Kamala Harris Flap Highlights Study that Female Political Candidates Are Hurt by Discussion of Their Looks

Thursday, April 11, 2013
California Attorney General Kamala Harris

In the wake of the controversy over President Barack Obama complimenting California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ looks, the media might be best advised to just stop talking about female politicians’ appearances.

A new survey (pdf), conducted by Lake Research Partners and Chesapeake Bay Consulting, found that regardless of what is said about a woman in office or running for one, any reference to her physicality is damaging.

Remarks that are neutral, positive or negative about a woman candidate’s appearance are all detrimental to her candidacy. But a positive statement actually caused a bigger drop in favorability than a strictly neutral statement or a negative one.  

The survey also found that when the matter of looks arises, the best recourse for a woman is to say her appearance is irrelevant. Doing so allows her to regain any ground she lost.

Male candidates, noted the survey, don’t get the same kind of media coverage about their appearance as women do. But when they do get such comments, they suffer no fallout as a result.

As for Harris, she received a personal apology from Obama. But the damage was already done, some analysts say.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told the San Francisco Chronicle that drawing attention to Harris’ looks was particularly unwelcome given that she holds “a traditionally-male position like attorney general, the top law enforcement officer in the state.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Name It. Change It. (Women’s Media Center and She Should Run)

An Examination of the Impact of Media Coverage of Women Candidates' Appearance (Chesapeake Beach Consulting and Lake Research Partners) (pdf)

Uproar over Obama Comment on Kamala Harris: Political Correctness Run Amok? (by Linda Feldman, Christian Science Monitor)

Kamala Harris Accepts President Obama’s Apology (by Joe Garofoli, San Francisco Chronicle)

New Hampshire First State to Elect All-Female Congressional Delegation (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

5 States Still Have Never Elected a Woman to Congress (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)             

Number of Women in Congress Drops for First Time in 32 Years (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

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