It’s no secret that women face a disproportionate amount of discrimination in the workplace. One-third of women say they have been subject to some type of workplace discrimination at some point in their careers — which can range from being paid less for the same type of work, to being denied a promotion, to being scrutinized more carefully than their male colleagues.
But the issues that women encounter on the job can run deeper than being unfairly assumed to be less competent or less valuable than their male counterparts. In many cases, women are up against very specific assumptions about their sexuality, their role as “objects” intended to be attractive to men, and their responsibility to prevent men from desiring them.
That attitude toward women’s bodies becomes entrenched at an early age, as girls are told what type of clothing is or isn’t appropriate to wear at school so they don’t “distract” the male students. And it carries over into the workplace, too, as adult women repeatedly receive the message that they are responsible for both obscuring and leveraging their sexuality for men’s purposes. Here are just five recent examples:
A New Jersey judge ruled that casino waitresses can be fired for gaining weight.
Twenty two former cocktail servers sued a popular casino in Atlantic City over a policy that forbids waitresses from gaining more than seven percent of their original body weight. The women were subject to regular weigh-ins, and the policy meant that a 130-pound woman was not allowed to gain more than 9.1 pounds. They alleged it was weight discrimination — but an Atlantic County Superior Court Judge disagreed. In July, the judge ruled that casino waitresses are essentially “sex objects,” and it’s okay to fire them for gaining weight because they are no longer fulfilling their contractual obligations.
A widely-used employee training manual tells women how to make sure they don’t lead men on.
Earlier this week, Jezebel reported that a popular manager training guide — used as companies like Google, Groupon, and Modcloth — essentially tells women that they’re responsible for preventing advances from their male co-workers. The manual tells women who are “touchy-feely or flirtatious by nature” to “dial it back,” suggests women socialize in groups, and advises women to avoid “revealing clothing” or “ending statements with an upward inflection.”
Women at Merrill Lynch have been instructed to seduce their way to the top.
Other employee trainings have similarly gone off the rails when it comes to guidance on women’s behavior in the workplace. Female employees at Merrill Lynch allege they were made to read a book called “Seducing the Boys Club: Uncensored Tactics From a Woman at the Top” and to make use of its advice to get ahead. To get men to do their work, the book suggested “play[ing] on their masculine pride and natural instincts to protect the weaker sex.” To diffuse tense situations, it pointed out that men “puff up” at being told, “Wow, you look great. Been working out?” The women also allege that they were pressured to attend female-only events on “dressing for success” and were told to be more “perky” and “bubbly.”
The Iowa Supreme Court decided it’s okay to fire attractive women if they pose a risk to men’s marriages.
James Knight, a dentist in Iowa, didn’t fire his female assistant Melissa Nelson after 10 years of working for him because of performance reasons. Instead, Nelson alleges that Knight’s wife told him to do it because “she was a big threat to our marriage” given that he was sexually attracted to her. Yet in July, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court stood by an earlier decision that she wasn’t improperly fired because it wasn’t gender discrimination. Instead, her firing was found permissible because of the facts surrounding her relationship with Knight, such as several comments he made about her clothing and the fact that they texted each other after work hours.
Two hotel employees were fired after they complained about being photoshopped onto bikini-clad bodies.
Two sisters, Martha and Lorena Reyes, say they were fired from the Hyatt Hotel in Santa Clara, CA after they complained about photoshopped images of them. In the photos, the women’s heads were photoshopped onto the bodies of women wearing bikinis. Lorena told Jezebel that they were “extremely humiliating and shameful for me” and also said she has never worn a bikini, even at home. While the company says it fired them two days after they complained about the images because they took overly long breaks, the sisters feel it was related to the incident. The Reyes sisters have filed a retaliation charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Just like when it comes to school dress codes, the issues at play in the above scenarios are ultimately a manifestation of rape culture. Many Americans think of “rape culture” specifically in the context of incidences of sexual assault, but it’s actually a pervasive societal attitude about women’s sexuality that runs much deeper and influences a much broader range of interactions. When women in the workplace are sexualized in these ways, they’re receiving the message that their bodies have everything to do with men’s reactions to them and nothing to do with their own autonomy or consent. This approach to gender roles assumes that men can’t control themselves around women, and it’s women’s responsibility to figure out how to handle that. And ultimately, this culture contributes to high rates of sexual harassment in the workplace: One in four women report having experienced such abuse.
But once women and men internalize those messages about women’s bodies, it’s not hard to see why many of them may assume that women who are subject to that sexual harassment — or other types of sexual violence — probably did something to “deserve it.”