When a statement begins with "If it wasn't sexist, I would say —" it's a pretty solid indication that whatever comes next will be controversial. And when chairman of the Republican Study Commission (RSC) Rep. Mark Walker then labeled his female colleagues "eye candy," controversy is just what he got.
Walker appeared alongside several RSC members in front of the Capitol on Tuesday to announce their group's intention to take a "more public role." Walker introduced the conservative RSC's "3 Promises, 3 Months" plan to make a legislative impact in the House.
A few minutes into his speech, Walker said, "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." It remains unclear why Walker would imagine a comment like that spoken into a microphone during a public event would stay "out of the record," but it seems the North Carolina Republican thought his "eye candy" comment was harmless.
Others did not feel the same. The term "eye candy" describes a person whose sole role and most valuable quality is to look good. The female RSC members ostensibly contribute more than pretty faces to their legislative goals, not to mention being elected representatives of their own districts.
After taking heat for his remarks, Walker said in a statement to CNN, "During a press event today, I made a flippant remark meant to be light-hearted but fell short. I'm proud of the women who serve in our RSC leadership."
Walker was elected to the House in 2015, representing North Carolina's 6th district. Prior to getting involved in politics, Walker was a pastor for two decades, according to his website. It also states that he was in business and financial management before that.
The RSC itself skews heavily male. With almost 160 conservative House members, only 16 are women. That's roughly 10 percent of the group's makeup, and might partly explain Walker's admittedly "flippant" remark. It would be difficult to justify reducing dozens of women on a committee to mere "eye candy."
The problem of proportionate representation in politics is not limited to the RSC. Out of 435 House members, just 84 are women. Of those women, 62 are Democrats and 22 are Republicans. In total, women make up 19.3 percent of the House of Representatives. If the lower chamber reflected the demographic reality of the United States, women would obviously comprise half of elected reps.
Walker might benefit from hearing Smita Sabharwal's response to being called "eye candy" by a news outlet. The Indian bureaucrat sued Outlook magazine in 2015 for referring to her as "eye candy," calling that designation both "sexist" and "demoralizing."
As Sabharwal explained, "What disturbs me the most is the suggestion that a woman is able to rise in her career because of her beauty. It is very demoralising for the thousands of women stepping out of their homes and making their career."
The issue of sexism in the workplace is obviously not restricted to politics. Instances of so-called "casual" sexism alongside reports of blatant misogyny have been dogging the tech industry for years. Well beyond the political sphere and Silicon Valley, millions of women will sympathize with the experience of being demoted by a male colleague to the status of mere "eye candy."
Asking to be evaluated and judged on the basis of job performance and not gender or appearance is not asking too much. Hopefully, the women who work alongside Walker in the RSC will not brush over how sexist and counterproductive his "eye candy" remark is.
More to come...