The Politics of My “Lady” Handshake

It started with a business meeting between three men and me. Our law firm is contracting the services of a local accounting firm to assist on a multi-million dollar lawsuit, and the time arose to talk details with the accountant for the first time. After the meeting, we all shook hands. No big deal, right? Then, my attorney and I helped ourselves to the delicious pastries the accountant had furnished upon our conference room and began retreating back to our firm’s office. My attorney held the door for me, as he tends to do, and as I passed through, the accountant made an odd remark.

Bluntly, he exclaimed, “You have an excellent handshake for a woman!”

Did you hear those sirens? It’s the gender police.

Part of me is flattered by what he meant rather than how he said it. Yes, I do have an excellent handshake; thanks for noticing. I have worked hard to perfect my grip, and I am proud of how I present myself. And yes, I, too, would prefer to shake someone’s firm hand than the ol’ dead fish grip.

It’s those last three words that complicate the situation. To add “for a _____” to the end of any statement demeans the person you think you’re complimenting. It’s backhanded and unnecessary, as if to remind me — in case I’d forgotten — that, oh yeah, I am still just a woman playing in the big leagues with these men.

He could easily have made his point by saying, “You have an excellent handshake!” and ending the statement there. Why the “woman” qualifier? That’s like when someone tells a story that begins, “I saw this black lady on my way to work who…” or “This gay guy in line behind me said…” We could have just as easily substituted “person” in for the italics without changing the meaning of the story, unless of course the meaning was dependent on the subject’s sex, race, and sexual orientation, in which case you may be more bigoted than you think.

Like the accountant, I’ve noticed that some women have limp handshakes, but many men do, too. The problem is that we expect men to have firm, self-assured handshakes and women to have weaker, softer ones, much like how we expect men to be CEOs, women to be support staff, and intersexed people to not exist. Women simply aren’t taught to shake hands firmly, lest we make someone uncomfortable. We are taught to be nice and polite but not how to portray ourselves confidently in professional settings.

The accountant’s comment is of an antiquated mindset, but is it rare? My inner cynic thinks not. We recognize the strides that have been made toward equality among people of varying social statuses in the workplace, but we obviously still have light years further to go before we come anywhere near true equality.

3 thoughts on “The Politics of My “Lady” Handshake

  1. Totally with you on the main point, especially with regard to telling stories where the gender or race of the person makes no difference to the story. But as you point out, statistically speaking, it’s not common for a woman to have a firm handshake, so it is something that can be remarked on. Another way to take that comment is as a compliment for rising above the cultural gender training we’re all prone to. A reverse version might be something like, “You’re a good listener… for a man.” XD

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Completely agree with this! We generalize too early – based on race and especially on gender. When I read about not teaching girls in our society to have firm handshakes, I was reminded of an incident when I was about 11 or 12:

    Girl X has a brilliant, strong handshake and that’s how she greets people. I’m glad as I’m not much of a hugger.
    Girls Y and Z laugh because “girls are supposed to hug; guys shake hands”.
    Girl X shakes hands with Guy A and the guy immediately responds with – “You shake hands as strong as a guy”.
    From then onward, we waved hello.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reaching out! It’s amazing how those early experiences shape us later in life. I bet Girl X remembers that incident, too! Sidenote, it’s actually better to hug than to shake hands in terms of psychological well-being, though that sure wasn’t those girls’ intention. (Oh, the woes of pre-pubescent social conformity!)


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