Wednesday, February 6, 2013

When a Necktie isn't just a Necktie

Florida has a new business slogan designed to promote job growth in the state.  The slogan, "Florida: The Perfect Climate for Business," features a necktie in place of the "I" in the word "Florida."  I am baffled as to why there is any dispute over whether this slogan is sexist.  How is it NOT sexist?  Is a necktie an article of clothing worn by anyone but men?

This necktie flap may seem like a small point, but I would argue that it is not.  It is utterly tone deaf to the realities of the business world (eerily, in exactly the same way so much of the Republican Party's rhetoric was tone deaf to the realities of the electorate in the 2012 election).  The state of Florida could not have said more clearly that it considers business to be a male-only club.  The likely fact that this was entirely unintentional makes it worse, not better.

According to the article, Florida is home to more than 587,000 female-owned businesses, which ranks it 4th of 50 in the country.  Yet the slogan-creators, apparently unaware or uninterested in that truth, chose as their logo a male-only article of clothing.  Let's look at it the other way: what if they'd chosen a business suit with a skirt instead of pants to stand in for the "I"?  That would be sexist, wouldn't it?  It would also strike everyone as weird.  "Why exclude men from the equation?" and "Why pander to PC feminism?" and "What the hell could they be thinking?" would echo loud and clear from every corner of the rafters.  And the detractors would be right - logos should not exclude huge swaths of the population unless they are designed to do so for some legitimate business reason.  (Tampons don't need to be marketed to men; testosterone-replacement therapies don't need to be marketed to women.)

Why wasn't Florida's logo gender-neutral?  One of the commenters in the article suggests a briefcase or a smartphone.  I'll suggest an office building, maybe an iconic Miami or Tampa or Jacksonville office building.  To anyone inclined to object, "But lots of businesses aren't in office buildings," I'll reply, "Really?  Does using an office building suggest big business in a way using a necktie doesn't suggest men?"

This kind of casual, throwaway, in-all-likelihood-unintended sexism drives me nuts.  It bespeaks a mindset about how and what the world is that relegates women - in this case, women in business - to an inferior position.  It's not merely tone-deaf.  It forces women into an inaccurate political and economic box.  It diminishes opportunity.  It intimidates, it succors discrimination and limiting definitions, and it perpetuates antiquated negatives.  For men as well as for women.

Casual sexism of this ilk is particularly infuriating because there is arguably no realistic recourse once it occurs.  Anyone who points out and attempts to address every instance looks like a tiresome, obsessed crackpot with no sense of humor or perspective whatsoever.  You can't be a vocal, hard-nosed activist on every little thing if you want to be able to influence some real change.  But being a good sport is equally wrong.  Sexism is like any other prejudice.  Letting it go lends it an acceptability, even a validity.  It amounts to tacit approval and inures people to the harm.  When we keep quiet, we have to cope not only with outrage and frustration, but also with the discomfort that comes from knowing that our silence effectively constitutes consent and makes us collaborators.

So, Florida, unless you intended to demean women in business, change your slogan.  And next time, think harder about what and whom you're trying to attract.

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