COMMENTARY: Kim Campbell was wrong, but there’s a larger discussion to be had
Twitter outrage is nothing new. It’s as old as the platform itself. What is new though, is having swaths of people coming together from different political stripes to admonish the country’s first and only female prime minister, who had seemingly found her stride online as a woke observer of political events, for making an arguably sexist and paternalistic assertion in less than 280 characters.
The notion that a female broadcaster’s credibility and gravitas would be undermined by the exposure of her arms is something one would expect out of the mouth of a religious fundamentalist, not a trailblazing female politician. Campbell was faced with pushback and criticism, with many pointing to former First Lady Michelle Obama as an example of someone who often wore sleeveless dresses, while exuding both credibility and gravitas.
As an aside, it seems as though the people pointing to Michelle Obama may have conveniently forgotten that the First Lady’s bare arms were certainly not uncontroversial at the time. But instead of pointing to any one of the numerous headlines discussing Mrs. Obama’s arms, and the ensuing controversy, Campbell made the point that she was only referring to female broadcasters.
WATCH BELOW: Swift reaction against Kim Campbell’s controversial dress comments
My Global News colleague Farah Nasser wrote an excellent rebuttal to Campbell’s remarks, in which she noted that in her 20-year career, she has never felt demeaned for wearing anything, “I’ve worn sleeves, no sleeves, cap sleeves, three-quarter length sleeves. I haven’t lost brain cells while wearing a sleeveless dress. I also haven’t grown smarter in a business suit. I’m not sure why Campbell thinks I should feel demeaned sitting beside a suited co-anchor.”
READ MORE: Don’t tell me what to wear Kim Campbell
Campbell for her part has not backed down from her initial statement and has continued to cite a research paper that she purports to provide credence to her claim.
The research paper in question is by no means definitive in proving that bare arms undermine one’s credibility. It has varying sample sizes for the three experiments conducted, a statistical analysis that certainly does not authoritatively conclude the impact of one’s dress on their perceived competence, and is subject to a large degree of selection bias.
But even putting aside the study that Campbell seems to have hitched her wagon to, any professional woman knows full well that she can be perceived differently than her male colleagues, this isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff. In fact, there is ample empirical evidence to demonstrate that from asking for pay raises to being interrupted by colleagues, women and men are still not treated equally in the workplace.
Additionally, any communications professional who has ever prepped a female CEO or politician for a speaking event will readily confess that extra attention to detail when it comes to how a woman presents herself – tone of speaking style, as well as hair, makeup and wardrobe – are unfortunately still necessary.
As asinine as Campbell’s comments may have been, the uncomfortable truth is that perception bias occurs on a daily basis, and it isn’t exactly difficult to fathom why a female conservative politician who was widely criticized for posing seemingly nude with her lawyer’s robes would now think that women have to work harder at being perceived as competent and credible.
And while it would be nice if we lived in a world wherein the country’s sole female head of government would be more sympathetic and understanding to the kind of layered sexism women in the public eye have to face, the reality is that people are complicated and react to things in all sorts of different ways.
This isn’t to excuse Campbell’s sexist assertion. It’s simply to recognize the painstakingly obvious. It’s completely possible to vehemently disagree with Campbell’s tweet while also simultaneously recognizing that women and men still are not perceived equally, and that the only female prime minister must have had to endure all sorts of sexist tropes thrown her way, which has shaped how she views certain issues.
The crux of the matter isn’t some study with a large selection bias, a former female politician’s Twitter feed, or what to wear when appearing on camera. It is how we move forward and ensure that the next generation of women has it better than we do, and don’t have to put up with the kind of everyday sexism that women currently face.
And I don’t know about you, but for me, that might just mean flashing my biceps until people stop caring about the extra epidermis exposure.
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