Love & Sex

When We Talk About A Female Politician’s Looks, We All Lose

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Good looking or bad looking? It hurts either way.

Calling your female co-worker 'hot' in the workplace might actually be detrimental to her public perception. According to two new studies by the Women’s Media Center’s “Name It, Change It” project, which studied female politicians, any comment about appearance—positive, negative, or neutral–can do damage with potential voters.

The survey on media coverage took actual quotes from the 2012 election coverage and compared them to polls shortly afterwards. It indicated that whenever a female candidate’s appearance was covered in the paper, she suffered in the polls. The other study asked participants to select a preference between an unnamed female and male candidate using two different profiles. Untouched, the female lead in preference. When these same profiles were edited with descriptions about the female candidate’s appearance, like hairstyle and clothing choice, the female candidate was no longer found to be electable. 

Talking about a female candidate’s appearance hurt her perception of being in touch, likeable, confident, effective, and qualified, according to respondents of the survey. When media focuses off-issue in regards to candidates, it follows that a female candidate wouldn’t be seen as relevant. If all her campaign has fostered is talk about her blouse or caked makeup, what would her time in office address?

One interesting variable in the study, however, was that for female candidates who spoke out about sexist profiles highlighting their appearance, they garnered back some of their lost support. That might be because speaking out about sexism takes courage and it’s going on the offensive. Perhaps when the candidate recognizes sexism, the prospective voter might take stock of their own subconscious sexism as well.

These surveys follow in the footsteps of controversial comments made by President Obama about Attorney General Kamala Harris’ appearance. As Obama claimed (and later apologized for) at a fundraising lunch last week, Harris was "by far the best looking Attorney General." These comments were attacked because they have nothing to do with Harris’ history of fighting big oil or gay marriage opponents. They’re human comments, but they don’t really have to do with, well, anything. The prospect of Attorney General Harris’ career being hurt by the comment is unlikely but, as proven by the studies, it very well might have if she was just starting her political career.

Obama does acknowledge the challenges women continue to face in the workplace, though. Yesterday, he declared April 9th was National Equal Pay Day, in an effort to highlight the continuing pay gap between male and female workers. For women, earnings remain at an average of 23% less than men, despite female workers comprising half the workforce. April 9th is, in fact, how far into the new year women would have to work in order to catch up with men’s earnings from the previous year. Whether the wage gap exists because of explicit sexism, or because of underlying systemic issues with the access to equal or higher employment, is unknown. While Obama may champion equal pay for all, it’s also apt to note his remarks about Harris are part of a larger, sublimated conversation about why women aren’t taking prominent positions in the workforce, or "leaning in" with all the might of their spines, as Sheryl Sandberg might call it. 

That’s because when we first evaluate a female worker sexually while we regard her work (political or not), we imply that one does not come without the other. We never hear, "Tim has a great ass, and he’s a wonderful accountant, too." Even if you do, according to the above study, it will have no impact on the amount of respect he gets or his likeability. Similar "Can you believe it?" moments don’t happen with men, because great work has always been expected of them because of their gender. When we speak of women in the same fashion, there is a sense of marvel at their work despite their gender. 

Some have said, "Well, is there ever a time that is fair to call a beautiful woman beautiful?" The answer is yes, of course. Those times should happen out of the workplace, on off-hours, and never in association or alongside evaluation of her work. Maybe those guidelines make me seem like the sexism police, but they really aren’t that strict. Really, they’re just the same standards I see in practice for men in every single work environment I have ever encountered.

Putting comments about a woman’s appearance and her work capabilities in the same string of sentences is the kind of thinking that leaves female workers defined as female workers and not ever just workers. Why? Well, it's obvious. At the mere mention of her appearance, we are forgetting what she would actually do—her job. When Hillary Clinton went out without makeup on while performing her duties as Secretary of State last year, it made headlines. She was called tired, withdrawn, even juvenile by the media. At the time, Clinton commented, "You know, at some point, it's just not something that deserves a lot of time and attention." And that’s just it: qualitative discussions about women’s work and their appearance don’t deserve time and soon, I hope, they won’t capture our attention.