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Sofagate: Protocol or Mysogyny?

Sofa

On 6 April 2021 there was a meeting in Turkey between the country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the EU Council President Charles Michel and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. A meeting of equals, one might suppose.

I don’t know about you, but if I know that I am inviting a couple of colleagues over to my place of business to discuss a matter of great importance that we all cared about, I would make sure that we all had an appropriate place to sit to have a three-way discussion. I don’t think that I would set out two chairs for the pal most like me and have the other one sit metres away on a decorative sofa (social distancing notwithstanding). This being the case, how astonishing was it to see the two men of the group walk confidently into the meeting room and sit down very deliberately on the two available chairs (positioned centrally between the national and European flags) and show no discomfort at all, that the third person, the one that didn’t look like them, had no chair to sit on and was forced to take a side position on the sofa. This is extraordinary considering that as Presidents and world leaders they have a duty to defend and uphold women’s rights.

There have been a number of backtracking, dig-me-out-of-a-hole, explanations for this strange situation. Some have said that it is protocol for two people to sit for a discussion (sorry, no, there is plenty of evidence that three chairs can be accommodated for this kind of discussion), or that there were two people representing the same body (the EU), again, there are plenty of photographs of when the two male presidents were accommodated.

Clearly, the situation was unexpected by President von der Leyen. It can be seen that she is dumbfounded by the positioning of the furniture to accommodate their important three-way discussion. She shrugs and holds out her hand, a gesture of confusion. Rather than make a scene, she does sit on the sofa. In later shots on the video, she could barely look more distant from the action. At best we could call it bad planning and at worst it was a deliberate action to keep the woman in her place. Certainly neither of the men looks uncomfortable at the situation, or stands to wait for the furniture to be rearranged.

This is one of those lose-lose situations in which many women find themselves when engaging with traditional male scenarios. It’s lose-lose because you either stand your ground and risk looking petulant, or sit down in the designated spot and look weakened. Either way, you lose your equality as a partner in the talks. It reminds me of when, in the 2016 US Presidential campaign, Donald Trump kept hovering over Hillary Clinton’s shoulder as she was trying to state her position. It was rude and annoying surely, but again, in that moment, how do you think on your feet to counteract the behaviour? How many times, when a man and woman turn up to an important event, do the organisers assume that the man is the senior person and that the woman is his deputy, or even his PA? Sheryl Sandberg tells of when she was pitching a deal in New York and asked for the women’s bathroom and no-one could tell her, as no women had been to those offices in the previous year.

In these types of circumstances we are often taken by surprise and don’t know how to react. The situation puts us on the back foot, having to re-double our equality efforts, not only in doing our job, but having to overcome the male hegemony and not be embarrassed, flustered, or frozen into paralysis.

I wonder if President von der Leyen is now kicking herself for not asking for another chair to be brought for her to sit on? Personally, I would ask for the furniture relocation.

However, the key to doing this, is practice. Before you go into a male dominated situation, think of the possible scenarios that could play out and practise how you want to react to each of them. And then practise some more, so that when it happens, your reaction is smooth, polished, professional and calm. Ensure that your voice will come across as having authority and gravitas, that your posture will not give away your nerves. That your shoulders are relaxed and anything that you are carrying is neat and tidy and not getting in the way of your calm exterior. Walk in a measured and upright way, and acknowledge others in a business-like manner. If an unexpected slight is made, you might use humour to deflect any embarrassment that is caused; to put yourself and others at ease. In doing these things you signal your equality, and show that you expect the same respect in return. That way, I think, you will shine out beyond the room.

Professor Claire Collins

Emeritus Professor
Published 7 May 2021
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Leading insights