Are Americans really, really ready to elect a woman president? Given what’s happened in recent weeks, I’m really, really not sure.
We’ve had fifty different explanations for why in one month’s time Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers have gone way down, while Donald Trump’s have gone way up. One or two months ago Clinton was comfortably ahead in most of the most important battleground states. Now Trump leads her in states like Ohio, and is tied with her in states such as Colorado and Pennsylvania. One or two months ago Clinton seemed the near certain winner of this endless, relentless race to the White House. Now, at most, she’s slightly ahead. Are any of the explanations provided so far adequate to the task of explaining his rapid rise and her precipitous decline? What really, really gives???
All along the assumption has been that in 2016 being a woman would not disadvantage Hillary Clinton. After all, she had run for the presidency eight years earlier, and had come close to winning the Democratic nomination. And, after all, Americans had elected a black man to the White House. And after all, we’re well into the second decade of the 21st century – surely we’re past gender bias.
In truth though, the evidence for this is scant. To the contrary. The evidence is that women at the top are still few in number – only 4 % of Fortune 500 CEOs are female which, at last count, means that 96% are male. And the evidence is that Americans still equate leadership qualities more with being masculine than feminine.
In 2007 Alice Eagly and Linda Carli, both experts on women and leadership, wrote, “The unique pressures placed on female leaders derive in part from the relation between stereotypes about leaders and stereotypes about women and men…. People consider men to be agentic, possessing traits such as ambition, confidence, self-sufficiency, dominance, and assertiveness, whereas they consider woman to be communal, possessing traits such as kindness, helpfulness, concern for others, warmth, and gentleness. And how are leaders perceived? … Leaders are thought to have more agentic than communal qualities. As a result, stereotypes about leaders match quite well with stereotypes about men.”*
Ring a bell? Sure, it’s 2016, not 2007. It’s a decade later, we must’ve evolved since then! Really? Have we changed much, if at all? Or do we still think of leaders as more properly male than female? Or do we forgive things in Donald Trump that we would never in a million years forgive in a female candidate? Or do we hold Hillary Clinton accountable in ways that far transcend any standard we have for her male counterpart?
Just asking. On the morning of this first presidential debate – where she will have to be letter perfect or be perceived as having failed, and he will be forgiven anything short of a national disaster – I’m just asking.
*“Overcoming Resistance to Women Leaders” in Barbara Kellerman and Deborah Rhode, eds., Women and Leadership: State of Play and Strategies for Change (Jossey-Bass, 2007), pp. 127, 128.