I’ve been doing a little experiment lately. You might have seen it.
I work in an office where Sky News is playing all day and during the federal election campaign, more or less whenever a politician appeared on the TV to give a speech/press conference/debate, I announced on Twitter what colour tie they were wearing.
This was sparked by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s invitation, while launching a fundraising group called Women for Gillard two weeks before she was ousted, to see the looming election in terms of gender.
“It’s a decision about whether once again we will banish women’s voices from the core of our nation’s political life,” she said.
“I invite you to imagine it: a prime minister – a man with a blue tie who goes on holidays to be replaced by a man in a blue tie.
“A treasurer who delivers a budget wearing a blue tie, to be supported by a finance minister, another man in a blue tie.”
The night she lost the Labor leadership ballot, she issued another invitation to voters to think about gender in public life.
“There’s been a lot of analysis about the so-called gender wars. Me playing the so-called gender card because heavens knows no-one noticed I was a woman until I raised it,” she said.
“It doesn’t explain everything, it doesn’t explain nothing, it explains some things. And it is for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey.”
It might not seem that tweeting sentences like “Joe Hockey is giving a press conference in a navy tie with white polka dots #tiewtach” in itself constitutes thinking about gender in a sophisticated way. I have never spent so much time thinking about ties, and can report that although blue is a very popular choice, red, gold, black and brown were also on display.
But what I was really trying to do was show how weird it sounds to comment on male politicians’ appearance, because they’re not subject to a similar level of scrutiny to female politicians in an area that shouldn’t even matter. Remember the news stories when Gillard got new glasses and a new coat, and when renowned feminist Germaine Greer decided to weigh in on the size of Gillard’s bottom?
Check out this American study about how even brief mentions of female politicians’ clothes affect voters:
“We had probable voters read gender-neutral descriptions of a hypothetical male and female candidate and then asked them how likely they would be to vote for one over the other. At the beginning they liked each candidate about equally.
“Then four separate groups of study participants each heard a slightly different version of a news story about both hypothetical candidates. One group’s news story didn’t mention the female candidate’s clothing or appearance at all, and of that group, half said they would vote for the male candidate, half for the female candidate.
“But the three groups of study participants who heard a news story that mentioned the woman’s appearance suddenly changed their minds and started ranking the female candidate as less experienced, confident, effective, and qualified than her male opponent.”
The researchers found this was the case whether the appearance was mentioned in a positive or negative way, or even in a neutral way, such as that she was wearing a “brown blouse, black skirt, and modest pumps with a short heel”.
So there is the first thing I think – that it’s sexist and potentially detrimental to report on female politicians’ appearance.
The second thing I think is that Gillard was right about our political conversation being dominated by men – even before the Labor party with its quota system lost the election and the new Coalition cabinet was sworn in, with its nineteen men and one woman.
It wasn’t until a week and a half before the end of the five-week election campaign that I first faced the question of what to do when a female politician appeared at a press conference, speaking along with the men I was covering on #tiewatch. Should I leave her out of it, since I was making a point about how male politicians’ appearance isn’t scrutinised in the same way? Or would that marginalise female politicians further, to say that then PM Kevin Rudd and then Treasurer Chris Bowen were giving a press conference, and leave out the fact that then Finance Minister Penny Wong was speaking too? I didn’t quite know what to do. And then I figured out that was less important than the realisation that very few women had appeared in the sample of my experiment.
Towards the end of the campaign I started getting messages from people saying they were enjoying #tiewatch. This is flattering. But I figured if those messages are about enjoying the tie coverage and not about being outraged that women are underrepresented in politics, it’s probably time to stop.