Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan appears to have the necessary qualifications to be confirmed by the Senate to serve on America’s highest court, but working for her may not be the most enjoyable experience.
Kagan has built an accomplished legal and academic career and had a very successful run as Dean of Harvard Law School. She currently holds the position of Solicitor General in President Obama’s administration. I’d be very surprised if she encounters significant obstacles toward confirmation.
But I couldn’t help zeroing in on a negative piece of NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg’s generally laudatory commentary today, indicating that Kagan may have something of a bullying boss quality to her — of the kiss up, kick down variety:
The cheerful, charming Kagan so beloved by the students was not always in evidence elsewhere. Secretaries and faculty members alike have stories of Kagan screaming at people, slamming doors and chewing out subordinates in public — a trait that she is said to have carried with her to her next job as solicitor general. She’s a “yeller,” concedes one of her friends with a wry smile.
Tushnet, one of her admirers, puts it this way: “Her weakness as dean was that she really didn’t like people to disagree with her. But that’s not something you can do at the Supreme Court.”
Harsher standards for women
If you’ve ever worked in hierarchical, professional workplaces where support staff and other subordinates are treated poorly by their bosses, this description of Kagan’s behavior may push some uncomfortable buttons. It’s a common profile: High-achieving strivers who please those in positions to promote their careers, while being less than respectful toward those beneath them on the organizational chart.
That said, we shouldn’t make too much of this, for two reasons: First, if yelling at subordinates was a disqualifying factor for lawyers seeking positions of power, well, we’d have a lot fewer attorneys in high places. (I’ll let readers ponder the possibilities there…)
And perhaps more importantly, women often are judged more harshly than men when it comes to such behaviors. Many an abrasive man can get away with it, while an abrasive women is more likely to be called a certain five-letter epithet.
Especially in Type A, top-down work settings, bullying-type behaviors should be taken into account when evaluating someone’s suitability for leadership roles, regardless of demographic characteristics. It would be wrong, however, to deny that double standards often exist.