I didn’t really feel like sitting down to write this column Friday morning. I wasn’t feeling sick or anything, just not in the mood. Then a thought occurred to me: Maybe I could call in female.
I never would have conjured up such an idea up on my own, so credit goes to state Rep. Jack McFarland. In justifying his House Labor Committee vote against legislation aimed at helping women close a well-documented wage gap last week, the Jonesboro Republican asserted that women in the workplace simply aren’t as reliable as their male counterparts.
“When it comes to the wage discrepancies and all that between men and women, it’s been my experience, both professionally and in my private business, that the women tend to miss work more,” he said. “They have other … so many other things.”
I’m guessing that came as news to all the women in the hearing room, who had indeed shown up that day, just as they presumably do most other days. But hey, that’s only their experience. What do they know?
Of course, McFarland’s complaint wasn’t why the equal pay bill, authored by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, and strongly backed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, was shot down. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the National Federation of Independent Business and other employer advocates made the bill’s defeat a mission. The Labor Committee, which House leaders had stacked with opponents of Edwards’ employee-focused agenda, voted along party lines, with five Democrats in support and 10 Republicans opposed.
If McFarland succeeded in anything, it was in making an ass of himself — just as fellow state Rep. Kenny Havard, R-Jackson, had done the day before when he offered up a joke amendment to a serious bill aimed at cracking down on human trafficking in the exotic dancer biz. The measure, which passed the House unanimously, proposed raising the minimum age for dancers to 21, and Havard tried to get a laugh by adding a maximum age of 28 and weight of 160 pounds.
Instead, he drew angry rebukes from female colleagues, some of whom declared themselves disgusted at Havard’s judgmental insinuation about women’s attractiveness, and deemed it part of a frat house culture in which women are routinely marginalized. Anyone looking for evidence to back up that second part needed only to hear McFarland’s blithe dismissal of women’s status as full partners in the workplace the very next day.
Are either of the these statements matters of life or death? Of course not.
Nor does everyone agree that conditions are bad. The Advocate’s Rebekah Allen interviewed a number of female politicians who work in the Capitol and found a range of opinion. That’s fine. Not everybody is going to have the same experiences or react to situations the same way.
But clearly enough see a pattern of disrespect, overt or subtle, to launch a conversation about the topic.
State Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, pushed back as soon as Havard introduced his amendment, calling it offensive. State Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, followed up with an angry floor statement about what she sees as a pattern of sexist behavior. State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, directly linked the Havard episode with the failure of the equal pay bill.
“Overall, it’s been a terrible week for women at the Capitol,” she said. “We’re once again reminded that work to end sexism and inequality is far from over.” Moreno also announced plans to launch a social media campaign to build awareness of women’s issues.
And Edwards’ Health and Hospitals Secretary Rebekah Gee chimed in on Twitter, posting a chart showing that, percentage-wise, Louisiana’s Legislature has fewer women than any other state body. “We should encourage women to go into public service,” Gee wrote.
It would be nice if Havard and those who defend him would participate in the discussion he’s now inadvertently launched. Instead, he insisted that he has no apologizing or soul-searching to do, that the hubbub is all just a symptom of rampant political correctness. That’s become a thing in this country: Shout “PC” and you don’t have to worry about how your words or actions might be received by others. Rather than start a conversation, you simply shut it down.
That’s a shame because it’s now obvious that nerves were frayed long before Havard decided to introduce his amendment. If everyone could at least agree on that much, maybe there’s hope that some good might come of the embarrassing episode — with or without the guy who set it off in the first place.