When compliments aren't helpful
I think most professional women already viscerally know this, but it's good to see some real data to back it up:
The study, released Monday by the Name It, Change It project, reveals that mentions of a woman’s appearance when she is running for political office — whether those mentions are flattering, unflattering, or neutral — has a negative impact on her electability. That includes “the horserace, her favorability, her likelihood to be seen as possessing positive traits, and how likely voters are to vote for her.”
The survey was conducted by asking 1,500 likely voters to read about two candidates, one male (Dan Jones) and one female (Jane Smith).
Some groups received descriptions of the candidates that did not mention physical attributes. Others received one of three types of descriptions for the woman:
Neutral description: Smith dressed in a brown blouse, black skirt, and modest pumps with a short heel…
When respondents hear the negative description of the female candidate’s appearance, she gets only 42 percent of the voters. When they hear the “flattering” description, she gets 43 percent (and there are fewer undecided votes overall, so her opponent gets an even bigger lead). With no physical description, Jane Smith gets 50 percent of the votes.
Positive description: In person, Smith is fit and atractive and looks even younger than her age. At the press conference, smartly turned out in a ruffled jacket, pencil skirt, and fashionable high heels….
Negative description: Smith unfortunately sported a heavy layer of foundation and powder that had settled into her forehead lines, creating an unflattering look for an otherwise pretty woman, along with her famous fake, tacky nails.
The same is true for all of her personal attributes; no matter the description, it affects her negatively.
It's just not a good policy to comment on women's looks in a professional context. It automatically puts her into a negative category, even when the comments are positive. I think it's just too much of a subconscious reminder of female sex roles and the dearth of female leadership archetypes. (I suspect this doesn't just apply to men either.)
But there is a way to combat this:
But the real point of the survey — and the most salient fact that came from it — is that pushing back on the comodification of a female candidate’s beauty can be just as impactful as the criticism itself. Some respondents heard a defense from Jane Smith, saying, “My appearance is not news and does not deserve to be covered. Rarely do they cover men in this fashion and by doing so they depict women as less serious and having less to offer voters.” Others heard a similar defense from Name It, Change It. In both cases, when they heard that, their votes flipped back. Indeed, Jane Smith gained her first lead of the entire campaign.
Of course, you will risk being called many unpleasant names if you do this. But that's part of the tiresome responsibility of feminism. Women standing up for themselves always results in some people saying they are strident and humorless. It's an uncomfortable situation. But in the end, it's worth it because over time it raises most people's consciousness. And according to this study, it reverses the negative impact almost immediately, which is very good news. It gives women some ammunition in their arsenal when this happens.