“she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake….She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country… It’s true. Come on. And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years.” – Barack Obama on Kamala Harris
And Obama has since apologised for this statement after critics said it took away from the achievements she has made by commenting on her appearance. Was he right to apologise and is it wrong to pay a woman a compliment?
Women are always perceived to be at a slight disadvantage because our culture in the west tends to see the boys as the dominant sex – as much as we try to show equality women are playing catch up a lot of the time. Sheryl Sandberg was on The Daily Show this week talking about this very issue noting that this comes from early on in life when you see t-shirts that say things like “Pretty like Mummy” and “Smart like Daddy” – while it might appear innocuous it is setting stalls out early on in life. Successful women are seen as bitches in the work place where as tough men are seen as powerful or thrusting and often men don’t like to be managed by a woman. In teaching there is little choice as most teachers are female and I’ve only once worked for a male head of department – what is noticeable though is when you get to Head or Deputy Head level it is still a man’s world.
So we start from a point where women want to be taken seriously and equal to their male colleagues. But here’s where I disagree with Obama’s apology – was he wrong to make a friendly personal comment about Kamala Harris? I don’t believe so and I also think if it had been a good looking man he said it about there would be little or no need for an apology. Even if a female had said it about a man it wouldn’t have been a problem. There is a legitimate argument about the rights and equality of women in politics and business, but I’m not convinced Obama was belittling her in any way. It was a compliment, not a sexist or flirty one, just a compliment. If she had a minute’s thought she should have shot back with “Thanks to the best-looking President in the country.”
The other thing worth considering is that in politics and public positions like this looks are becoming more important – mostly to the public. How these people look, dress, body posture etc. is put under the spotlight constantly so would these people at the top have achieved that position if they weren’t so good looking? Look at the Front benches in the UK parliament, I’m not saying any of them would stop traffic but are they the character filled faces of twenty/thirty years ago? Do they have advisors and stylists to ensure they project a certain image? Yes of course they do. There are constnt polls around election time to decide “Who would make the tastiest Prime Minister?” That is sexist, not a friendly compliment.
Maybe he shouldn’t have made a public compliment considering she has focussed on young prostitutes and sex trafficking in her role as Attorney General – in that light it doesn’t look so good – but as a general compliment, accept it and move on.