The media is currently saturated with news about the Ellen Pao trial (which my colleagues have written about here and here) and Rolling Stone Magazine’s journalistic errors in its November article about a gang rape at UVA. In different ways, both of these topics highlight one common problem: the unfortunate amount of weight placed on sensationalized stories.
Ellen Pao’s claims centered on “soft discrimination,” which New York Magazine’s Annie Lowrey describes as the “persistent” and “subtle hints that you are a little different and that your behavior is being interpreted a little differently.” But in an era where shows like Law & Order SVU inform public perceptions of the law, the jury might have been expecting more dramatic events. In other words, the fact that Pao had no harrowing tale of workplace assault by her supervisor might have limited her ability to win her case. The Rolling Stone story had a somewhat inverse problem: a recent statement reveals that journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely passed up so-called “normal rape” stories in order to find a sufficiently dramatic narrative for her piece. This leads one to the conclusion that the magazine made a value judgment and found that Jackie’s brutal rape made for a more compelling publication. So Rolling Stone not only botched the reporting but also selected content in such a way that minimized some women’s experiences.
The troublesome issue that these events share is that they reinforce the notion that mistreatment must be severe in order for it to be legitimate and worth addressing. This notion is both wrong and dangerous for women in all settings. With regard to the workplace, Lowrey notes that “[s]ubtle sexism results in women getting fewer opportunities at work. It hurts their performance. It results in them receiving worse evaluations. It even opens them up to ‘aggression’ in the workplace.” Despite these very real consequences, the Pao trial implies that complaining about soft discrimination garners less sympathy and can even produce backlash for focusing what others perceive to be trivial incidents. It seems unjust that the result of decades of progress – marked by the decline in overt discrimination – should be rewarded with such marginalization. When it comes to rape and other forms of sexual assault, much ink has been spilled on the difficulties of holding assailants accountable, the blaming and shaming of victims, and the everyday reminders of rape culture.
Whether or not mistreatment falls into a legal gray area or presents a less dramatic story, one thing is clear: soft discrimination and sexual assault are harming women on a daily basis. These everyday issues need and deserve our time and attention just as much as the rare yet more outrageous incidents. Thankfully, as my colleagues Sherri and Xinying recently wrote, the legal system has specific mechanisms that allow women to challenge cultural discrimination. And at the very least, the Rolling Stone debacle has made campus rape a topic of (potentially difficult) dinner table conversations. With greater awareness will hopefully come greater sensitivity.
Writer Annie Dillard says, “[h]ow we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives.” Right now, women spend their days navigating a society rife with discrimination, often covert but sometimes extreme. If we keep waiting for the extreme examples before we mobilize for change, then we relegate women to lives of inequality.