When a Kiss Is Not a Kiss

Friendly, graceful, caring, well-intentionedÂ….and wrong. That’s the Scoreboard verdict on President Bush’s recent penchant for kissing female appointees, namely Margaret Spellings, newly nominated as Secretary of Education, and Condoleeza Rice, who is to succeed Colin Powell as Secretary of State. The White House pooh-poohed concerns as “silly,” but it is wrong as well. The behavior undermines the dignity and credibility of the women involved, and worse, it legitimizes and encourages less well-intentioned men in the business world who use such behaviors as kissing and hugging to signal pecking order and professional dominance.

We should be way past the point when women are treated as novelties, decorations or arm candy in the workplace. A kiss or a hug on the job is like a pat on the head: it designates the object of the gesture as subservient and submissive. In a professional context, this isn’t collegial or friendly; it is profoundly disrespectful conduct. The observation that President Bush doesn’t kiss Dick Cheney (we hope) is not a frivolous one. Gender differences shouldn’t have any impact on the way subordinates are treated. Imagine, if you will, a commander in Iraq kissing or hugging a female private who has performed well. It would be a cause for discipline, and correctly so. This is no different. It is, in fact worse. A President’s conduct, as all the junior high schoolers who now maintain that engaging in “Lewinskys” doesn’t qualify as “sex” can attest, has tremendous persuasive power over the conduct of others.

Especially insidious is the no-win situation women find themselves in when a power-kisser strikes. Complain, and she appears petty and confrontational; accept the diminishing gesture, and pay the price. Naturally, the sexual harassment “experts” miss the point, focusing on whether the kiss makes the women involved feel “uncomfortable.” Whether it does or not, the kiss puts women “in their place.” It sends the wrong message to all who see it, having an especially damaging influence on young professional women who will assume that this is within an acceptable range of professional interaction between men and women. It’s a trap.

National leaders have an obligation to make certain their conduct reinforce good habits and discourage bad ones. Old as it is, male supervisors kissing female subordinates in the workplace is a very bad habit. Small gestures can have great symbolic value. Save the kisses for Laura, George.

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