March 8 was International Women’s Day, which asked for exactly 24 hours of respect for women and their contributions to work and society. Some world leaders did not quite get the memo. From praising women for their childbearing skills to their supermarket-shopping prowess, here are some notable flubs that all of us can learn not to imitate when paying tribute to the women in our lives.
Women have a broad portfolio of accomplishments
Many women are proud to nurture their families — and that is not all they do. Women also commute to work to support their families, contribute to their communities, help charities, innovate, and create new things in their own right. Recognizing the totality of a woman’s contribution — especially if you are complimenting a colleague — is important.
Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a 213-word letter addressed to Russian women on International Women’s Day, and in his praise he focused solely on women’s contributions to the family: “You care day and night for your children, grandchildren and your family. Even today, on International Women’s Day, you are still caught up in your routine, working tirelessly, always on time….We always turn to women for inspiration and consolation, and always find it. Women give us life and perpetuate it in our children.”
Why would anyone take offense? Because Putin framed women primarily as support for men, rather than humans in their own right. Like men, women are individuals.
This is not the first time Putin has praised women primarily as mothers. In his 2015 letter on International Women’s Day, he described how good mothers provide the solid foundation to any Russian childhood with the expression: “to drink it in with your mother’s milk.”
And yet, as women know, women have multi-faceted identities and challenges outside of their ability to reproduce, and these kinds of compliments are limiting. It has become habitual to compliment even the highest-achieving women — like rocket scientists! — on their “mean beef stroganoff.” To give a real, meaningful compliment to a woman, think more broadly than what she does at home.
Women are more than their looks
Just as it would be unthinkable to praise a man’s handsomeness as a personal accomplishment— even if it means he gets paid more — praising a woman’s beauty falls short of the mark.
Yet Putin complimented women, in his speech, for their being decorative: “You fill this world with beauty and vitality, giving warmth and comfort, cordiality and harmony with your tenderness and generosity of spirit.”
Complimenting a woman’s “beauty” can be a double-edged sword, and should be avoided, especially at work. Like complimenting a woman’s domestic prowess, it can feel reductive. And at work, it can be downright insulting: women, like men, go to the office to get things done, not to be stared at, sized up and evaluated for how decorative they are.
As long as we’re human, we’ll notice — which is why some psychologists study “pulchronomics,” or why pretty people get paid more. But work hard on seeing past people’s looks. Evening the playing field so everyone is evaluated on their work will help team cohesion, and being able to see past looks to the human potential inside is good practice for managers and leaders.
Women do more than shop
Brazilian president Michel Temer gave a speech on International Women’s Day that praised women’s economic skills — for spotting the lowest prices in the supermarket.
“Nobody is more capable to pointing out the unbalances in, let’s say, supermarket prices than women,” Temer said in his speech.
“Nobody is more capable of detecting eventual economic fluctuation than women, since they monitor the increases and decreases of their home’s budgets.”
Like Putin’s speech, Temer’s limited the potential of women to contribute more than domestic support.
Protesters took to the streets in Brazil that day with signs that read “they want us as first ladies, never as presidents,” according to CNN.
Women aren’t supposed to smile all the time
On Wednesday, Putin also promised his citizens that Russia “will do our outmost to surround the women we love with care and attention, so that they can smile more often.”
What’s wrong with smiling more often? Nothing. But being asked to smile is being asked to give up your own emotions to make someone else feel better. It also ties into the expectation that women should be decorative at all times. It’s a small, but significant, form of unpaid “emotional labor” that women are asked to do every day.
Back up your supportive words with your actions
If you’re not Putin or Temer, it’s pretty easy to be respectful and appreciative to the women around you — but being nice for 24 hours doesn’t accomplish much.
Whether you’re a man or a woman, consider backing up the compliments by supporting women in other, tangible ways: hiring women at work, promoting women as often as you promote men, stopping people from interrupting women at meetings, and, if you’re a world leader, creating policies that help women achieve equal pay and equal status under the law.
The warm cheer for women in Putin’s letter, for instance, starkly contrasts with his recent actions. In February, Putin signed legislation that decriminalizes “moderate” domestic abuse as an administrative offense. Before, this kind of family violence would get a two-year jail sentence; now, if it’s only happened once in a year, it can just lead to a 15-day sentence in jail or a fine.
Of course, this only applies if you believe women belong in the workplace; a Gallup poll released on March 8 suggested that 30% of men worldwide believe women should stay at home.