Monday, September 28, 2015

Subtle Sexism

by Sherry F. Colb

It seems odd to describe anything about Donald Trump as subtle, but his sexism may be.  For my Verdict column for this week, I discussed Trump's insult to Carly Fiorina's appearance and her highly effective response at the second Republican presidential debate.  I argued that his insults toward her were sexist and bought into an ideology of women as things to be exploited and to be assessed on their utility as sexual objects.  In this post, I want to talk about the subtle nature of the sexism on exhibition by Donald Trump and why, in my view, such sexism is both subtle and noteworthy.

The unsubtle form of sexism and sex discrimination involves treating a woman or a girl in a way that a man or a boy would not be treated and doing so on the sole basis of the woman's or girl's sex.  The old advertisements for jobs that said "only men need apply" represent one example.  Such unsubtle discrimination acts on the basis of a quality that is shared by all of the members of one sex and none of the members of the other.  Males may apply for the job, while females may not.  It is accordingly uncontroversial to describe what is happening as sex discrimination when an employer fails to promote an employee who is otherwise qualified in virtue of her being a woman.  In such a case, the quality that bars her promotion is her sex, and it accordingly is shared by all members of her sex and none of the members of the opposite sex.  Were she a man, she would have been promoted.  Sex is a clear and uncomplicated causal factor in her mistreatment.

The more subtle form of sexism and sex discrimination involves treating some people differently from others because they lack qualities that some members of their sex lack but that other members of their sex have.  Take, for example, pregnancy discrimination.  Not all women are pregnant, so one could miss the reality that an employer who discriminates against pregnant women is necessarily discriminating against women as a group.  One could conclude that pregnancy discrimination is not sex discrimination, since a large proportion of the female population would not suffer from its effects.

I mentioned this possibility to my 11-year-old daughter, and she said "that's stupid."  Perhaps it is, but the U.S. Supreme Court held in two separate decisions, Geduldig v. Aiello and General Elec. Co. v. Gilbert, that pregnancy discrimination does not count as sex discrimination, precisely because the class of non-pregnant people includes both women and men, and correspondingly, the class of pregnant people includes only a subset of women.  So long as a characteristic (here pregnancy) fails to overlap with 100% of women and with 0% of men, one could deny that it is sexist or sex-discriminatory to use that characteristic as a basis for differentially bestowing or denying benefits.

The same could be said of Trump's comments about the appearances of women (including that of Carly Fiorina, prior to the second Republican presidential debate).  So long as he insults the appearances of both men and women, and so long as it is possible for both men and women to be unattractive or attractive, one could argue that Trump is not behaving in a sexist or discriminatory fashion.

The reality, however, is that if one deliberately singles out a physical condition (such as pregnancy) that occurs in only one sex (women) and mistreats people on the basis of that physical condition, then one is intentionally discriminating against women, even if one has allowed some women to avoid the discrimination (those who avoid pregnancy).  The outcome, moreover, for women under a regime of pregnancy discrimination is an inferior set of choices and opportunities, relative to those that men encounter.  Men can decide whether or not to have a family unhampered by the impact of one or the other choice on his career; women cannot.

For similar reasons, appearance discrimination tends to disfavor women more than men, even though (1) men are as likely as women to be ugly, (2) men do sometimes suffer from looks-oriented distribution of benefits, and (3) many women are pretty and therefore do not suffer the effects of appearance-based discrimination.  Looks discrimination harms women as a sex because, as I describe in my column with respect to Trump, such discrimination tends to demand more of women and to demand it of women in more situations than it does of men.  Men, in other words, do suffer the effects of looks discrimination, but women suffer more.  We can see this most dramatically in the film industry, where men--including many unattractive men--play a whole range of roles throughout their lives, and women on the screen tend to be those who are beautiful, slim, and young, other than in exceptional cases.

In one sense, what I am describing is disparate impact--the type of discrimination that may not be intentional or conscious but that results in a disproportionate disadvantage to one group over another. Requiring that everyone applying for a job be capable of lifting over a hundred pounds, for example, would have a disparate impact on women applicants (and would therefore be subject to a type of business necessity test applicable under federal employment discrimination law).  In another sense, however, what I describe has greater intentionality than we typically ascribe to disparate impact. Someone (such as Donald Trump) is deliberately singling out women for derision; it's just that the way he does so makes the damage less obviously sex-based (in an individual case) than it would be if he just said "women should not be allowed to run for public office."  We might need to look at the collective impact of such behavior on women to see its sex-based results.  What we are examining, then, is not quite disparate impact; it is subtle disparate treatment whose impact is likely to be most striking across the run of cases.

Because of its potential subtlety, I was especially pleased to see Republican men and women condemning Donald Trump for his mistreatment of women in his remarks.   Despite their subtlety (and his obsession with being opposed to "political correctness"), people on both sides of the political aisle showed themselves capable of identifying sexism and taking issue with it.  I am glad that we have reached a point at which the kind of discrimination overlooked by the Supreme Court in Geduldig can now be understood as a true and noteworthy form of sex discrimination.


Joe said...

I'm sure your daughter would find various Supreme Court rulings "stupid" and be right a decent number of times as well.

Shag from Brookline said...

Trump seems to realize that he has painted himself into a corner as it pertains to Carly Fiorina, when he recently stated that PC might limit him from challenging Firoina on issues unrelated to her looks, such as Fiorina's business "successes" and more importantly Fiorina's views on Planned Parenthood. So perhaps other candidates may be reluctant to challenge Fiorina. We liberals/progressives, however, are free to equally challenge both Trump and Fiorina as unqualified to be President based upon their business careers, althoughFiorina may have actually been a great receptionist/secretary.

David Ricardo said...


It is obvious that Ms. Fiorina has undergone a substantial, and I do mean substantial change in her appearance. Would pointing this out in the context of a political campaign be fair, or would it be something that is excluded from discussion for several obvious reasons (irrelevant to the issues, discriminatory against women, etc)?

I feel that it probably should not be a part of the campaign, and it has not been raised by either candidates or the media, but it does go to the issue of whether or not a person is that which they say they are. (Full disclosure - my opinion is that Ms. Fiorina is one of the most dishonest candidates ever foist upon the American electorate. One may despair of Mr. Trump or Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee and the others but there is no question of who they are and what they stand for). And there has been commentary on the appearance of male candidates, ie, Jeb Bush's weight loss, Trump's hair or whatever that is, Chris Christie's weight (loss or not), Rick Perry's glasses, Ronald Reagan's hair color, Ted Kennedy in many areas, and so forth.

So would it be fair to point out that Ms. Fiorina's appearance like much of her persona and commentary has deviated from reality?

Joseph Simmons said...

Ricardo, I'm sure many would delight in pointing out that women's appearances are judged more then men's. Additionally, there are many examples of physical critiques of political women, from attention paid to pantsuits and Palin's looks, the cost of outfits (whether Palin's or Michelle Obama's), Michelle Bachmann's 'crazy' look, etc. So it's not like there's some great disparity in criticism in the political realm. Some - like you and Donald Trump, for example - will make suggestions about Fiorina's appearance too. Whether that can be defended on the ground of gender parity is debatable, but I find it particularly cheap and like you're trying too hard. That you think Fiorina to be one of the most dishonest candidates ever is curious. And your claim that she was "foisted upon the American electorate," rather than a citizen choosing to run in a party primary is also curious. Those claims defy reality.

David Ricardo said...

Points of clarification:

1. I did not intend to and don't think I did make pejorative commentary on Ms. Fiorina's appearance. I merely noted that it had undergone a substantial change which I believe is a fact not an opinion. Does anyone deny that it has not? And given the subject of Ms. Colb's post I raised the question whether or not it should be an issue in the campaign in the hope that it would be treated as a serious question and that there might be some interesting and informative responses.

2. In using the term 'foist' I meant of course that Ms. Fiorina has 'self-foist' herself upon the American electorate, since I think it is also a fact that until she declared for the Presidency no one outside of her immediate circle felt that they should foist her upon the electorate.

3. As for her dishonesty, that is I think a debate outside of the parameters of Ms. Colb's post, but really, does anyone want to take her side on the issue of her honesty with respect to how she presents her background, her record as a business executive or the video which she swears she has seen but has yet to produce?

Joe said...

"has undergone a substantial, and I do mean substantial change in her appearance"

I have no idea -- since you feel a need to bring it up DR, perhaps a before/after photo. And, why would it be relevant? Looks are deemed more important for women, so similar comments can have different effects. Comments about weight of male candidates to begin with are often crude, but it could be worse if a woman was involved. So, there could be sexism concerns in that respect.

Appearance can be relevant in certain cases -- Rick Perry is ridiculed for trying to look smart. Ronald Reagan's hair is probably a dig at his age, which can be a reasonable concern at some point (though merely looking old is not a good reason to criticize). So, if Sarah Palin tried to look smart, it might be fair game. A candidate perhaps might be fair game by feigning a certain religious look while her actions show substantively she isn't very like the person her image promotes.

But, not sure why Fiorina looking different would matter too much. Trump is being criticized for crude potshots at her looks. Again, really don't know how she looked & simply her looking different now by itself doesn't seem too relevant. Simply noting she looks different wouldn't be sexist, I gather.

Shag from Brookline said...

Here's a source to consider on this issue:

"All's Fair: Love, War and Running for President" Paperback – August 31, 1995
by Mary Matalin (Author), James Carville (Author)

However, I shall not comment on the "looks" of the authors, one a Republican consultant and the other a Democrat consultant.

The unusual aspect of this campaign is that a candidate raises the matter of "looks." However, "looks" have always been raised, including by campaign staffs. But what was it Teddy Roosevelt said about Taft?

Also, in Fiorina's Senate campaign an open mic caught her dissing opponent Barbara Boxer's appearance.

I have noticed the Donald's "casual plump" look when he appears on the campaign trail with his baseball cap, blazer and dockers. I'm waiting for him to doff the blazer. (I'm working on a poem that will rhyme Trump and plump.)

All's Fair. Consider the treatment that Hillary has received over the years.

Joseph Simmons said...

Shag, the impulse to find anything superficially comparable from a candidate's past can get silly. Fiorina's comment about Boxer's hairstyle being outdated was meant to be private (caught by the microphone while prepping for the debate). This is not a matter of personal chasteness (I'd wager most of us have criticized the appearance of others), but rather intentionally making it a part of political commentary. That is not what Fiorina did.

You're right that the years have been rough on Clinton. See, that's just cheap. We should rise above that.

Shag from Brookline said...

But Joseph, Fiorina has demonstrated other silliness both about her business career and her political ventures. Perhaps you have personal knowledge that Fiorina's adherents in her Senate campaign did not think this was a comment that might serve Fiorina favorably? Image Fiorina comparing herself to Steve Jobs about getting fired. Consider Jobs' business record before being fired, after being fired and then being rehired. Fiorina when asked why she didn't seek another CEO position after her firing responded she didn't want to. So what did she use her great business experience for after being fired? Why, she became the business advisor to Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, and we know how that turned out. (It has been said that Fiorina while serving McCain was pushing to be selected as his VP candidate. Was that a beauty contest?) Then came Fiorina's Senate campaign where Barbara boxed her in on the claims of Fiorina's business successes. Fiorina was considered by same a moderate Republican in that campaign. As I said in an earlier comment, Fiorina may have actually been a great receptionist/secretary. That's part of her rags to riches story. Paul Krugman commented that then his rags to riches story is that he went from being a mailman to become a Nobel recipient recognizing his accomplishments in economics. If Fiorina can't stand the heat in politics, maybe she should cool off in the kitchen.

Your acknowledgement concerning Hillary says "We should rise above that." Do you sense from what the GOP candidate and elected officials have been saying that they will rise above that? As the late Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley said many, many years ago "Politics ain't beanbag."

Shag from Brookline said...

Not to harp too much on Carly Fiorina, but she made a statement in a recent interview that while she was at HP (?) she got a call to join the George W. Bush Administration. There wasn't significant follow up questioning, such as for what position, etc. But consider how things were going at the time for HP and for Bush/Cheney. Perhaps both Fiorina and the Bush/Cheney benefitted from Fiorina declination of the offer, as well as our nation.

Shag from Brookline said...

OOPS! A Google check indicates the call from George W. Bush came after Fiorina was fired at HP. Imagine if she had joined Bush/Cheney. Why she might have been blamed for the 2007-8 Bush/Cheney Great Recession.