The media had a field day back in July when details of a Labour proposal in search of gender equality came out.
It was given the rather twee and affected label of a ‘man ban’ – implying that, rather than a drive for equality, it was blocking out all men, who would soon find themselves out of a job and sitting on the couch watching re-runs of Sex and the City, a tub of ice cream their only consolation.
Of course, various arguments emerged: women should get there on merit, not on quotas; it’s demeaning to women; it was reverse sexism; the feminazis should shave their legs and get back in the kitchen. Somebody had lost the plot! Helen Clark didn’t need a quota! (Never mind that one woman’s success is not representative of the achievement of equality across the board. Something something Jenny Shipley, something something Kate Sheppard, something mumble something.)
But here’s a little media snippet that helps to illustrate exactly why a push for gender equality is exactly what New Zealand politics needs right now.
Former Labour party president Mike Williams was interviewed by Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon today, along with commentator Matthew Hooton. They discussed a range of topics, including the party leadership and, notably, Labour adopting an increased target of at least 45 percent female MPs after next year’s election.
The motion was passed today at Labour’s annual conference. It aims for at least 50 percent women after the 2017 election. David Cunliffe said he was personally backing the goal, which he doesn’t believe will be difficult given “the calibre of the women candidates”.
But during today’s interview, Williams commented on National MP Paula Bennett’s appearance. She was, he said, “looking good” and had lost a lot of weight:
Ryan: Just looking forward to National's response then, Mike you see in some of the weekend television appearances a sign, what, of a more aggressive response, election year response coming out of the key ...
Williams: Look, I think very obviously, National is in campaign mode. And that became very obvious to me over the weekend. I don't know what their internal polling is telling them, but my guess is, it's telling them they're in trouble and they've got to go out and campaign, and I noticed Paula Bennett on Q&A, looking good, she's lost a lot of weight. She was obviously very well prepared for what was quite a soft interview, I thought, and immediately followed by Hekia Parata, who got really a puff piece interview.
New Zealand politics is facing a grave problem if we persist with media commentary that is more interested in a female politician’s body and appearance than in her mind, policies and philosophies. And no, it’s nothing new – the race between Helen Clark and Jenny Shipley was framed in terms of ‘two Xena princesses’ battling it out and just a few years ago, JacindaArdern and Nikki Kaye facing off for the Auckland central seat was dubbed the ‘battle of the babes’. It's curious, also, that the idea of National 'going out and campaigning' is framed in terms of Bennett losing some weight; the party's success is almost set up as being hung on her appearance.
Of course, there are plenty of predictable arguments dismissing the focus on women’s looks: big deal; we live in a postfeminist age; you got the vote, what more do you want; it’s nothing, get over it, something something iron-knickered feminist killjoy something something.
So what's the problem? Research shows that when the media focuses on a female candidate’s appearance, it has a detrimental effect on her chances of success. That applies whether the descriptions are negative, positive or neutral. And while it’s damaging to women candidates, their male equivalents aren’t affected if it happens to them.
The female candidate loses in terms of the political race, her favourability, her likelihood to be seen as possessing positive traits, and how likely voters are to vote for her. After voters hear or read comments about a female candidate’s appearance, they’re less like to think she is “experienced, strong, effective, qualified and confident”.
So as a result, male candidates benefit when the media talks about their female opponents’ appearance.
It’s a great irony: a male former Labour party president, who said of the ‘man ban’ that it was "sexism" and that somebody had “lost the plot”, discussing said proposal and rolling on into a comment on a female MP’s appearance and weight.
It just goes to illustrate exactly why a drive for gender equality is sorely needed – and why the 'merit' argument simply does not stack up.