In a hearing yesterday of the EQC/ETIC 111D Subcommittee, Senator Jim Keane of Butte made a series of sexist remarks about a staffer, focusing on her appearance both when she began to testify and after. It was an uncomfortable moment in the room, with a mixture of uncomfortable silence and muted laughter that so often characterizes these moments of awkward sexism.
I’m not naming the staffer to whom the remarks were directed because I couldn’t contact her, but among his remarks were the observation that a female staffer was “way better looking than” the director she was speaking on behalf of, and that he “would rather have you.” Later, when the male director did attend the hearing, Keane told him he could “send that person over anytime to replace” him.
It’s creepy and uncomfortable to watch. It’s also wrong—and if he hasn’t already, Senator Keane owes an apology for his remarks. I’m told by two sources that Senator Keane not only directed these remarks towards the staffer but towards Senator Driscoll. One said:
It wasn’t just [staffer], to whom he referred twice that way, but also to Sen. Driscoll. Totally inappropriate and it is discouraging that no one on the committee objected. He’s a bully.”
Some people would be tempted to suggest that we should just “lighten up” about remarks like these, and I suspect that Senator Keane had no actual ill intent when he made his remarks. But to overlook them is to ignore the way sexist attitudes diminish women in the workplace and government service. And the absence of ill will doesn’t excuse treating women as objects for the male gaze.
An interesting study by Peter Glick and Susan Fisk actually found that benevolent sexism (not the kind of ugly, hostile sexism many are inclined to think of when they hear the term) is correlated with countries that have broader gender inequality:
Secondly, they discovered that benevolent sexism was a significant predictor of nationwide gender inequality, independent of the effects of hostile sexism. Specifically, in countries where the men were more likely to endorse benevolent sexism, there were also significantly lower female participation rates in politics and the economy, and men generally had longer life expectancies, higher literacy rates, more years of education, and higher purchasing power than women.
Ruth Burr explains how these kinds of compliments are sexist:
Now I can hear some of your heads exploding. “WHAT?” I hear you say. “Why would you object to being told you’re a beautiful woman?” Because I am not at a conference to be a beautiful woman. My looks are not what got me where I am today, and by bringing them up you are (whether you mean to or not) implying that my appearance is the most important thing. That I should be more flattered by the fact that you liked my picture than that you learned something from my blog post. The reason this is such a big problem is that women are judged by our appearances all the time.
Language matters. The way we treat workers in all fields matters. For a member of the Legislature to respond to anyone with a series of creepy compliments isn’t the way business should be conducted anywhere, especially in the Legislature. I hope Senator Keane has taken the past few days to apologize for his remarks, and to do some thinking about why they’re not appropriate.