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Gender bias: why appearance focus fuels sexism in media

Much has been written in the past few days about the legacy of the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, including many mentions of her hair. It is difficult to imagine similar attention being…

Julia Gillard’s appearance is regularly commented on: is it just another way to talk about her gender? AAP/Alan Porritt

Much has been written in the past few days about the legacy of the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, including many mentions of her hair.

It is difficult to imagine similar attention being paid to the sartorial or grooming practices of a male politician. References to Thatcher’s “bouffant” hairstyle are typically accompanied by observations that no other traditionally feminine elements were part of her famously tough, uncompromising political style and her relentless prosecution of her political agenda.

This is a familiar story. “Hair and costume commentary” routinely overlays analysis of the leadership style and policy positions of women in high office. Julia Gillard has received a steady stream of media coverage of every aspect of her appearance from her hair to her shoes, her earlobes to her buttocks. But she is not alone.

German chancellor Angela Merkel was pilloried for her allegedly dowdy appearance. An image makeover after becoming leader of the Christian Democratic Union brought no relief: she was ridiculed for an awkward fit between her new, feminine look and her direct and sometimes terse political persona.

Hilary Clinton’s fashion choices may be more well known than her political ones. AAP/Simon Santi

Closer to home, Helen Clark’s time as prime minister of New Zealand featured a media narrative that read her tough and aggressive political persona through her masculine personal style. And in the United States 2008 presidential campaign, people were preoccupied with Hillary Clinton’s hairstyles and pantsuits and breathless debates over the cost of Sarah Palin’s campaign wardrobe. The apparent newsworthiness of female politicians’ appearance extends well beyond the Australian media.

Attention to appearance is a placeholder for gender. While public comments about whether Gillard’s jackets flatter her figure may be more irritating than important, they encourage other aspects of her leadership to be viewed through a gendered lens. Certainly, Gillard’s gender has been a feature of media portrayals since her elevation to the prime ministership in 2010.

Although there are notable exceptions (such as Alan Jones’ declaration that Gillard and other women are “destroying the joint”), most media commentators do not directly link their analyses of Gillard to her gender. Instead they attribute gender-based expectations to “the public”.

For example, in coverage of the Rudd-Gillard transition, journalists did not suggest that Gillard’s actions in taking the leadership from Rudd were worse because she was a women. Rather the issue was that they would look worse to “the public” who were deemed to expect a “softer, gentler" style of leadership from a woman. By locating interest in female leaders’ gender with unspecified others, journalists deflect accusations of sexism and make it hard for women leaders to respond.

Conventional wisdom has had it that female leaders must not “play the gender card” for fear of undermining their credibility. But the overwhelming support for Gillard’s misogyny speech last October shows that the sexism in public life is indeed noticed and protested to by many members of the public. The speed with which YouTube viewings of the speech spread beyond Australia illustrates the international resonance - particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States - of Gillard’s frustration and anger at sexist behaviour in politics.

Attention to gender seems to magnify and entrench any perceived moral lapses made by female leaders. Sexism in politics is at its most insidious in the double standards applied to the actions of male and female politicians. Women can be highly popular leaders (recall Gillard’s high levels of personal popularity and job approval in her first weeks in the role of PM), but when they take actions of which people disapprove the fall from grace can be brutal.

Carmen Lawrence’s political career was irreparably damaged the ‘Penny Easton affair’. AAP/Alan Porritt

Reneging on an election promise or being caught in a lie is likely to be met with anger and disapproval for any politician. But for women leaders these acts seem to become signs of fundamentally flawed character, rather than just individually judged political actions. Gillard’s reversal on carbon pricing has become incorporated into her political character (“JuLIAR”) in a manner similar to that which befell West Australian premier Carmen Lawrence over her failure to recall key events relating to Penny Easton, or Cheryl Kernot for her “treachery” in defecting from the Democrats to Labor.

The constant comments about the wardrobes and hairstyles of female politicians may seem among the least of the worries facing women in negotiating the demands of high public office. But by holding open the door to gender, this kind of commentary clears the path for sexism to come marching through.