THE BLOG
09/24/2014 12:52 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Man's World

While it's a great thing to step back and consider the significant progress made in the last few decades towards social and economic equality for women, the fact is you never have to wait very long before encountering a stark reminder of just how much work is left to do - even up here in oh-so-liberal Vermont.

The last couple weeks brought a bitter example right in our backyard.

Consider two biographies on the website of the Vermont Supreme Court. "Justice A"'s resume indicates a law degree from Suffolk Law School in Boston, followed by seventeen years of private practice in Vermont before being appointed to the High Court by former Governor Jim Douglas.

"Justice B"'s resume shows a law degree from the University of Chicago, followed by experience as a clerk on the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and then 18 years of private practice in Vermont before being appointed by current Governor Peter Shumlin.

One of these two currently serving justices has recently had their qualifications for appointment to the court called into question, and by no less then a former Vermont Governor.

If you find yourself uncertain as to which of the two resumes above was found wanting, let me help; "Justice A" is a man (Chief Justice Paul Reiber), and "Justice B" is a woman (Associate Justice Beth Robinson).

In his recent autobiography, former Governor Jim Douglas openly casts aspersions on Justice Robinson's fitness for the Supreme Court, writing that "[Governor Shumlin] was a strong proponent of gay marriage. Since he was nominated by a scant 200 votes in the Democratic primary, their support may well have provided the margin of victory. He later reciprocated by appointing one of the leading lobbyists of the movement to the Vermont Supreme Court," referring to Robinson (big hat tip to John Walters and Mark Johnson for bringing this up).

For women, this is an all-too-familiar story. Rarely does a woman professional receive a significant promotion or appointment without jokes or open speculation that the recognition must be based on something other the merit, be it their appearance, the perception of quotas, a desire to be "politically correct," or - as in this case - as part of some underhanded deal or special arrangement.

The narrative is so pervasive that many women find themselves questioning their own worthiness when they are recognized for their own merit and accomplishments (See The Confidence Gap).

Let's be clear; this is obviously a political slap from one politician targeting a rival (rather than a direct, targeted attack on the integrity of this particular Justice), but again - there has been little-to-no outcry in response because the gender of the Justice in the crossfire makes it all very routine.

Also, this is not to suggest that there are not instances of men's promotions being questioned, of course. The point is that for men, such challenges are the exception. Men are generally given the benefit of the doubt.

For women, though, there is frequently an implicit burden of proof to be met, as this sort of question is, more often than not, the norm. Having the charge so casually made by a former Governor (who himself appointed similarly-qualified male candidates to the Court), makes it a particularly bitter reminder of why talented, intelligent, accomplished women leaders continue to struggle to be taken seriously as full partners in so many of our business and governmental institutions.

[Crossposted at POVt.net]