Headline: “You look beautiful today” is it harassment or a compliment to a colleague?

November 26, 2023

Compliments have power to boost the mood of a colleague, but sometimes to belittle feelings and be considered sexist. How comments about a woman's appearance, behaviour, performance are connected to sexism in an era of equal access to all resources and benefits? To answer this question, it is necessary to understand the essence and background of the agenda.

Unlike her predecessors, today women’s rights are more often protected by law, her participation in public life is more welcomed, and her career is better recognized. However, women remain the subject of discussions, often based on age-old gender stereotypes. 

To be clear, men also face gender-based challenges and are pressured by social norms. But the discrimination is completely different from that faced by women. A small example might be a job interview, during which he is asked of his professional achievements and background, she probably be asked about her age and family status.

Paying attention to the songs we listen to, reading comments under posts of women and watching the alarming statistics of domestic violence in Kyrgyzstan, sexism finds its explanation.


The Power of Lyrics

Songs about women often have context of her beauty and manners, for example, the expressions “big eyes” and “aristocratic posture” commonly used. They may seem innocent at first glance, but they reinforce ideas about beauty standards that were not created in the average person's image. Women who do not meet these standards are more likely to receive criticism and advice on changing her appearance in a non-gender sensitive environment.

In contrast, songs about men often emphasize male strength and dignity, but do not mention about his appearance. This double standard is reflected in how different genders are perceived and portrayed.


What is important in politics?

The disparity in perception extends to the political sphere. When male politicians make decisions, their actions draw extensive analysis, often resulting in criticism for diplomatic failures and perceived incompetence. However, when a woman is in a similar position, comments often veer toward her attributes or doubts about her intelligence.

In a male-dominated environment, women put greater effort into adapting, but hate speech unrelated to her professional skills, deflects attention from the important tasks ahead of her, and diminishes her value as a professional. 


The Gray Area of Compliments

There is no suspicion that compliments such as “You look good today” mostly come from a sincere intention to cheer up a colleague or break the ice. However, the situation changes when: a) The compliments become too frequent or intense, especially from someone in a higher position. b) Compliments cross the boundary between the professional and personal sphere.

The receiver of the compliments hasn't given their consent.

But do these same rules apply when compliments come from women to women? The answer is “yes”, if these compliments have a sexual undertone and make the recipient uncomfortable.


Compliments Should Go Beyond Appearances

Optionally, there are alternative ways to make women colleagues feel appreciated as equal as men colleagues. Compliments can focus on accomplishments rather than physical appearance. Phrases like "Your report was fantastic!" or "Your feedback was very useful; thank you" can convey appreciation without invoking physical attributes. 

The recommendation not to comment on appearance stems from the difficulty of understanding why someone might change their appearance, such as weight loss or a new hairstyle.

It's essential to remember that every individual, regardless of gender, is unique, shaped by genetics, lifestyle, ageing and health conditions.


Taking Action Against Sexism

If you're interested in learning more about combating sexism and promoting respectful communication, organizations like the UNDP offer valuable resources. The UNDP's policy on harassment and sexual harassment provides insights into practical approaches to these issues, which you can explore here.

Additionally, the UNDP has introduced a methodology called "#From Hate Speech to Non-Violent Communication," which tackles hate speech, especially against women and girls. You can delve deeper into this topic here. For support in fostering sensitive communication among young boys and men, check out the telegram chatbot "Aibek baike" (@big_brother_ai_bot) here.

In conclusion, adopting a gender-sensitive approach in our communication and actions is the ultimate compliment we can give to promote a fair working environment.