The recent Vogue cover of Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris is yet another missed opportunity to celebrate women in leadership. What could have been a moment to recognize and honor the first Woman, the first African-American woman, and the first Asian-American to serve as the Vice President of the United States, turned into a debate about skin lightening, fashion, and presentation.
I wish I could say this was a complete surprise, but to be honest, it’s quite predictable at this point, which makes the stalled path toward a solution more frustrating. The necessary clapback that is required to change this formulaic portrayal of powerful women is blanketing social media, checking Vogue on the many tropes that we find many influential publications falling into.
In the Vogue photo, Harris is pictured in front of sloppy pink and green drapes, converse, and a black blazer with a smile similar to one my 11-year-old daughter would give me when I force her to stand in front of the camera and “for the love of god, please smile for me… just this once.” Contrast this with Vogue’s other, much-preferred option, of Harris in a blue power suit, authentic authoritative smile, arms crossed, ready to own her new role in government. There’s no comparison.
I can already hear the naysayers: “She’s on the cover, that’s exciting!”, but seriously, people. We need to embark on an exercise in nuance. Yes, we’re thrilled Kamala is in the spotlight, and yes, I, like many other women AND men are interested in clothing, hair, great makeup, etc., but we are not goldfish. I can easily navigate the line between appreciating good aesthetics and knowing when we need to stop and really recognize the sheer historic, inspiring, and powerful moments in history that go beyond “what she’s wearing.” Harris is about to join President-elect Joe Biden in inheriting one of the most divided, angry, misinformed, and downright racist aspects of our society and government, and all we can pull together is “The United States of Fashion”?! The interview took place weeks ago, but things weren’t rosy then, either.
As a collective, we’re pretty smart, so I know we can change. Here are some helpful ways to start. Stop focusing on how women look, in the business world, in politics, in the science arena, and in life in general. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation is a great resource for women looking to run for office, and if you comb through their many reports and studies, you’ll see that the double-standard women need to navigate are crippling. Smile, but not too much. Be assertive, but not too much because it’s off-putting. Look nice, but not to the point you’re trying too hard, and god forbid you are caught not wearing makeup. These are literally things women have to think of on top of the actual job that needs to be done. I think there are a good few things we can do to stop this spiral.
Stop using what works for men as the way in which everything is measured. I attended a conference a few years back focused on getting more women on influential boards. Toward the end of the conference, a participant asked how women can prepare themselves for these important roles, which led to a 20-minute debate about what that would look like, but the defining moment for me came when this exasperated and fed up woman stood in up and shouted, “When are we going to stop jamming women into these male molds?! It doesn’t work! We’re. Not. Men!”
She’s right, and this is where we can all check ourselves. Women need to be supported in a way that is specific to them and their needs. It’s also critical to remember that women carry additional responsibilities that their male counterparts don’t have to contend with as much, if at all. I’ve dedicated my career to elevating the profiles of women in science, and some of the main sticking points that make it difficult for women, especially women of color, to navigate their environments is that they are asked to serve on committees, volunteer, mentor, and speak at countless events. These are all great opportunities, but here’s the nuance: If you are one of the few—or worse, the only woman in the room—when do you finish the work you were hired to do? What about her deadlines? This isn’t even taking into consideration the work it takes to promote yourself in a male, usually white male, dominated space.
This is an ongoing battle, but we can climb this hill. Let’s bring it back to the underwhelming and frustrating Vogue cover of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. I would suggest the editorial team ask this question when they are not sure about how women in leadership are being portrayed. Would you have put Biden in front of messy drapes, sockless in sneakers, and not sure where to look? Probably not. I think I’ve made my point.