Everyone knows that opening a meeting with a joke is a great icebreaker. And at the annual meeting of Safeway Inc.'s shareholders, Senior Vice President and General Counsel Robert Gordon opened with a real knee-slapper:
You know, this is the season when companies and other institutions are interested in enhancing their reputation and their image for the general public, and one of the institutions that's doing this is the Secret Service, particularly after the calamity in Colombia. And among the instructions given to the Secret Service agents was to try to agree with the president more and support his decisions. And that led to this exchange that took place last week, when the president flew into the White House lawn and an agent greeted him at the helicopter.Isn't that funny? Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton are worth less than pigs! Ha!
The president was carrying two pigs under his arms and the Secret Service agents said, "Nice pigs, sir."
And the president said, "These are not ordinary pigs, these are genuine Arkansas razorback hogs. I got one for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and one for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton."
And the Secret Service agent said, "Excellent trade, sir."
If you can't see the humor in that joke, you obviously are a humorless feminist who refuses to see the inherent comedy in unfavorably comparing two of the most powerful women in the world to pigs. It's just a joke, after all. Lighten up. A senior executive of a major corporation would never engage in actual sexism, especially at a meeting that he knew would be recorded and posted to the internet. So obviously it was just some harmless, lighthearted fun. Right? And not one single person in that room who laughed at this "joke" would find humor in real sexism. After all, it's 2012. Women can vote and run for office and own property and everything! And just look at the huge advancements women have made in the boardroom. Why, even a whopping, record-breaking 3.6 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. (Even though they make only 69 percent of what male CEOs make.) And only 10 percent of those Fortune 500 companies (of which Safeway is number 63) have all-male boards of directors. Even Safeway has one. Just one. Progress!
And besides, Safeway has a strict Code of Business Conduct and Ethics, which Steve Burd, Safeway's chairman, president and CEO, proudly claims is a hallmark of its "well-deserved reputation for honesty, integrity and fair dealing."
Because nothing says "integrity" like making jokes about powerful women who are worth less than pigs. Ha ha ha!
Of course, what's extraordinary about this "joke" is that it's not extraordinary. It's a blatantly sexist, disrespectful joke that a high-level executive at a major Fortune 500 corporation felt perfectly comfortable telling at a meeting that he knew was being recorded and webcast out to the world. Because it's just a joke. Who could possibly take offense? Certainly this kind of run-of-the-mill sexism garners laughs in boardrooms and executive offices all over America. This is just the way it works.
And that's the problem. It's this kind of casual sexism that contributes to a corporate culture in which women are still not especially welcome. Yes, things have changed and improved, but women are still woefully underrepresented—and underpaid—and it's not hard to see why, when corporate America is still so obviously a boys' club where women are merely the butt of a joke to warm up a crowd.
Until the highest echelons of corporate America no longer feel perfectly comfortable cracking "jokes" like this, women—even the 3.6 percent who now run Fortune 500 companies (at a reduced rate)—still have a long road ahead before we can achieve full equality.