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Jun 17, 2017

Interests: Building It Your Way, How Do You Dare?, Opening The Next Door, Women's Wisdom (Seeking or Giving Advice)

Annie Hardy

Arianna Huffington's Uncomfortable Laugh

A recent CNN Money article reported what many global news outlets have covered over the past couple of days: Uber’s leadership is struggling amidst alleged and documented sexism.

Anyone who has been paying attention over the past year is not surprised by the topic, but this time, the new spin is that when Uber’s Board met to address the topic of sexism on June 13th, Board Member David Bonderman made an inappropriate and sexist comment to fellow Uber Board Member and media executive, Arianna Huffington.

That’s right. A sexist comment made in a meeting about sexism, the recording of which was initially leaked to and published by Yahoo Finance. Mashable’s Kerry Flynn gives another perspective in her cheeky article that’s worth the read.

The transcript of the exchange is as follows:

Huffington: "There's a lot of data that shows when there's a woman on the board it's much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board." 

Bonderman: "Actually, what it shows is that it's much more likely to be more talking."

Huffington: "Oh, come on, David."

His seemingly innocuous comment made in jest is an excellent case study of the subtle sexism that women in the workplace face every day.

Regarding his comment specifically, the sexist stereotype that women talk more than men has in fact been disproven by research. A recent study found that men actually talk more - and interrupt more - than women in meetings.

But what resonated with me in the CNN Money article was the telling description of the audio of Huffington’s response by author Aimee Rawlins.

“Huffington laughed uncomfortably at the time.”

She laughed uncomfortably.

The Uncomfortable Laugh

Other writers offered alternative descriptors for Huffington’s response to Bonderman’s comment, saying that she laughed “politely,” or that the laugh was “awkward.”  

Ladies, if you’ve been around male co-workers long enough, you are familiar with Arianna Huffington’s Uncomfortable Laugh.

Because it’s a laugh we’ve all had to use.

It was my go-to response when interacting with male colleagues who called me “honey.” When a client called a female CEO a “Nasty Woman.” When a colleague at a tradeshow called a fellow colleague a “booth babe” and “booth candy.”

When those subtle moments occurred in my career, what the offender did not see was the rapid thought process going on inside my head:

This is wrong - can I call him out on it?

How I can respond and still protect myself?

Am I in a position of influence to actually change his behavior at all?

What will the impact of my action be?

Will he hate me?

Will he get angry?

How angry will he get?

How will it change the relationship?

What will it be like working with him after this?

Will this put my job at risk?

Is it worth the risk to even mention it?

And in that moment, that pause following a sexist comment, with those questions running through your head, sometimes all we are able to do without risk is to laugh. To laugh uncomfortably. Like Arianna Huffington.

The Laugh Heard Round The World

And it’s not just men and not just sexism. The Uncomfortable Laugh is a common response when racism rears it’s ugly head. Or when homophobia takes the stage in a conversation. It’s used in response to ignorance or boldness - by people who may not even realize they have offensive, inappropriate opinions - and they share those opinions in moments of transparency or humor or frustration.

And in those moments in my professional life, I’ve been struck, not quite knowing how to respond. Wanting to stand for something, but having to carefully measure the impact of my response on my relationship with this peer, my career potential, the possibility of being blacklisted for opportunities.

And so, we laugh. Uncomfortably. Arianna Huffington and I Laugh in that uncomfortable, polite, awkward way that doesn’t invalidate the offense, but neither does it gives credence to the speaker.

It’s a neutral response to an offensive situation that is difficult to handle. We are not always trained to find ways to call out sexism, or any other inappropriate behavior, while still preserving a professional relationship with the offender - but we need to be.

We need to find and promote a better in-the-moment response than an Uncomfortable Laugh.

Annie Hardy is the Founder, Principal and Managing Director of Zeet Consulting, a research and strategy firm dedicated to helping businesses craft smarter products, brands and stories. Annie serves as an Advisory Board Member on the Austin Chapter of Women in Digital where she works to empower other women to overcome workplace gender barriers.  You can follow Annie on twitter here.

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Reacting to Sexism: What's Your 'In the Moment' Response Strategy?

Audio from an Uber board meeting went viral this week after board member David Bonderman made a sexist comment to fellow board member Arianna Huffington.