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Story highlights

Kara Alaimo: "Eye candy" remark on women drew backlash that shouldn't be dismissed

She says such "joking" reflects serious, real-world views that keep women second class

Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

During a press conference Tuesday, the head of the Republican Study Committee called the female members of his caucus “eye candy.”

Kara Alaimo
Courtesy of Kara S. Alaimo
Kara Alaimo

“The accomplished men and women of the RSC. And women. If it wasn’t sexist, I would say the RSC eye candy, but we’ll leave that out of the record,” US Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina said.

The record heard him loud and clear, and the remark immediately sparked social media backlash, with some calling him sexist.

Of course, it was an offhand remark, which Walker has already acknowledged was “meant to be lighthearted but fell short,” adding, “I’m proud of the women who serve in our RSC leadership.”

In fact, against the backdrop of the nation’s resurgent culture wars, many will undoubtedly view Walker’s remark as no big deal – a compliment, actually – and believe that women need to understand how to take a joke.

But the statement actually is a big deal. Much as some would like to imagine it as innocuous, it reflects some serious, real-world and consequential views that keep women – including women in Walker’s own life – in a second class of American culture.

Three reasons:

First, Walker’s comment suggests that he doesn’t take women – and their equal role in the workplace – seriously. The message: If women actually are eye candy, then they are present in Congress, at least in part, for the pleasure of men, rather than to do the same work as men: solve policy problems. His comment also sends a disturbing message – to his own daughters, and to every woman in America – that women’s ideas and intelligence aren’t what counts.

Second, Walker’s comment sexualizes the workplace. There is no way around this: Calling women eye candy suggests that Walker believes it is OK to view female colleagues as sexual objects. In some cases expressing this view can create an “offensive workplace environment,” which is illegal, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And it could drive women from important roles.

Women are already drastically underrepresented in politics. They hold just 19.3% of seats in the House, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Republican women are especially underrepresented: Only 22 House Republicans are women, compared with 62 House Democrats.

At a time when we need more women in the House, treatment such as this could discourage them from seeking and keeping such positions. Indeed, a 2016 study by Redbook magazine found that almost half of American women have left a job or know a woman who has left a job due to sexual harassment.

Third, Walker is a leader in the GOP. He sets a terrible example for other men – in and out of politics – by suggesting that it’s OK to talk about women this way. Researchers say the best way to prevent sexual harassment in workplaces is to create a culture in which it isn’t tolerated. Walker’s remark, however, promotes the kind of environment in which it can thrive.

Walker may believe his female colleagues are beautiful, but his own remark was nothing short of ugly. Here’s hoping the feedback he’s getting from around the country today also catches his eye – and leads him to treat women differently in the future.