Feel sorry for Kiely, but pity more his female colleagues
CORDELIA FINEFebruary 5, 2010
Banker surfs nude pics on live TV
Channel Seven's camera catches a Macquarie Bank operative getting distracted from his work.
No one with a heart can help feeling sorry for David Kiely, the hapless Macquarie stockbroker caught viewing near-naked images of Miranda Kerr on his work computer. Needless to say, it would be grossly unfair for Kiely to be disciplined more severely than normal by his employer simply because he was unlucky enough to be caught doing so live on Seven News, in a clip that has now amused millions of viewers around the globe.
What's more, these kinds of sexually provocative images of women are so ubiquitous that it's completely understandable that many are left thinking, "What's the big deal?" With rather more sexually explicit images regularly confronting us all on billboards and the magazine stands in convenience stores and petrol stations, it might be hard to work up too much outrage over a picture of Kerr directing a gentle come-hither look over her modestly shielded naked breasts.
But that doesn't mean that Kiely's behaviour should be dismissed as the harmless manifestation of red-blooded maleness, or that objections to it should be decried as ''wowserism'' or over-the-top political correctness. At a time when business leaders are wringing their hands over the dearth of women in finance and executive management roles, it's worth considering how sexually explicit images of women affect us, and what kind of message they send in the workplace.
Stockbroker David Kiely was sprung looking at near naked pictures of Miranda Kerr while colleague Martin Lakos did a live cross on Channel Seven.
For a start, male workers who think that viewing these kinds of images at work won't influence the way they perceive and interact with their female colleagues are probably mistaken. Consider a study that showed one group of men a series of ads portraying women as sex things, and compared their behaviour with that of men shown instead advertising material without sexual imagery. Later, each man was asked to interview a female job candidate, and their behaviour was carefully observed.
Men who had recently seen women portrayed as sex objects sat closer to the interviewee, flirted more and asked the candidate a greater number of sexually inappropriate questions. These men also rated her as less competent, and remembered a great deal about the woman's physical appearance but less information that would help them decide her suitability for the job.
In other words, images of sexually objectified women prime men to perceive and respond to fully clothed women in the same way. The GQ images of Miranda Kerr may not be hardcore (a fact presented by the Here is the City website campaign, which is attempting to save Kiely's job), but they may still leave male bankers with a stronger impression of the cut of a female colleague's blouse than her opinion of the financial markets.
When sexual material changes men's work interactions with women in this way, the cost to women is more than the potential overlooking of their mental, rather than physical, assets. Crucially, it can also blight her ability to perform well at work.
A now vast literature on a damaging phenomenon known as "stereotype threat" shows that environments that cue gender stereotypes - such as the stereotype of the empty-headed bimbo - impair women's ability to perform well in traditionally male domains. Women have to expend mental energy unconsciously suppressing the unflattering stereotype, and this interferes with the task at hand.
Psychologist Christine Logel and colleagues found that when men interact with female colleagues in even a very subtly dominant and sexually interested way, it triggered stereotype threat in female engineers, who then performed worse on an engineering test.
Women in male-dominated workplaces who doubt that their performance has ever been undermined in this way may also be mistaken. In Logel's studies, the women's ability was harmed by the subtly sexist behaviour of their male peers even when they weren't aware of it.
Even as psychologists learn more about how gender stereotypes adversely affect women trying to gain ground in male domains, material that primes those very stereotypes and attitudes becomes more common. Pornography is increasing in work settings, according to the Fawcett Society in Britain. And pornography in the workplace, however mild, serves as a signal to women that they are in male space. (Do male primary school teachers read Zoo magazine in female-dominated staff rooms? I very much doubt it.)
The drip, drip, drip effect of male workers viewing porn is the creation of an environment that is hostile and degrading to women - and this is in violation of the Sex Discrimination Act, as human rights lawyer Professor Aileen McColgan pointed out in the Fawcett Society's recent Corporate Sexism report. But when public responses to transgressions are casual and forgiving, women may be reluctant to complain about their male colleagues' use of pornography, for fear of seeming prudish.
So go ahead and feel sorry for Kiely, by all means. I do. But don't forget all the clothed women at Macquarie whose careers he helped make that much harder.
Cordelia Fine is a research associate at the Centre for Agency, Values & Ethics in the department of philosophy at Macquarie University.