The Silencing Of Kamala Harris During The Senate Hearing Was Sexist

Why do people take issue when a woman asks direct questions?
06/08/2017 02:00 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2017
Senator Kamala Harris
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Senator Kamala Harris

Nevertheless, she persisted. She persisted even after being told to stay in her place.

Senator Kamala Harris is taking Washington and Twitter by storm this morning.

As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Harris is one of the people questioning the witnesses in the Senate hearings into the Russia investigation.

While firing of direct questions at Wednesday’s hearing, the junior senator from California was shushed by Richard Burr, the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman, who essentially told Sen. Harris to pipe down and stay in line.

Her questioning style, a remnant from her successful days as the Attorney General of California, seemed to rub some senators the wrong way.

When she questioned the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on his handling of the Russia investigation, her “yes or no” questioning style was itself called into question, as some older male senators insisted that she was not letting the witness fully answer.

Senator Burr then silenced Sen. Harris, citing her level of courtesy:

“The chair is going to exercise the right to allow the witnesses to answer the question, and the committee is on notice to provide the witnesses the courtesy — which has not been extended all the way across — extend the courtesy for questions to get answered.”

What is “courtesy” in a Senate hearing, anyway? I imagine that “courtesy” would be to ask questions in a respectful manner in order to get to the bottom of the facts.

Or are the rules different for younger women?

As a woman who is frequently called out for her direct style, I’d like to ask one question— why do people take issue when a woman asks direct questions? Why are we expected to be softer in our tone and gentle in our questioning?

“Women are burdened with the assumption that they will conform to cultural stereotypes that typecast women as caring and nurturing. Speaking forcefully violates these cultural norms, and women are judged more harshly than men for the same degree of assertiveness.”

In short, women are judged to a different standard. We are expected to be polite and “respectful”. We are expected to ask our questions indirectly, to minimize the discomfort of the party being questioned, because our very role is to give people the warm fuzzies.

And if you can’t give people the warm fuzzies—even in the midst of a critical Senate hearing which could potentially shape the leadership of the nation— well, then, pipe down little lady.

According to a New York Times article by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant:

“When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.”

Despite the push-back and criticism that Sen. Harris will be receiving following the Senate hearing, we need more politicians like her. Many agree that she is an up and coming star in the Democratic Party and her fearlessness and fierceness may be exactly what the party needs in 2020.

Let me say this to Sen. Harris— you go, girl! Of course, I’m not the first one to congratulate her this morning. Senator Elizabeth Warren already beat me to it. As many recall, she was also once shushed. Nevertheless, she persisted!

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