I haven’t heard that phrase directed at me since I was eight years old. Imagine having it (implicitly) aimed at you when you’re a grown woman – and incidentally, a world leader.
That’s what happened during the visit of President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and President of the European Council Charles Michel to Ankara,Turkey in April of this year.
Imagine this: you walk into a room for a high-level diplomatic meeting. There are two men in your group, host Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey, and your counterpart from France.
When you enter the room, you see that two chairs have been placed at the head of the room. Your male host takes one and your male counterpart takes the other. You stop, astonished, for a moment. You make an involuntary noise – “uh…” before you’re graciously shown the couch on the side. To be fair, it was a nice couch, within shouting distance of the important meeting between the two dudes at the front. It also had decorative pillows.
Deemed “sofagate” by the world after the awkward video went viral, it has prompted an outcry for the ouster of Charles Michel, who simply sat down without comment and left Ursula von der Leyen to take her place as directed. Here’s what she said after the incident, in a public address to the European Parliament.
“I am the first woman to be president of the European Commission. I am the president of the European Commission, and this is how I expected to be treated when visiting Turkey two weeks ago. Like a commission president, but I was not.” She pointed out that she saw no shortage of chairs in other similar meetings in the past. “I felt hurt and I felt alone, as a woman, and as a European. Because it is not about seating arrangements or protocol. This goes to the core of who we are,” she said.
Let’s unpack this.
- First: What the Heck, Chuck? In what universe is it OK to sit down and let your female colleague be disrespected like that? How hard would it have been to give her your chair? (You can bet they’d have hustled a chair right in for the guy in the suit.) Alternately, refuse to be seated and say something along the lines of “Mr. President, there appears to have been an oversight. Please have one of your people bring in a chair for my colleague before we get started.”
- Second: Don’t sit down, Ursula! You made the same noise every woman who’s been disrespected like this makes: a feeble “uh……..” but then you just sat down. I know it’s a diplomatic meeting, but your ability to negotiate from a position of power ended when your seat hit that seat. I don’t care that the Turkish excuse for this mess was that “EU protocol indicates that the European COUNCIL is more important than the European COMMISSION. So the Council dude gets a seat and the Commission girl doesn’t. Right.
- Good for Ursula for speaking out publicly. This goes to who we are. No one should have to put up with this kind of treatment, and it’s up to all of us to call it when we see it. We shouldn’t care how high level the meeting, how many cameras or observers are present. If this can happen to a woman who’s achieved the ultimate position as a world leader, it can happen to any of us. It does, as a matter of fact, every day.
The vice president of the United States is a woman. Is there any scenario in which Joe Biden would sit down and let Kamala Harris be relegated to the sofa? No.
And I don’t think she’d just take her seat like a good girl, either. One good thing may have come out of this: Sofagate may be the only exception to the famous Laurel Thatcher Ulrich quote: “Well behaved women seldom make history.”
Next time you’re in a meeting and you see disrespect in any form, speak up. Your daughters will thank you someday.
Breaking news after I drafted this post: European Council President Charles Michel has put forward a plan to improve “seating arrangements” in future summits.