My initial reaction on reading that UK Labour leadership candidate Liz Kendall had told a Mail on Sunday journalist to f**k off when he tried to guess her weight was: ‘Go Liz!’.
My second was how annoying it was that an article about a bright and serious women should not only include this question, but have been hijacked by outrage (manufactured or otherwise) about how sexist the Mail on Sunday’s political editor, Simon Walters, was for asking it.
Osborne ‘played the game’
While I have no interest in sticking up for the Mail, and even less in the price tag of Ms Kendall’s shoes or the size of her waistline, in the interests of fairness it should be noted that Mr Walters had also asked Chancellor, George Osborne, a similar question in a previous interview. The difference is Mr Osborne ‘played the game’ in his response, by explaining that he follows the 5:2 diet and regularly breakfasts on cereal with his children after taking the dog out to the garden. (And his interview didn’t compare him to Kate Middleton or make references to his ‘lithe figure’ or comment that he was a ‘slinky brunette’.)
Women have a choice
Women in the public eye have a choice about how they react to sexism (or perceptions of it) in the media. They can either be honest, call it out and swear (prompting unwanted headlines in Ms Kendall’s case) or hold their nose, play the game and hopefully draw attention to the sexist as well as the substance of their own argument.
Unfortunately, this does mean accepting there are still different rules for women and men. And that some of them stink.
Until they change, making yourself as bullet proof as possible around journalists is one step towards giving women spokespeople some of that control. Clearly anyone who drops the F-bomb in an interview is likely to get quoted for it (in Media Coach speak it’s about as sizzled as it gets). And, personally, I think Kendall’s fruity riposte will have done her no harm in the long term, although she could have pushed back against the question without hijacking her own interview so spectacularly. But from a PR viewpoint it must be galling for her that the standout item from this interview was not about her plans for the Labour party (which is in crisis by the way) but her off-the cuff but honest response to someone asking a stupid question. But, as we know in the media, women are damned for speaking up and damned if they don’t.t.
Last summer, a new MEP told me that she had to be twice as good as her male counterparts in order to be taken seriously in politics. And a rock solid grasp of the brief is certainly key to maintaining credibility as a spokesperson. But so are the body language and voice that go with it.
Women with a public profile (or all women for that matter) can choose not to respond emotionally to sexist questions, keep their focus on the substance and make sure that their body language is disciplined and under control. Of course, many of these rules apply equally to men in the public eye. The difference is that the media generally won’t make a gender-based judgement about a man who gets a bit angry, whereas they often will about a woman.
And Ms Kendall certainly shouldn’t have been surprised by this question from the Mail (she later told John Pienaar’s BBC politics programme that she found the question ‘unbelievable’ – again, another headline hi-jacking phrase.)
After all, when it comes to media sexism, the Mail invented the handbook.
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