Chair Incident Was Sign of Enduring Sexism, E.U. Leader Says


It was an awkward diplomatic moment.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive, was left standing during a visit to Turkey this month as her colleague, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey settled into two chairs.

Ms. von der Leyen, the first woman to head the European Commission, weighed in on the situation for the first time on Monday, telling European lawmakers that she had concluded that the blunder happened because she is a woman.

“Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie?” she asked, speaking to the European Parliament on Monday evening. “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,” she added, noting that the oversight was a sign of “how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals.”

Video of the meeting held at the Turkish presidential palace this month showed Ms. von der Leyen’s clear surprise as she let out an “um” at the lack of appropriate seating. She quickly settled on a sofa several feet away as Mr. Michel, who ranks equally in the European Union’s hierarchy, and Mr. Erdogan sat positioned in front of the European Union and Turkish flags.

The images caused an immediate storm, with many commenting on the enduring sexism they saw in the moment, and clips spreading swiftly online. #GiveHerASeat was soon trending on Twitter across Europe.

The meeting came at a crucial diplomatic moment as Turkey attempts to improve a fraught relationship with the European Union and to revive the process of joining. It also came as Turkey has taken strides away from rights initiatives intended to empower women, something that Ms. von der Leyen pointed to on Monday when she mentioned Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a treaty that combats violence against women.

She also made another point: The diplomatic blunder only made headlines because there had been cameras in the room to capture the episode.

But, she added, “Thousands of similar incidents, most of them far more serious, go unobserved.”



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