SU mock trial’s dress code is sexist, some members say

Objection!

Some female members of Syracuse University’s mock trial team complain that their dress code, requiring them to wear skirts and high heels, is sexist.

By Christen Brandt

Women on the mock trial team of Syracuse University can’t forget one crucial step on the night before their competitions: shaving their legs.

Part of the mock trial team’s mandatory dress code calls for the women to wear a business suit consisting of a jacket, skirt and dress shirt. The skirt must reach the top of the knee and shoes must be high heels of the same black or navy coloring as the suit. High heels are a must–no low or kitten heels allowed.

On Oct. 7, after receiving the dress code, Cynthia Downey, team member, sent an email to the coach of her mock trial team objecting to the skirt rule. She wrote that, “Forcing women to wear skirts is extremely sexist,” and that in the twenty-first century, “Professional women can wear pants.” Downey has also written to the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Kandice Salomone, but has not yet heard back.

The coach, attorney Robert Smith of Melvin & Melvin law firm, responded to that email by writing, “I repeat, there are no exceptions to the dress code.” Downey persisted in her argument by stating in a second email that in her opinion, the dress code violates SU’s nondiscrimination code. She then asserted she would take the issue up with university officials, but Smith stood unmoved.

“You may do as you wish,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, my position remains unchanged. Sometimes you have to follow rules you don’t like.”

In the rulebook for the American Mock Trial Association, rule 7.4 states that, “appropriate dress must be worn by all participants.” Since the rule doesn’t specify as to what “appropriate attire” entails, individual chapters are left to set their own interpretations.

At Cornell University, a dress code similar to SU’s current rule used to be in place for women on the mock trial team. But attorney Abbe Stensland, the mock trial coach hired this year, nixed that rule when she took over. “I don’t care what they wear as long as it looks professional,” Stensland said. “I have not ever, in my real professional career, had any client, judge, or juror say to me that I should be wearing a skirt when I go to court.”

Smith says that his skirts-required approach is about keeping the focus on the client. “It’s a conservative look which I think is appropriate courtroom attire. I think it’s important for the students to realize that when you’re a lawyer in court it’s not about you, it’s about your client. Conservative dress doesn’t draw attention to you personally. That’s why we have a dress code that some of the students feel is conservative, but I don’t get a lot of complaints about it.” When asked if a conservative look could be achieved with a pantsuit, Smith answered that he wasn’t sure.

Danielle Waugh, a broadcast journalism major and team captain of the mock trial team, came face to face with another aspect of the dress code before one of her first competitions. “I’m very tall, so I’m uncomfortable in very high heels,” Waugh said. She had brought a pair of smaller kitten heels to deal with the problem. “But the night before the competition, I had to go out and buy a new pair of [higher] heels.”

Downey, a senior philosophy major, doesn’t think the dress code is reasonable. “I don’t think this rule is fair,” she said. “I think it’s sexist. I shouldn’t have to wear stereotypically female clothes just because I’m female.”

Associate Dean Kandice Salomone, director of the mock trial program at SU since 2004, considers a skirt suit and business pumps to be appropriate courtroom attire. “Given a courtroom situation,” she said, “being dressed in a business style dress suit with a skirt and jacket for women is appropriate. I don’t think it’s an inappropriate dress code.”

And some of the women on the team agree. Courtney Greenberg, a former member of the team and senior political science major said, “I liked it because we looked nice ­– very clean.”

Amanda St. Hilaire, a sophomore broadcast journalism major and current team member, agrees. “I’m fine with it,” she said. “I don’t mind wearing a skirt. I personally think it looks nicer, I think it presents better, and I think it’s more flattering.” And though Waugh doesn’t like the dress code, she said she’s adjusted to it out of respect for her coach and a necessity to follow the rule.

But Stensland disagrees that one option is more appropriate than another. “I don’t agree that it’s more conservative,” she said. “I think it’s just the way that things have been done and people are not willing to challenge that, which I think is unfortunate.”

Downey said women shouldn’t have to conform to meet others’ ideals. “I have seen Ivy League teams wear pants,” she said. “You shouldn’t be forced to conform to this stereotypical standard because your judge might happen to be a sexist. If the person judging is sexist, that’s not a problem with me, that’s a problem with them.”

Some of the women do worry about what the judges and jurors think, but not just in terms of attire. Waugh explained that in high school, she didn’t have to worry about being too aggressive or objecting too often. Now, she has to worry about the “B-factor,” otherwise known as the “bitch factor.”

“The issue of female attorneys being aggressive or labeled as bitchy is much more of a societal issue than a mock trial issue,” said Stensland. “I tell my female attorneys and my mockers that men get to be aggressive and women are bitches – that’s just the way that it’s perceived. And it’s unfortunate, but I don’t want them to back off because of that.”

Women like Waugh don’t back down, but it isn’t always easy. “I had a girl tell me I was being a bitch. I never thought I was crossing the line, I just thought I was being assertive,” she said. “You give it your all, and then you hear a comment like that and it just tears you down.”

She also said she knows a member of the mock trial team at the University of Pittsburgh, where the women are told they should only object a limited number of times to avoid being seen as too bitchy and being penalized for it. “We’re taking steps back,” Waugh said. “We’re reinforcing gender stereotypes at a very crucial time in people’s professional development.”

Smith doesn’t agree that this is an issue when it comes to judging, however. “We go to competitions, and I interact with the judges, and the other coaches; it’s actually something that in my experience personally hasn’t come up,” he said.

Stensland said there is definitely a certain perception about women who push hard, but that she would never tell her students to back off because of it. “Regardless of how far our society has come, I think people are still uncomfortable with women in positions of authority,” she said. “When it comes to female attorneys, I think that carries through.”

Waugh’s sentiments echo hers: “How many female DAs [district attorneys] do you know? How many prosecutors?”

Stensland agrees that the general attitude toward women in law needs to change. “One of my most vivid memories from undergraduate mock trial was when I had a judge tell me that if an old white juror wanted to look at my legs and that would help my client, then I better be willing to do that,” she said.

“That has always stuck in the back of my mind as the reason why we need to challenge these things. I don’t think we need to perpetuate myths about the efficacy of female attorneys based on their attire. As long as long as you look professional and you act professional, I don’t care whether you’re wearing a skirt or pants. I lose balance because I have girls in pantsuits, I’m okay with that.”

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