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Obama Falls Foul of the Sex Police

by on April 6, 2013

Help me here.

Is it now an act of intolerable sexism to describe a work colleague as good looking? This apparently is so, at least in the US, where Barack Obama felt compelled to apologise to Kamala Harris for calling her the best-looking Attorney General in the country. According to the BBC:

“Speaking after Ms Harris at the fundraising event in California on Thursday, Mr Obama said she was “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”.

Then he added: “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.”

On Friday, the White House said the president had spoken to the attorney general to apologise for the “distraction” created by his comments.

“He did not want in any way to diminish the attorney general’s professional accomplishments and her capabilities,” press secretary Jay Carney said.

He added that the president “fully recognises the challenge women continue to face in the workplace and that they should not be judged based on appearance”.”

So is it verboten these days to compliment anyone at work for their looks? Was it because Obama was male? It was not as though he was praising her only for her looks. In fact you could argue that he paid Ms Harris the compliment as an aside, after fulsomely praising her skills as Attorney General.

Clearly these days we need to regard women at work as stealth bombers – invisible on the radar and only worthy of recognition once they drop their payloads.

I would argue that there is another side to this sexism argument. Is it also not sexist to maintain an environment in which it’s OK for women to admire some aspect of a female colleague’s appearance – a new pair of shoes, for example, or a haircut, but not OK for men? And what if they admire a colleague who has had “work”?

So if a woman says to another “I love your new nose”, or “great pair of boobs, honey”, that’s not sexist – it’s positive reinforcement. But if a guy pays a similar compliment, the sex police will burst in with moral machine guns and denounce him for anything between “inappropriate remarks” and sexual harassment.

If I were to set up a company today, I would make it a requirement for all the women to wear shapeless black abayas as they do in the Middle East, to spare them from the embarrassment of being paid compliments by the rampant, sex-obsessed males in the office, and to spare me the prospect of being sued by some graceless harridan who objects to a guy complementing her on her new hairstyle.

The only trouble would be that that many of the women so attired would seriously miss all the girlie compliments that are part and parcel of everyday office chat.

In fact in the West I would be sued for sexual discrimination and probably for a breach of the human rights of the guys who were not allowed to wear similar attire.

And I suspect that I would end up with a male-only office, and get sued under equal opportunities law.

The only way to distinguish between overt sexism would seem to be intent and context. If, for example, a guy makes a point of complimenting one particular woman every day with a lustful gleam in his eye, that could be sexism. It would then be up to the courts and legislatures to define “lustful gleam”.

So we end up so scared of crossing a line that we are afraid to say anything that recognises the humanity and diversity of our fellow workers for fear of ending up in court.

Is that what we want? To treat each other as featureless, genderless “colleagues”? Not in any workplace I want to be part of.


From → Politics, Social

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