Britain's battle of the sexists

Is Harriet Harman or the media in the wrong for stirring the latest gender controversy?

Published August 3, 2009 6:50PM (EDT)

When I first read The Sunday Times headline, "Harriet Harman: you can’t trust men in power," I simply thought: Oh, she's at it again. The deputy leader of Britain's Labour Party is known for her raging case of foot-in-mouth disease and, despite her feminist bent, I rarely agree with her political calculations. Now she's being slagged off by the UK press, per the usual -- but this is one of those rare moments where I actually feel compelled to defend her. 

The incendiary headline was tied to an editorial in response to a profile of the politician in the same paper. The latter ran with the bland teaser, "News review interview: Harriet Harman" -- so you can imagine which version is getting more play. The truth of what she actually said, taken within the context of the profile, isn't the least bit shocking: "Men cannot be left to run things on their own," she said. There was no mention of trust, no suggestion that men make incompetent politicians -- only that we should be breaking through the glass ceiling instead of double-paning it.

Harman continued: "I think it’s a thoroughly bad thing to have a men-only leadership. In a country where women regard themselves as equal, they are not prepared to see men just running the show themselves. I think a balanced team of men and women makes better decisions." It seems to me she's simply suggesting that some would like to see the diversity of the electorate better reflected in its leaders. Fair enough.

In fact, today Harman offered a reasonable clarification: "I didn’t actually say you can’t trust men, I basically said you get better decision-making in a team if it’s a balanced team with women and men working alongside each other." It's unfortunate that her original commentary needed the clarification, but I thought this might at least allow the dust to settle. Instead, a Times article led into her explanation by saying that she had "refused to back down" -- that stubborn you-know-what. (Perhaps she too will be gifted a bottle of Mad Bitch beer.) It's almost enough to make me sympathize, for but a moment, with her too-extreme-for-me position on women's issues.

But then she had to go and suggest that maleness can be blamed for the recession. When asked on GMTV today whether having more women in the upper echelons of finance might have averted the economic meltdown, she said: "Somebody did say ... that if it had been Lehman sisters rather than Lehman Brothers then there may not have been as much." Harman quickly added: "I have to say it was not me that said that" -- but she didn't reject the comment. It's not the sort of thing one should say without, uh, presenting actual evidence -- and that's especially true if, like Harman, you happen to be campaigning for controversial gender quotas in political leadership.

Harman's off-the-cuff commentary has at times legitimately made her seem anti-male rather than pro-equality, hence the Times' framing of this latest upset. But when the press and fellow politicos misconstrue her resonable commentary about gender parity, I suspect it only reinforces her sense of Palin-esque martyrdom. And so goes the media merry-go-round ...

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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