“I Prefer Pantsuits”: My Experience with Sexism in a Professional College Organization

Illustration by Carmen Li

“You should wear a skirt. Most people prefer girls in skirts.”

After I had withdrawn from the hardy grasp of the mock trial judge who had been shaking my hand, I blinked a few times as if to process the words that had just been said to me.

“I’m sorry?”

“You’re wearing a pantsuit,” the judge went on. “A lot of people I know prefer it when female attorneys wear skirts to court. It makes you guys look nicer.”

I was a freshman doing collegiate mock trial when this was said to me. It was at my first ever tournament, and we had just finished a competitive round against another university. After I had shaken a few hands and engaged in polite camaraderie with my mock trial peers, I decided to go up to the judge and ask for his critique on my performance. I had been hopeful that he would give me tips regarding my courtroom skills, and though he did give me pieces of advice, he ended up throwing in something about my professional outfit.

Before this moment, I had been convinced a suit was just a suit, and that one’s performance and skill in a pseudo-courtroom mattered more than what they were wearing. However, my conversation with the male judge contradicted this viewpoint. Aside from dealing with the pinching sensation I was feeling in my toes from wearing heels for far too long, I suddenly was very uncomfortable in my Calvin Klein pantsuit.

After clearing my throat and blinking a few more times, I replied with, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

To say that misogyny is nonexistent in college organizations that are focused on professional development would be ideal, but it would also be a blatant lie. As a young woman, being acknowledged for things such as your talent, skill, dedication, and hard work is a wonderful feeling. However, when these traits can so easily be questioned and discounted by something as trivial as a comment about your outfit, it can be disheartening. To further see your male peers get away with things that you are so easily scrutinized for doesn’t help your feelings either.

Later in my first year, a judge told me that I was “too intense” and that I “needed to calm down” following a round against another male attorney who had become red-faced with exertion throughout the duration of the trial. I couldn’t help but be taken aback after thinking about who the judge had compared me to, although the judge was content enough to nod as if in agreement with himself.

Just recently, internalized misogyny made its long overdue appearance, as I overheard one of my female teammates being called a “bitch” and “super aggressive” by another competitor in the women’s restroom. The comment that had followed these words had been an exaggerated, “Oh, I knowww.”   

I’m well aware that there’s a fine line between being taken seriously and being seen as aggressive. There’s a fine line between being respected, and being viewed as a “bitch.” There’s an even finer line for women amongst all of these traits, where a woman risks falling into the category of being seen as weak and submissive rather than determined. Few women ever get to walk in perfect balance on these lines, and if they ever do manage to achieve this perfect equilibrium, there are forces constantly working to pull them down.

At the same tournament where pantsuits were (apparently) not very appropriate for female mock trial attorneys, I was fortunate enough to meet a woman who seemed to have achieved the aforementioned balance. She had been the judge for one of my mock trial rounds, and during the trial I noticed how focused she was on the competitors, and how meticulous she was with her notes.

Afterwards, when the round was over, she introduced herself to all the competitors. Her name was Sara, and she had attended USC for her undergraduate education before attending Columbia Law School for her graduate degree. She explained how after working for a few private law firms, she was currently working with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. She said this with a matter-of-fact tone, and she kept her posture straight as she spoke.

Sara was (and still is) the type of woman I have been aspiring to be like. I decided to speak to her and ask for her feedback regarding how I did. After she had given me a few tips about my posture and the way to argue something, I decided to ask her about something that had been bothering me all weekend.

“Are pantsuits okay for female attorneys?”

Her eyes widened at my question and she tilted her head, confused. I proceeded to elaborate. “Are pantsuits okay for me to wear? The last judge I spoke to said that judges preferred seeing female attorneys in pencil skirts, not pants. It makes us look nicer in court, or something.”

Her reaction to what I said was automatic and brilliant: she inhaled a deep breath, and dramatically rolled her eyes. She clearly had encountered something of a similar nature before.

“Yes,” she answered, “You can wear pantsuits. Pencil skirts aren’t mandatory.”

I immediately apologized for asking such a ridiculous question, feeling more awkward than I already did. She waved off my anxiety and apologies before giving me a light laugh and proceeding to speak.

“A lot of guys are going to tell you that you need to look a certain way in a courtroom, and that’s just not true. Just do your best, exceed everything that’s expected of you. This kind of thing is difficult, but not impossible. And besides.”

“Besides what?”

“I prefer pantsuits. They’re much easier to walk in.”

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