Wisconsin SBDC eLearning Center

The Pervasive Sexual Objectification of Professional Women

by Dirk Kozloscky

As a young professional in the 80s, I regularly fought off sexual remarks and proposals from mostly older and married male bosses. They frequently commented on my appearance and sexuality, which I can assure you was never on display in the office.

HR was not tuned in yet to these sorts of problems, and the only leverage I had was to threaten to tell wives – which I did threaten on several occasions. Nothing else seemed to work.

I can’t tell you how depressing I find it that little progress has been made in this area. One young woman was taken aback when her married boss “confessed” that he is very jealous of her boyfriend. In another case, a woman was being congratulated on bringing in important new business when her boss interrupted and claimed she only got the account because “She’s hot.”

There are a couple of recent examples of public shaming of sexual objectification that have made the news. After Donald Trump claimed that Carly Fiorina’s face makes her unelectable, she responded effectively with both grace and class:

Yet I find myself wanting to bang my head against my desk as Trump declares that she is a beautiful woman after all. He’s blind to the fact that his good opinion is as inappropriate as his criticism. A few years ago Silvio Berlusconi called German Chancellor Angela Merkel an “unfuckable lard-arse.” Yet she remains relevant and he’s just a bad memory. Obama referred to Kamala Harris as “best looking attorney general in the country.”

Did Queen Victoria get this kind of disrespect? Or Queen Elizabeth for that matter? Margaret Thatcher?

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What’s behind this stream of male commentary on the sexual appeal of women leaders? What is the incentive that drives this behavior?

Here’s a definition of sexual objectification:

Sexual objectification is the viewing of people solely as depersonalized objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities and desires/plans of their own.

Three things stand out that provide insight into this behavior in a professional context:

The workplace is meant to be depersonalized. Sexual objectification is an attempt to re-personalize it.

Cordiality and effective communication are essential to productivity, but veering off into the personal diminishes productivity by introducing emotions into what should be a dispassionate environment. Rational and impartial decision-making are impossible when sexual tension is present.

Objectification seeks to rob the woman of power. 

Calling a women not credible because she is ugly, or deserving of advancement because she is pretty are both equally inappropriate and offensive. In both cases the woman loses, because her professional expertise and aptitudes have been rendered immaterial. This is the only way a narcissistic male can avoid competing with a female who threatens his status.

The woman’s wishes are deemed insignificant and are ignored.

The man who sexually objectifies the professional woman is blatantly stating that he does not care how she wants to be viewed. He refuses to treat her as an equal. If she objects, he’ll accuse her of not being a good sport or having a good sense of humor.

Most men do not behave this way. But one in the office is enough to make going to work hell for a woman.

Characteristics of Men Who Objectify Women Professionals

1. They are sexist. 

Offering an opinion about a woman’s looks is a way of reminding women that a male assessment matters. Women should submit to male desire – even in the workplace. Because that’s what women are meant for – and good for.

2. They believe they are entitled to sexual attraction from women.

They use their superiority in the organization to obtain ego gratification by targeting women who cannot easily protest.

3. They tend to be middle aged or older. 

One rarely hears of this happening among Millennials. Or between two 40-somethings. Sexual objectification happens among all ages on the street, but in the office it tends to be married men in mid-life who are perhaps fighting against inevitable sexual irrelevancy among young women. If they can manufacture sexual tension using power or money, many will.

Consider this episode that recently went viral:

A respected British barrister named Charlotte Proudman initiated a professional connection on Linked In with a senior law partner. 

She’s an expert on violence against women and female genital mutilation – what was he thinking? Yet Proudman has been receiving death threats ever since from men who say this was a “harmless compliment.” Oh, the irony. Proudman:

“Why all the fuss? Should women not be grateful that they’re being complimented on their looks by strangers, particularly by powerful, senior men? Let me be clear: the compliments I receive from friends or family, and those I choose to give, are a private matter. I do not welcome unsolicited remarks about my body from someone I don’t know and who, in a professional context, is in a position of authority over me. Sexist comments are part of the process that seals and cements women’s subordinate position to men in the workplace.”

Linked In! There’s no justification for using Linked In as if it were Tinder. Are we not safe anywhere?

4. They are creepy.

Both men cited in this post have made sexually suggestive remarks about their own daughters. First Carter-Silk:

“Whilst I should not encourage lascivious comments about my daughter,” runs a newly unearthed Facebook post by him below a picture of 27-year-old fitness trainer Ellie Carter-Silk, “Yeee gods she is hot!”

And now Trump:

“I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her…Yeah, she’s really something, and what a beauty, that one. If I weren’t happily married and, ya know, her father … ”

EW EW EW EW Is that not sickitating?

Research has clearly demonstrated that men who do this are more likely to rape and disrespect women in other ways. There should be zero tolerance for this behavior.

Carly Fiorina and Charlotte Proudman can take care of themselves. I worry a lot more about the 20-something women who want to be judged for their professional performance without regard to their appearance or desirability.

When I was 27 a woman couldn’t get any satisfaction by complaining to HR. Today she can. In the case where the boss expressed jealousy of a woman’s boyfriend, the HR department jumped through hoops to prevent a lawsuit and navigate the candidate’s wish to leave the firm with a settlement. In her case, she deliberately shifted to a company that was mostly female.

I recommend:

  1. Build a network of female acquaintances, advisors and mentors at the company where you work.
  2. Network throughout your industry so that you are well connected if you should need to leave your job.
  3. Ask HR to produce training or at least documentation to prevent sexual harassment by explicitly defining what is not OK.
  4. Tell someone influential if this happens to you, preferably HR.

The only way to stop these particularly noxious men is to create a painful enough consequence so that they decide it’s not worth it. The potential censure outweighs the ego validation. That’s particularly hard to do with an imbalance of power, but the climate today gives women a shot at getting satisfaction.