Much has been discussed throughout and since this election season about the ubiquitous nature of sexism and misogyny in our society, with the majority of attacks being leveled at Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. Up until now, some of us were actually lulled into believing that maybe,…just maybe…the playing field was leveling out. However, taking a cast iron pan to the back of the head would’ve been more subtle than the wake-up call I’ve since received. The culture in our country remains steeped in sexual bias. This bias is clearly more entrenched than racism.
So, where do we start? How can we address this issue and make meaningful change in the cultural perceptions that guide this bias? Quite a few of us here at the Confluence have been asking that question for a while and I am committed to keeping the subject at the forefront of our discussion. I’d like to start by exploring and sharing some of the available research on gender bias and leadership. Leadership is an essential component of any organization. Leaders are not just those who have been appointed or elected to positions of leadership, they are also those who provide leadership throughout an organization by virtue of their actions and influence. Gender issues are an important consideration when developing leadership potential and represent an interesting perspective for understanding the gender bias and obstacles that women face every day in their personal lives and as a result of culturally ingrained ideas.
When making a standard comparison between men and women as leaders, it’s important to start with expectations. While these are general culturally developed expectations that you may or may not disagree with, they tend to be the norms revealed in research studies about gender and bias. When evaluating these general cultural expectations about leadership and gender-appropriate behavior, men clearly have the upper hand and research reveals that men are judged as more effective leaders even when all else is equal(1). Let’s explore why. Researchers have found that both men and women have expectations about leadership that include such personality traits and behaviors as strength, assertiveness, decisiveness, directness, competitiveness and task-oriented focus. These traits also happen to overlap and coincide with general cultural expectations of the male gender. For women, there are cultural expectations that include socio-emotional focus (nurturing), softness, feminine voice, dress, and appearance. Some of these traits may appear to conflict with expectations about leadership, resulting in women being judged as less effective than a man, even when behaviors, skills, knowledge and expertise are identical. An example we’re all familiar with is when a woman who is direct and assertive is considered “bitchy,” “ bossy,” or unacceptably aggressive, while a man acting in the same way is considered both “manly” and an effective leader. Or, the softness and femininity of a woman may be interpreted as a sign of weakness – resulting in a faulty sex bias against her without regard to equal qualifications(2).
Hillary Clinton was initially called all of the sexist labels associated with a woman who dares to be assertive, directive and/or task-oriented: “bitch,” “cold,” “shrill” or “bossy.” As she moved through the campaign however, she “found her voice,” and balanced her impressive confidence and wonkiness with softness – while still maintaining her assertiveness and directness. This evolution through exposure helped to garner the respect of many who had previously dismissed her. When considering this outcome, it does appear that many times women may be trying too hard to “be like men” in order to achieve equality. This is not necessarily the most effective means if we are working within a culturally biased society. Following Hillary’s lead and remaining confident in your leadership abilities, demonstrating your capacities with assertiveness, yet still embracing your femininity and strengths in both task-oriented and socio-emotional areas can be a huge plus. This is because, over time, persistence in doing so has been found to reduce gender bias, which leads me to the next topic: exposure as a means of reducing gender bias.
In many of the same studies I’ve read, even those women who were initially seen as less effective leaders despite equal qualifications, have been able to erode perceptions of sexual bias over time(3). When people have an opportunity to experience the leadership abilities of a woman, their perception of her effectiveness can be elevated to at or above the male previously considered “more qualified.” These findings are true for both men and women exposed to an equally qualified female leader. Therefore, the good news is that gender bias is not a fait accompli’.
So, in light of the above, what are some real action steps we can begin to take as individuals and as organizations struggling for an identity and role in the future of women in society and politics? I’ve identified four areas to start with: Balance, Exposure, Evidence and Information, and Validation.
Balance – Don’t buy the hype that your ‘softer” side is useless and counter-productive in attempting to attain equality in the workplace and/or society. These traits and a socio-emotional focus can be honed into skills that are well regarded and valued for their effectiveness in developing organizational relationships, conveying a sense of team-centered collaboration, and establishing women as the choice for effective leadership. If we can learn to use the best of the feminine and the best of the masculine to our advantage, our leadership skills will continue to gain recognition and the domination by the male gender will erode in areas of work and politics. This is the one area where Hillary has become the master. She is assertive, directive, focused, and yet soft, feminine and nurturing – and she has the respect of millions throughout the world. She is an effective female leader and strong role model for all women. Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild is another excellent example of a strong female leader who embraces her feminity as a positive. Anyone who has had the opportunity to see Lady Lynn on TV has witnessed her strength and agility in the rough and tumble world of public relations and politics.
Exposure – Women are already more than 50% of the electorate but we suffer from a gender bias that defines us culturally as less effective leaders. We need to actively promote role models that defy these cultural expectations and expose our culture to the vast levels of knowledge, experience, skill, and leadership that women can bring to the table. Sarah Palin was a beautiful woman and skilled leader with a strong history of success in leadership positions. Unfortunately, the MSM chose to build a narrative about her around the “bimbo,” “stupid,” and “beauty pageant winner” stereotype. This type of sexist attack hurts all women. Only by effectively and persistently highlighting the strengths of effective leaders like Sarah can we offset these generic first impressions about beautiful women and overcome the stereotype that they cannot also be strong, effective leaders. We need to seek out women who are powerful leaders and TRUE women’s advocates to represent our interests in the public forum. They must be in the public eye as an illustration of what women are truly capable of. There are many of these women out there. Beautiful women. Smart women. Powerful women. Nurturing women. Analytical women. Creative women. These role models have the power to actively transform the negative stereotypes for our daughters and granddaughters. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, and Heidi Li Feldman are all strong role models for women – leaders who stepped up to the plate and represented us well throughout the election season, exposing our society to positive female role models on a regular basis. Keeping Hillary in the forefront of our government as either a Senator or Secretary of State is one of the best things to happen to women’s rights and progress. Her feminine, nurturing side is as important as her strong, intellectual, decisive side. We must continue to seek this type of exposure.
Education and Information – Not only do we need to increase public exposure to strong leaders like Hillary and Sarah, we need to educate the electorate about their goals and accomplishments in CLEAR and CONVINCING ways. If we are to be successful in a “30% Solution” initiative, we must be prepared to vet all of our chosen candidates and be able to speak clearly, forcefully and effectively about their records of accomplishment. Promoting a woman simply because she is a woman can have an adverse affect on our progress. If a woman does not support women’s issues, or has a weak record overall, we may find ourselves promoting the same weak stereotypes we are fighting against. Even if the “backroom deals” (h/t to myiq2xu) and MSM bias made this election an uphill battle, we were many times defending against sexism instead of crafting positive narratives. Instead of explaining what we are not, we should be describing what we ARE. The first step is learning about these candidates and WHY we endorse them. Controlling the message and forcing it into the public sphere will help bring about these new paradigms of gender equality.
Validation – We can help to change stereotypical perspectives by continuing to trumpet the accomplishments of women everywhere. “A woman’s abilities will be rated more favorably if one is exposed to success stories about other women in similar circumstances.(4)” All of those adorable little girls – and their little brothers! – watching Hillary and Sarah in a contest for the highest political offices in our country was an important lesson in social gender roles. There are many other successful women we can boast about. WHO are they? What are their stories? How can we promote their successes? It’s time to change the stereotype by challenging it with stories of women who lead with expertise, confidence and grace.
We have an opportunity before us…a challenge if you will…to begin to erode the underlying cultural perceptions about women that fuel and permit the level of sexism we witnessed this election.
We Miss You Our Dear Friend Stephanie Tubbs Jones.
(1)Staley, C. (1988). The communicative powers of women managers.” Women and Communicative Power: Theory and Research and Practice. pp. 36-48. (2) Baird, J.E. and Bradley, P.H. (1979). “Styles of management and communication: a comparative study of men and women.” Communication Monograph, 11. pp. 50-65. (3) Rice, R.W., Instone, D. and Adams, J. (1984). “Leader sex, leader success, and the leadership process.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 69. pp. 12-31.(4) Heilman, M.E., and Martell, R.E. (1986). “Exposure to successful women: Anti-dote to sex discrimination.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 37. pp. 376-390.