“Stop whining!” blasted the email from my friend, a senior finance lawyer. “Women need to whip themselves into shape, get Botox, buy nice clothes and glam it up. Time to get in touch with our inner Ivanka and Melania.” She goes on: “They are the new role models!” She was joking. Sort of.
So far, this much is clear: President-elect Trump is making some women in male-dominated professions such as law anxious—and not just about his policies. He has tapped into our primal insecurities about our looks, and how our physical flaws can diminish our professional success.
For starters, he put on the klieg lights by judging women, however accomplished, on the basis of their sex appeal. He called Hillary Clinton “tired,” mocked Carly Fiorina’s face and snidely compared Ted Cruz’s wife, a Harvard MBA, to his wife, a model. With his entourage of statuesque female family members (wives, daughters, daughters-in-law), he’s making the White House look like a branch of the Ford Modeling Agency.
Not that Trump can help that he’s surrounded by beautiful women. It’s not his fault that attractive people get breaks in life and women are criticized more harshly for their looks. That said, Stanford Law School professor Deborah Rhode cautions, “What the election made clear is the persistence of these views,” adding that Trump has “legitimized them.”
Moreover, Trump’s win accentuates the double standard more than ever—and a distinctly sexist ageism. He seems to be breathing life back into a parade of curmudgeonly 70-plus, thrice-married men: Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and Ross Wilbur have been named as contenders for top administration jobs. (So has 80-year-old Carl Icahn.) Can you imagine the uproar if Hillary proposed a bunch of out-of-shape septuagenarian women for posts in her administration? They’d be branded as a band of bitchy grandmas.
“He wants to duplicate his own image—overweight rich men,” says Erica Baird, former deputy GC of Pricewaterhouse Coopers and co-founder of Lustre, a lifestyle website for retired women. “Women don’t seem to get this second wind. We’re not on any list. We just age out.”
Karen Wagner, a former Davis Polk & Wardwell partner and co-founder of Lustre, agrees: “The emphasis on women’s appearance will become worse.”
Women who complain about their treatment are criticized as “whiny or humorless,” says Rhode. Studies show that comments about female politicians “negatively influence public opinion,” she says, and that “demeaning press coverage may contribute to women’s reluctance to expose themselves to potentially bruising political campaigns.”
Among women in the legal world, there’s a lot of dark humor about what they’ll face. “Maybe they’ll distribute survival kits for professional women of a certain age,” says Paula Monopoli, professor of law at University of Maryland and a former Big Law associate. “It would contain Spanx, hair extensions and a bottle of vodka.”
But others say that it’s premature to panic about the culture of lookism. “Looks always matter. Nancy Reagan and Jackie Kennedy were anorexic and wore couture,” says an Am Law 100 female partner. “Michelle Obama promotes SoulCycle and is photographed in Vogue in designer clothes, and this is an incredibly accomplished woman who is very substantive. Melania won’t be doing anything new.”
Another Big Law female partner says that men in the Trump era might feel more free to comment on women’s appearance, but that clients will be able to judge talent. “Women shouldn’t worry,” she says. “They just need to do a good job and keep working hard.”
So we’re back to the same formula to combat inequity: Work better. Work harder. As if we have an alternative.
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