Leaders Can Be Sexy… Unless They’re Women: What Blazer-Gate tells us about sexuality, women, and leadership.
Ashley Cleland
Ashley Cleland • Nov 18

Leaders Can Be Sexy… Unless They’re Women: What Blazer-Gate tells us about sexuality, women, and leadership.

by Ashley Cleland

Can we please just let women live?

Of course, we want women to live but only if their lives fit a certain set of standards and they are not also a leader or a mother or a wife. There are so many expectations associated with any of those roles. Must be attractive but not too attractive that you are tempting to anyone you shouldn’t be tempting.

Sigh. We really struggle with letting women live in their fullness and lead.

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We’re seeing this dynamic play out in blazer-gate.

Finland’s Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, was recently featured in a fashion magazine Trendi. The magazine told CNN that they experienced “enormous” backlash against the photoshoot and cover story in Finland. People were apparently pissed that she wasn’t wearing a bra in the photoshoot with a low-cut blazer. Hence, as I affectionately call this: blazer-gate.

The “scandalous” photo is in the link, so feel free to make your own judgments here. But from where I sit, she looks beautiful and fashionable. She looks… I don’t know… exactly the way you’d expect someone to look in a fashion magazine? The magazine says, “We have portrayed women in blazers with nothing underneath for years and years, with famous people, and they had never created any response like this."

If she were a model or another famous person, people wouldn’t have blinked twice about this photoshoot. But the trick is, she is the leader of a nation.

Are leaders of nations even allowed to be sexy?

Sex Appeal is an asset for men as leaders.

Here’s the thing, team. Even if her photoshoot was about sex appeal (which is debatable since it still seems pretty chaste to me), then it would be par for the course for lots of male leaders. Sex appeal has been an asset for men as leaders historically and well into present times.

President John F. Kennedy was well-known for his sex appeal. It even added credibility to how folks perceived him as “young and virile,” especially after the former president died while in office. Douglas T. Kenrick Ph.D. explains that “fear of disease helps elect handsome leaders” because from an evolutionary perspective and just in general, we want leaders that aren’t going to die on us.

President Bill Clinton was also widely regarded as a sex icon prior to the whole Monica Lewinsky thing and quite a few incidents of sexual misconduct. (Sorry, Monica. We were awful to you from a feminist perspective. But that’s another story for another day.) His attractiveness and charm were credited as a key reason that got him elected back in the day.

President Barack Obama is definitely in the hot leaders club, too. People fell all over themselves talking about handsome and well-spoken he was as a leader. (Women and men, very much included.)

There is also some recent precedent for male leaders and topless photographs. This list includes Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Neither received similar backlash as blazer-gate, which people have pointed out on social media.

It just so happens most of our leaders throughout history have been men, so we are used to the idea of men in charge having normal human things like sexuality.

And yet… women leaders are absolutely not supposed to be sexy.

In general, we are way more comfortable with men’s sexuality than women’s sexuality. I’ll never forget when a student saw me dancing downtown while I was a Residence Life Coordinator who oversaw a residence hall. I finished the song and danced away, removing myself from the situation quickly. I laughed it off as I recounted the whole thing to a colleague.

He responded, horrified, “You can’t let your students see you dance. You are a leader.”

First of all, we weren’t living in the town from Footloose. I’m pretty sure my students have seen someone dance before.

Also, if students seeing me do the “Wobble” with friends seriously loses all their respect, then I didn’t have much of their respect in the first place.

Like all women leaders, I am a full, complex human being. Sexuality is an inherent part of that humanity and how I choose to express it or not is my business. Dancing or expressing my sexuality in an ethical and fun way (off the clock, I might add) should not have an impact on how my leadership is viewed. Pedestals be damned.

We should empower all leaders, especially women, to embrace the fullness of their humanity.

Stand with Marin Sanna and women leaders, however they choose to express themselves.

In response to the sexist backlash of Blazer-gate, women are standing in solidarity with Prime Minister Marin Sanna by posting photos of themselves wearing a blazer with nothing underneath. As a result, the hashtag #ImWithSanna went viral across Instagram and Twitter. This gesture is a good start to globally empowering women to lead in their fullness.

Beyond this symbolic gesture, I encourage you to allow the women in your life (and yourself if you are one) to live and lead with their full humanity. Call out and hold people accountable when they apply ridiculous double standards. Allow women to dress however they feel most empowered, not how you think they should feel most empowered. And for Pete’s sake, let women leaders dance without calling their credibility into question.

Finally, let’s elect more women leaders so there’s a wider range of normal and each woman’s unique humanity is a given. Please use your voice and vote accordingly.


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