Last week, President Obama mentioned during a fundraiser that California Attorney General Kamala Harris is "by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country."
Well, duh. Anyone who has eyes can see that Harris is stunning. But Obama caught flack for stating the obvious, and later called Harris to apologize for his comment, Politico reports.
Why is this a topic that people are actually discussing? And what can lawyers learn from this situation?
Most women don't object to a tasteful compliment, but the last thing a professional woman wants is a colleague thinking of her as a pretty face first, and an accomplished professional second. In the male-dominated legal world, law partners and supervisors should be particularly cognizant of this concern.
Let's look at the way that President Obama -- a lawyer -- described a fellow lawyer here. His actual quote was:
You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you'd want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake. She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general in the country.
I think people are upset by the caveat at the beginning of this statement: "You have to be careful to, first of all, say..." The disclaimer undermines the president's comments about Harris' achievements as necessary pleasantries and places the emphasis on her physical appearance. And I don't think that's what he intended or how she interpreted it; as The Week notes, Obama and Harris have been friends for a long time.
Think about that same statement in a slightly different context: A male partner at a law firm mentions an attractive female associate during a bar association luncheon with the same "you-have-to-be-careful-to-say" qualifier and concludes with, "She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney in the office." That would make a number of people in the crowd feel uncomfortable, even if the pair were old friends.
When discussing your colleagues, it's safer to pick a non-physical characteristic to tout. "She's brilliant, and she's the best pinochle player west of the Mississippi." Whether you want to avoid the Old Boys Club stigma or a hostile work environment claim, it's best to steer clear of appearance comments in the workplace.