Senator Harkin Apologizes For Sexist Comments About Ernst, But Is the Damage Done?

In response to widely distributed news of a recent tasteless comment, Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa has apologized for his sexism regarding the appearance of Republican Senatorial candidate Joni Ernst — but is the damage already done? It stands to reason that a politician would not endorse a member of the opposing party to succeed him (or her). But surely someone as experienced and public relations-familiar as a sitting United States Senator should know better than to let such sexism slide in front of a national audience.

As reported by BuzzFeed shortly after the incident, Harkin said this about Ernst at a recent barbecue held in his honor:

And there’s sort of this sense that, "Well, I hear so much about Joni Ernst. She is really attractive, and she sounds nice." ... Well I gotta to thinking about that. I don’t care if she’s as good-looking as Taylor Swift or as nice as Mr. Rogers, but if she votes like Michele Bachmann, she’s wrong for the state of Iowa.

Ernst fired back in an appearance on Fox News' Fox and Friends, claiming that "If [I had been a man], Senator Harkin would not have said those things." That may be true — it's hard to judge, when it comes to counterfactual statements, and, regardless, Harkin definitely shouldn't have said what he did. But as pointed out by Time , both Ernst and Harkin are missing the real point: When it comes to looks, attractiveness is an asset for men but a liability for women.

Academic research suggests that attractive men are more likely than "plain" men to be called for an interview, but that attractive women are less likely to receive an interview. So even if Harkin really did hear people express their plans to vote for Ernst because of her nice voice and pleasant appearance, those people were likely unusual. Evidence suggests that though a moderate amount of makeup improves women's perceived competence, sexiness in high-status women significantly lowers competence ratings.

At the end of the day, bringing up people's attractiveness in professional contexts, like politics, is incredibly inappropriate, whether they are women or men, and whether it harms their career prospects or not. Evidence suggests that people largely agree on the attractiveness of others but explicit comments about attractiveness cause self-consciousness and detract from substantive issues, so beauty can be safely left as an elephant in the room. Tom Harkins mostly just made himself look bad in commenting on the attractiveness of Jodi Ernst, at the cost of an opportunity to say something important about her policies. That's the kind of sideshow American politics definitely doesn't need.