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Sexism undermines diplomacy

SEXY LEGS or not, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's comment about Condoleezza Rice was inexcusable. Some may consider his acknowledgement of an attractive female to be a non-issue, but for millions of women breaking down barriers in the professional world, his off-hand remark proves there are still many obstacles to overcome.

"I have to confess," he said, "it was hard for me to concentrate in the conversation with Condoleezza Rice because she has very nice legs." Maybe he should concentrate on this: Rice just became National Security Adviser. Plus, she sits at the right hand of the president of the United States, Israel's biggest ally. The U.S. has supported Israel against aggression, offered extensive aid to his sometimes economically foundering nation, and tried desperately to solve their peace problems. But wait - that was during the Clinton Administration, when the National Security Advisor was the perhaps not-so-distracting Sandy Berger.

Sharon's comment in essence told Rice that her figure was more important to him than her input in the discussion. He said because she was an attractive woman he couldn't take her as seriously as he would someone else - someone male or less attractive. When he said this, he violated what should be a sacred professional space where looks don't matter, but words and actions do.

Sharon should respect Rice's words first, put their professional relationship above anything else, and respect the same personal space he would have if he had been sitting across the table from Sandy Berger, Vice President Dick Cheney or President George W. Bush himself.

By not respecting that space, Sharon puts his nation's foreign relations at risk. Rice is close to Bush; her opinions matter to him. If every time she meets with Sharon she's worried about him not paying attention to her, even subconsciously, her views of him, his requests and his diplomacy could be altered, and not for the better. The professional, equal working relationship could be damaged now that he has crossed the line.

Rice's potential self-consciousness could affect the way she treats him as well. She could be more forceful if she feels she has to prove she's "one of the guys." Miscommunications in diplomacy have always been dangerous. And if for some odd reason she's flattered, her demeanor during meetings would be adjusted - treatment of him would be different in a way that had nothing to do with the official U.S. stance on an issue.

Aside from the political ramifications, however, his comment still was inappropriate. Anytime two people are in a professional environment their words and actions should speak much louder than their personal appearances. Take it to the other extreme - what if Rice was disfigured, and a perceived unattractiveness distracted Sharon? It wouldn't have been acceptable for him to point it out. It would be implying that ugliness affects someone's ability to do his or her job - not through any fault of his or her own, but because of the weakness of a colleague.

The talk in our society of sexual harassment may have gotten a bit out of hand, but everyone - even heads of state - needs to remember there is a time and place for everything. If Sharon really felt it was necessary to pay Rice a compliment, he should have done it in a private, social setting and in the appropriate context. Tell her she's wearing a lovely dress, that it shows off her best features, that she should be proud to balance her work and her femininity so well.

Introducing Sharon's personal view of Rice's attractiveness into their professional relationship can only jar their equal political partnership. Making his comment in apparent public - or in any case where a member of the press could hear it - alters her public image in a way she may not like. She has to be a credible speaker for the administration to people worldwide - including representatives of some countries who frown on women expressing sexuality in public. Sharon's indiscretion could suggest to some that Rice intentionally distracted a man - a violation of some people's moral codes.

True, at the time they met, Rice was simply Bush's foreign adviser for his campaign and not yet appointed to arguably one of the most powerful positions in an administration, but that really shouldn't matter. Whether they had been two CEOs, two lawyers, two janitors or even if one was president and the other a lowly staffer, such a remark has no place in a professional relationship. Until men like Sharon realize their personal views about their colleagues should remain just that - personal - until the proper context presents itself, professional women will still feel they have something to prove besides the shape of their legs.

(Emily Harding's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at