When a chair is a more than just a chair: Ursula von der Leyen’s willingness to call out sexism is a win for women

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was relegated to the sofa during a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Mustafa Kaya—Xinhua/Getty Images

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Good morning, Broadsheet readers! The office stands accused of enabling misconduct, Nell Diamond made the ‘nap dress’ go viral, and someone needs to give Ursula von der Leyen a chair already. Have a great Wednesday.

– Take a seat. When we talk about women’s struggle for equality, we often talk about “having a seat at the table.” While the phrase has become a cliche, it derives from something very real, and, occasionally, rather literal—as European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen discovered at a recent diplomatic meeting in Turkey.

The incident, which quickly picked up the hashtag #CouchGate, occurred when von der Leyen, the first woman to head the EU’s executive branch, watched in dismay as her colleague, European Council president Charles Michel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed the meeting room’s two central chairs, leaving her with no choice but to sit on a couch near the side of the room.

The parties involved have put forward plenty of excuses (ahem, explanations) for why such an embarrassing diplomatic screw-up took place, but von der Leyen has her own thoughts on the matter.

“Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie?” she asked Monday, speaking to European Parliament. “In the pictures of previous meetings, I did not see any shortage of chairs. But then again, I did not see any woman in these pictures, either… I felt hurt and left alone: as a woman and as a European… This goes to the values our union stands for, and this shows how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals, always and everywhere.”

It’s striking to see a woman in von der Leyen’s position call out the moment so plainly. In the past, women in powerful roles have so often tried to avoid mentioning the sexism they encounter, much less the emotion that such experiences dredge up. Indeed, the Washington Post notes the difference in that respect between von der Leyen and her ally Angela Merkel, quoting a 2019 interview in which the German Chancellor responded to a question about sexism by saying, “I believe that, as a politician, you have to be able to take it, that you can only do this job if you aren’t overly sensitive. You have to concentrate on the real issues. I merely take note of the rest.”

It’s an understandable impulse. No one wants to be seen as whiny or as “playing the woman card.” And I get why female leaders—be they politicians like Merkel or private sector executives—so often try to steer the conversation away from anything that emphasizes their gender. Who wouldn’t want to be known as a “leader”—without that annoying adjective in front?

But the idea that slights like the one von der Leyen faced are not, to use Merkel’s phrase, a “real issue” feels outdated. If someone with her clout cannot speak out when she experiences such a dismissal, what hope is there for the rest of the us? I think that’s something powerful women are starting to acknowledge more and more these days. Be it a generational shift or something broader, opening up about their experiences as not just leaders, but, yes, as women leaders, can have significant impact. It raises awareness, shifts expectations, and demystifies the women at the top. The reality of those shared experiences is a reminder that none of us is alone in our personal struggle against sexism and bias.

So when your next “where’s my chair?” moment occurs, perhaps you can think of von der Leyen and demand that seat.

Kristen Bellstrom

The Broadsheet, Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women, is coauthored by Kristen Bellstrom, Emma Hinchliffe, and Claire Zillman. Today’s edition was curated by Emma Hinchliffe


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