During a fundraiser in California yesterday, President Obama made reference to the state’s Attorney General, Kamala Harris, saying:
“You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and 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.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says the President has since apologized, calling Harris last night, according to the AP, to say he was sorry for “ the distraction his comment created” and he “did not want to diminish Harris’ professional accomplishments and abilities.” Thanks for acknowledging your error in judgment Mr. President.
I think President Obama is doing a great job, but he did indeed step in it with these comments. Women have a lot working against them in the workplace — a glass ceiling that halts their advance up the ladder, discrimination or outright sexism, being taken seriously. The President of the United States is a leader, and this President in particular has made equality between the sexes a big part of his policy initiatives and rhetoric. The President’s comments don’t help us to combat those workplace struggles.
In the case of Kamala Harris, The Washington Post says that she’s “a potential gubernatorial candidate.” If she wants to move forward with a political career, Harris needs to be seen as a person who can exact change, manage a tremendous — and tremendously troubled — state economy, the major social issues that the state is dealing with, and maintain the trust of constituents. Being seen as the lady that the President called good-looking doesn’t really help with that.
Attractive has nothing to do with strong, capable, smart, or strategic. In the end, it’s those qualities that that get a person to the top of their profession. Let’s be honest — pretty can help. But studies also show that it can work against women. Pretty can also be easily dismissed. Eye candy doesn’t necessarily get a seat at the table. And no one wants to be accused of getting by on their looks.
To the President’s point, when you take the focus off of a woman’s abilities and place it on her looks, you undermine all the work she’s done to be treated as a force to be reckoned with in the workplace. There are worse things to be called. And many beautiful women are also amazing at their jobs. But, in our society, it’s still way too easy for a woman’s leadership prowess to be dissed and dismissed. It would be best to keep these sorts of superficial compliments to ourselves and focus on the work at hand.