Hillary Clinton and Theresa May: How Gender Bias is Still with Us

Every so often things happen in the world that, for a moment, make underlying biases and stereotypes visible that are usually underground and hard to see. I believe this happened in the United States with the subtle, and not-so-subtle, emergence of racism when Barack Obama ran for president, was elected, and tried to govern. I believe gender bias and sexism are emerging now with the first-ever nomination of a woman, Hillary Clinton, by a major party for the presidency in the United States, and with the election of Theresa May as Britain’s new prime minister. Julia Baird of the New York Times writes, “The fact that a cluster of men lead the world merits no comment. But if women start to slowly enter the ranks—Theresa May, Angela Merkel in Germany, possibly Hillary Clinton in the United States—it’s treated as . . . some kind of gynocratic coup d’etat: a new ‘femokratie’ . . . the ‘dawn of a female world order. ’” One British paper warned, “The women are coming!” Baird notes that several insulting stereotypes have been used to describe May as a leader, including the Nanny (because she will now have to “mop up” after the Brexit mess created by her male counterparts) and the Thatcherite label of Iron Lady because she is known to take strong positions and be persistent. Baird observes that “our notions of mature women in power urgently need updating.” In the online publication Vox, Ezra Klein surfaces some other sources of gender bias in presidential politics when he tries to understand and explain the gap between Clinton as a public speaker—described as careful, calculated, cautious and uninspiring—and Clinton described by staff and colleagues as brilliant, funny, thoughtful, effective, and a good listener. Being a good listener is the hallmark of Clinton’s campaign style. In 2000, she conducted her senate campaign in New York State by doing “listening tours.” She won her senate seat against long odds because she listened and came to deeply understand what people in New York cared about. Once in office, she got legislation passed that addressed the concerns of her constituency. But, as Klein writes, “modern presidential campaigns are built to reward people who are really, really good at talking”—not listening. Klein goes on to point out that “we ran a lot of elections in the United States before we let women vote in them—a process developed by men, dominated by men and, until relatively late in American life, limited to men. ” Our election process also favors traits particularly prevalent in men—talking over listening. Klein cites one of my favorite gender linguistics scholars, Deborah Tannen, who explains that women value listening to build rapport and relationships. She contrasts this preference with that of men who emphasize the status dimension of communication—talking to increase status, or to win, versus listening to gain allies and build coalitions. A point by Klein that I find most interesting is that “presidential campaigns are built to showcase the stereotypically male trait of standing in front of a room speaking confidently—charismatic oration versus deep relationship.” Klein also offers observations by Brookings scholar Elaine Kamarck, author of Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again. She found that “successful presidential leadership occurs when the president is able to put together and balance three sets of skills: policy, communication, and implementation.” Campaigns only test communication. Clinton is criticized for not being an inspirational speaker, but she has a long track record of making policy and getting things done in government through relationship and coalition building. While I agree that she has made some mistakes in her political career, isn’t it sad that her depth of policy and legislative experience and her track record for getting things done are overshadowed by an opponent who is all entertainment bluster with no accomplishments or experience in governing? Trump loves to talk about the process being “rigged” against him, but it seems to me it is actually rigged for him as a man who loves to talk to large audiences and increase his status by putting other people down. This is a form of gender bias I had not seen before, and it explains a lot. Is it new to you, too? What other gender bias is getting clearer for you in this election? Please share your observations in the comments section.   The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of Jens Junge.]]>