Since President Obama expounded on Kamala Harris’s appearance, media outlets have been buzzing over whether the president’s comments were simply a statement of opinion, a gaffe, or a form of benign sexism. The discussion took place against a backdrop of weeks of controversy over Sheryl Sandberg’s advice that women "lean in" at the workplace, advice that touched off a significant public debate around women and work.
Yet no one made the connection between Sandberg’s Lean In missive and the president’s statements. Both speak to the catch-22 that expects women (particularly in male jobs) to be sufficiently masculine to be perceived as competent and sufficiently feminine to be perceived as likeable.
Let’s look at exactly what Obama said: “You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is 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. She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country.”
As Sandberg describes in Lean In, research shows that women who succeed in traditionally male jobs tend to be viewed as competent but not likeable. And this same research finds that likeability is integral to success in the workplace. Of course, professional women can up their likeability factor by behaving in stereotypically feminine ways. See the problem? The Supreme Court recognized in a landmark sex discrimination case almost 25 years ago that employers who place women in such a double bind—expecting them to act sufficiently masculine to succeed in a job and sufficiently feminine to remain appealing—violate federal antidiscrimination law.
In the court case, a female accountant who was denied promotion to partnership was praised for being “extremely competent,” “intelligent,” and “strong and forthright,” but also “macho,” “overly aggressive,” and “unduly harsh.” To improve her chances for partnership, her employer advised her to “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.” In other words, a competent woman was asked to literally “make up” for her likeability deficit by slathering on eye shadow.
According to Obama, then, Harris is one of the few women who can overcome the double bind, scoring well on both masculine and feminine metrics of success. She can do a man’s job, but she also complies with our idea of what a woman should be: pretty. The implicit message is that if Harris weren’t also feminine, we wouldn’t accept her masculine traits so easily, and she might not be so likeable or successful. (This is not the first time that the president has fallen into the “double bind” trap. When, during a 2008 primary debate, uber-competent Hillary Clinton was told that she suffered from a likeability gap as compared with Obama, the president grudgingly acknowledged that she was just “likeable enough.”)
If the leader of the free world can’t avoid gender stereotypes, then how can we expect any better from our bosses?