Monday, April 08, 2013

The Appearance Gap

During the recent Kamala Harris incident (wherein Barack Obama, in the course of calling Harris "brilliant", "dedicated", and "tough", also called her "the best looking attorney general"), a common reaction was that Obama's statement was an innocent compliment and any negative reaction was just over-sensitivity (see here for an example). What's the harm in a nice compliment?

The answer was always that such remarks -- even when complimentary on face -- make it harder for women to be taken seriously and thus hurt their entry and advancement in professional spaces. And lo and behold! New research bears this argument out (via). The study tracked what happened in a hypothetical match-up between a male and female candidate depending on whether the women's appearance was remarked upon. It found that when the female candidate's appearance was mentioned -- regardless of whether the mention was positive, negative, or neutral -- it caused a material drop in her poll numbers. To be sure, the study did not similarly measure the effect of mentioning the male candidate's appearance, so we don't know if men would be burdened in the same way. But since it is fair to say that a woman's appearance is far more likely to gain attention in the media than a man's, the finding is still important even if the effects would theoretically be entirely gender-blind.