A lot has now been said about the opposition leader Tony Abbott referring to Liberal candidate Fiona Scott’s ‘sex appeal‘. Unfortunately very little of it dissuades the notion that sexism prevails and, worse, remains a cultural quirk that women are expected to quietly endure. It is burdensome, apparently, to expect men to navigate the precarious terrain of interacting with women without offending them.
Men and women alike have thrown their hands in the air in disgust. Declaring Abbott’s remarks as sexist is apparently political correctness gone mad. It is proof women are incapable of taking a compliment or letting men express their appreciation for the female form.
It is not. It is none of those things any more than it is a ‘daggy dad’ moment that ought to be excused or laughed off. Equally, and most despairingly, it is not, or shouldn’t be, unduly complicated.
It is none of those things because of something that has been noticeably absent from the much of the discussion; the context in which Abbott referred to Scott’s sex appeal. Taken in context the issue with Abbott’s comments is incredibly straightforward.
It is not about imposing unrealistic expectations that men and women cannot ever appreciate or admire one another. It is not about whether a person is or isn’t attractive. It isn’t about an individual choosing to dress up for a magazine or walking along the beach in casual clothes. It is not about any advantage or disadvantage that physical appearance secures.
It is about a standard of conduct that all adults are entitled to expect in a workplace; to be judged on their ability not their appearance. It is a standard that optimists might have imagined, in 2013, would be so ingrained in our culture that it would not warrant further explanation. And yet, here we are.
To understand why Abbott’s comments were offensive it is critical to consider the context in which they were made. The comments were made during an election campaign. There was no trickery involved. They weren’t made in a private or personal setting. They were made, to the gathered press, in a pre-arranged endorsement for a political candidate who is standing for election. They were made by the individual who is effectively the candidate’s boss and they were made in response to a question about what this candidate can offer the electorate.
If those circumstances don’t afford that candidate the right to be recognised for her achievements, rather than her appearance, by a person seeking the highest office in this country, on a public stage, what hope do other women have?
Because that’s the crux of the problem here. No matter how many times individuals fall short, politicians ought to be held to a higher standard of conduct than private citizens. By accepting a political leader using ‘sex appeal’ as an appropriate gauge of his employee’s professional value then we set a dangerously low, and out-dated, precedent.
The fact that hasn’t been recognised by Abbott himself is as discouraging as the comments themselves, as is the fact Scott later said she found the remarks to be charming. The relevant point, again, is context. It is not about whether a person is or isn’t attractive. It is not about whether men or women enjoy one another’s physical attributes. It is, always, about the context in which such comments are delivered.
Scott does not need to be ‘charmed’ or flattered by her boss or her professional peers. And, with the obvious exception of a romantic relationship, neither should anyone else at work. Because in a professional setting all of us are legally, as much as morally, entitled to have our accomplishments assessed on merit not our physical form.
Tony Abbott could have used this opportunity to demonstrate humility. To admit that highlighting his employee’s attractiveness rather than her political accomplishments or her intelligence or her ability strategise was not merely a daggy dad joke or an innocent moment of exuberance. He could have said he realised it was a flagrant disregard of a standard every person in Australia is reasonably entitled to. He could have said that his sentiments belied his genuine commitment to equality and respect for women. He could have said any of that, but, of course he hasn’t. And neither have so many others.