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Looks still override talent for women

Looks still override talent for women
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First Published: Mon, Sep 29 2008. 10 16 PM IST

Updated: Mon, Sep 29 2008. 10 16 PM IST
You’re gorgeous,” said Asif Ali Zardari, president of Pakistan, to Sarah Palin, Republican vice-presidential candidate, meeting her for the first time in a New York hotel.
Actually, what he really said to the putative veep in response to her neutral, “I am honoured to meet you,” was this: “You are even more gorgeous than you are on the (inaudible).”
“You are so nice. Thank you,” replied Palin.
The decidedly ungorgeous Zardari was not in mood to be put off. “Now I know why the whole of America is so crazy about you.”
At this point, according to the The New York Times newspaper, an aide intervened and asked the two to shake hands for a photo-op. Asked to pose again, the newly ardent Mr Z said: “If he’s insisting, I might hug (you).”
Ha ha ha. What a guy. What a sense of humour. And don’t working women just love it when men they’re meeting for the first time make asinine comments that have nothing to do with their professional skills?
Zardari certainly had a lot to talk to Palin about; he could have voiced concern about the exchange of fire between US and Pakistani troops along the Afghanistan border just a few days earlier. Instead, Mr 10% chose to be smooth.
For his “inappropriate” remarks, Zardari got quite a roasting back home in the Pakistani press. For Sarah Palin, who reportedly got her passport only last year, the meet-and-greet with a string of world leaders (including Manmohan Singh and Hamid Karzai) was a Republican PR exercise to answer critics who are appalled that she has no foreign policy experience (she met seven leaders on the day she met Zardari).
And if Palin is complaining—though there is no evidence to indicate that she is—what can you say about John McCain’s judgement for handpicking this former beauty pageant queen and hockey mom to be his running mate? Palin’s obvious good looks, her wholesome earth mother image, her solid white credentials are all working for her and her party. Add to that the ultimate irony: Media pundits say she will pick up at least some votes from women who are just plain pissed off with Barack Obama for not asking Hillary Clinton to be his running mate.
Zardari, of course, got the job he has only because of whom he married. In a reversal of how roles usually play out in this part of the world—where a woman’s identity is determined by the family she marries into—Zardari has now appended the name Bhutto to those of his three children (including son Bilawal, the college-going head of the Pakistan Peoples Party, or PPP).
Unlike other women leaders from this part of the world, Benazir Bhutto had competition from her brothers. Yet, she inherited the PPP from her father Zulfikar Bhutto.
Women have decided every US presidential election since 1968, according to the Lifetime Networks’ Every Woman Counts campaign. According to the campaign, 49% of women polled said they support Obama, while 38% said they are backing McCain. A full 10% are undecided, suggesting that the race for women could be close.
If you chose to ignore the individual personalities of the “gorgeous” exchange—one’s a crook and the other’s an idiot—Zardari’s remarks would still be offensive to the millions of working women who are struggling to crack the glass ceiling. Regardless of where in the world they live, women must struggle to explain to their employers that they are serious about their work, that they will not quit to either get married or start a family (if they are young and single) and that they will never, God forbid, allow their families to get priority when office work beckons (despite the fact that they usually bear the burden of running a home, often single-handed).
Last week, Mrinal Pande in her Mint column, The Other Side (22 September), lamented the fact that women had forgotten how to age gracefully.
While it is true that media images and advancing technology have spurred women’s desire to look younger, fitter and sexier than ever, and that this is a crying shame, it is also true that women in the workplace realize that looking older or less-than-fit will more often than not colour their employer’s perception of them. This holds true not only in industries where looks matter (film, modelling, hospitality) but also in trades where looks should actually count for nothing.
Zardari comes from a part of the world that accepts women leaders but, without exception, they are all leaders because of who their fathers or husbands were.
The “progressive” US, on the other hand, is years away from getting its first woman head of state. This election could have been a watershed for feminist rights. Instead, American voters have ended up with a politically savvy leader homing in on a woman who doesn’t even believe in equal pay and stands firmly against abortion rights, even in cases of rape and incest.
But, then, don’t forget Sarah Palin got the job because she’s “gorgeous.” She’s likely to win the votes for that precise qualification, too.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to lookingglass@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Sep 29 2008. 10 16 PM IST