Safeway Inc is a Fortune 500 company. At its annual meeting recently the general counsel attempted to ‘joke’ about two of the most powerful women in Washington; Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately for the general counsel, particularly Robert Gordon, who is also chief governance officer, the joke has been branded sexist by many and was met with a lack of amusement from people at the annual meeting.
The joke can be found here: http://www.law.com/jsp/cc/PubArticleCC.jsp?id=1202554396609&Was_the_Safeway_General_Counsels_Big_Joke_Sexist. The joke is a reused one which was told during Bill Clinton’s presidency. The gist of it involves comparing Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi’s value to that of two pigs. The president is carrying two pigs under his arms, who are both complimented by a secret service agent. When the president states that he ‘got one for Hillary and one for Nancy’, the agent responds ‘excellent trade sir’.
For those interested in hearing the joke as it was told, an audio recording of Robert Gordon telling the joke can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=MCWMrGUouoQ.
As the annual meeting was being recorded and placed on the internet, it was reckless of the general counsel not to think about the impact that type of joke would have on a world-wide audience. Many bloggers instantly voiced their distaste, claiming that it is this type of ‘casual sexism’ which highlights the limitations women face in corporate culture, which is still very much a ‘gentleman’s club’.
Sexism in the workplace, particularly in a corporate environment, has always been rife. The Equality Act 2010 was introduced by the government and was aimed at reducing discrimination in the workplace, including discrimination relating to gender. Whether this has had a sufficient impact on society is yet to be seen. There have been some women who are submerged in the corporate world who even claim that sometimes they are picked to entertain clients because of their looks, encouraged by bosses to ‘flirt and charm’ in order to close a deal.
After the internet response from the joke became known, Robert Gordon released a statement apologising for the telling the joke, stating that it was not his view or the view of his employer.
The problem is that although discrimination in any form should not, under any circumstances, be tolerated, society seems to have become overly sensitive, particularly when it comes to telling jokes. A distinction should be made between a harmless joke and actual discrimination, which has damaging effects. Some commentators referring to Robert Gordon’s joke have actually defended him, saying it was a joke which should be taken light-heartedly. Surely general counsel of a Fortune 500 company would not have told this joke at a recorded annual meeting, which they knew would be broadcast on the internet, if they believed it was a harsh statement discriminating against women?
The problem lies in where to draw the line. Society has become quick to brand people ‘sexist’, ‘racist’, ‘ageist’ etc, without considering the context or the intention of the people at the time comments and statements were made. Whilst it definitely was not a smart move on Gordon’s part, I am yet convinced that it amounts to sexism.employment law, equality, sexiss