likely to be that way, too. The key to unraveling a lot of the expectations society has based on gender is to look those expectations in the eye and defy them. Q.Please comment on how to handle the men who continue to revert to sports talk. For instance, I cannot even count how many times I have been frustrated by my colleagues who return to the sports conversation after I have very obviously and deliberately steered the conversation out of sports and into something with a more diverse appeal, such as local restaurants or movies. I have even made joking comments such as, “Let me guess, we’re talking about football again. Why am I not surprised? Is that all you talk about with your wives, too?” I’m trying to remind them that their audience includes a woman. Despite my attempt, the conversation will, at best, turn to local business issues such as who may be buying the Buffalo Sabres, which will immediately morph into the play made by whomever, and so on. I would love it if you can delve deeper into the issue. A.Since you’ve tried the polite approaches, I’d suggest the following, more direct, line of action. First, I think you need to set realistic expectations, as I suggested above to the male writer. Some sports talk certainly is acceptable, and it’s fair enough that if a majority of people are interested in a particular topic, they can indulge in it a certain amount. What’s inconsiderate after a while is harping on one topic that obviously excludes one or two people. You can think of similar situations, such as constant Bush-bashing by a majority of Democrats in a room, or Clinton-bashing by Republicans. It’s rude to prolong such discussions, or engage in them repeatedly, when you know that you always leave someone out or make them uncomfortable. So it’s fair enough to expect that your colleagues should drop the sports chatter at least part of the time. But how should you do it, when it sounds like you’ve tried all the usual, nonconfrontational routes like humor, introducing topics of broader interest, etc.? I’d start by isolating for yourself exactly what it is that bothers you about this dynamic, so that you can articulate it. For instance, is it just that you are bored? Or does it make you feel lonely, isolated, or excluded? Do you feel that it’s a not-entirely-unconscious effort for the guys to make their dominance evident even during small talk? Figure out what bothers you and how it makes you feel. Then I would speak individually with people in the group who are approachable and tell them the effect on you. You can say, “I feel shut out when you guys constantly talk about sports, when you know it doesn’t interest me, and when you know that I’d prefer, at least at times, to talk about things that are of broader interest. It may sound like a little thing, but little things over time can mount up. It’s frustrating to always feel that I’m the odd person out. Help me out on this. I’m not saying, ‘Don’t talk about sports ever.’ I’m saying, ‘Be aware that when you do it all the time, even when I’ve nicely asked you to talk about something else, it comes across as being a little disrespectful.’ “ The point of doing this is to explain the effect on you, so that it becomes a problem that your colleague may feel motivated to solve. You’re not attacking him directly, which will only make him defensive, and you must ensure that you get across that you don’t object to all sports talk, just that you prefer it be done in moderation in deference to your presence. Indirect isn’t working, so some form of direct is required. Holly English, a former litigator, is a consultant with Values at Work in Montclair, N.J., which helps organizations build high-performance workplaces. Her new book is Gender on Trial: Sexual Stereotypes and Work/Life Balance in the Legal Workplace (Law Journal Press). She may be reached at [email protected].

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