Is it sexist to call a female employee a b****? That depends, says De Niro judge and jury

Robert De Niro’s gender discrimination trial raised questions around the use of sexist language in the workplace, Bevan Hurley reports

Thursday 16 November 2023 19:08
<p>Graham Chase Robinson (left) and Robert de Niro (right) are pictured each departing federal court on 30 October 30, 2023 in New York City</p>

Graham Chase Robinson (left) and Robert de Niro (right) are pictured each departing federal court on 30 October 30, 2023 in New York City

Should a male boss be able to get away with calling their female employees a b****?

That question was at the centre of a high-profile gender discrimination trial brought by Robert De Niro’s former assistant Graham Chase Robinson in New York federal court this month.

Ms Robinson alleged in a longrunning lawsuit that her former mentor had “attacked her in gender terms, calling her a ‘b****’ and a ‘brat’” during 11 years working for his boutique vanity company Canal Productions.

De Niro, 80, conceded on the witness stand that he might have called Ms Robinson a “b****”, but argued he did so sparingly and only to describe her behaviour, leading to an extended courtroom debate around whether it could ever be considered appropriate language for a person in a position of authority.

The jury found Canal Productions liable for gender discrimination and awarded Ms Robinson $1.26m, but De Niro himself was not found personally responsible.

Robert De Niro erupted on the witness stand as he admitted he may have called his former assistant a ‘b****’

The split verdict in the De Niro trial raised questions what constitutes acceptable manager-employee language, Kristen Syrett, a professor of linguistics at Rutgers University, told The Independent. 

“Does it matter if he said, ‘You are a b***’ to her or ‘She is such a b****’ or ‘She is acting like such a b****’ to someone else on the team?

“Yes, there is a difference, but should either be acceptable from a superior in a workplace?”

Demeaning, sexist language towards women, whether it be in the workplace or the home, in literature and in social settings, has been commonplace for hundreds of years.

B**** became a vulgar insult towards women in the 1400s, and by the 1800s had become “the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of whore”, according to a 2015 essay in The Atlantic.

Use of the word doubled between 1915 and 1930 in books and newspaper articles, according to a 2014 report in Vice.

“You know why?” Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal asked in a speech to Congress in July 2020.

“Because in 1920, this body gave women the right to vote — and that was just a little too much power for too many men across the country.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, was called a ‘f****** b****’ on the steps of the US Capitol by Rep. Ted Yoho, a Republican from Florida, in 2020

Earlier that month, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accused Republican Congressman Ted Yoho of calling her a “f****** b****” on the steps of the US Capitol.

Ms Ocasio-Cortez attributed the increased acceptance of violent gender-based language to Donald Trump, who has a well documented history of derogatory remarks against women, and was found liable for raping the writer E Jean Carroll at a civil trial earlier this year.

The De Niro verdict also gave rise to the question of whether gender-based insults were treated differently under the law from other forms of discrimination.

“One use of the ‘n-word’ directed at someone in any context should be sufficient cause for concern. I would argue the same is true for a host of other pejorative terms, based on ethnicity, sexuality, or religion,” Professor Syrett asked.

More broadly, women appear to be held to a different standard by society, the professor argued.

She cited U2 singer Bono dropping an F-bomb at the Golden Globes in 2003, for which he was cleared of using indecent language by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

There was also former Red Sox slugger David ‘Big Papi’ Ortiz declaring “this is our f***** city” as his team was celebrating a victory after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, which the FCC didn’t consider a profanity.

“The argument there was, they weren’t using it as an expletive, but more as an adverbial intensifier, so the use was ‘acceptable’,” Professor Syrett said.

“But I would ask, was it also acceptable because it was uttered by well-known, well-regarded famous men?”

At De Niro’s trial, Judge Lewis Liman let his feelings on the actor’s use of the term be known in previously unreported remarks.

Graham Chase Robinson, right, smiles outside Manhattan federal court next to her attorney Alexandra Harwin after a jury awarded her $1.2m for gender discrimination and retaliation

As attorneys presented motions to the court before the jury was sent out to deliberate, Ms Robinson’s attorney Alexandra Harwin brought up De Niro’s “repeated misogynist comments”.

“That’s extremely weak, because those are episodic over a long period of time and hardly go to a view that he is gender biased, particularly given this workplace,” Judge Liman replied.

As Ms Harwin attempted to cite case precedent, Judge Liman interjected, saying De Niro had used the word b**** not in reference to Ms Robinson’s gender “but to the way in which she’s behaving”.

After 11 years at the company, Ms Robinson rose to vice president of production and finance, earning $300,000-a-year by the time she quit in 2019.

She testified that despite the impressive job title, she would have to give De Niro back scratches, and was forced to perform demeaning tasks such as washing sheets and buying his children’s Christmas gifts.

Robinson was awarded $1.26m by a jury

Los Angeles-based employment law attorney James DeSimone told The Independent that cuss words are “thrown around every day, every hour” in many workplaces.

But the abuse crosses a legal threshold if it targets individuals, is unwelcome, and is proven to be based on race, gender or ethnicity, he said.

“A boss should never call a woman who works for him a b****,” Mr DeSimone told The Independent.

He said it appeared De Niro had gotten away with the abuse because the jury had considered it was uncommon, and not severe or pervasive, and may have liked the actor more.

Judge Liman also took issue with Ms Robinson’s claims that she had been frequently subjected to De Niro’s temper tantrums, instead arguing that a boss who yells is just a standard part of any workplace.

“I assume that you (work in a place) where you have been screamed at?” the 62-year-old  judge asked.

“I certainly have been. I would hazard to say that I don’t think there is anybody in this courtroom that hasn’t been in that kind of workplace or hasn’t been worked to death at times,” he added.

Despite the jury’s ruling and the judge’s comments, Mr DeSimone, a civil rights attorney, said that no employee should be expected to tolerate a manager who uses such language towards them.

“The truth is that it’s almost impossible to be a horrible boss without also getting into situations where gender and race discrimination – on the surface at least – are seeping into the boss’s conduct,” he told The Independent.

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