Why Do We Still Resist and Punish Women In Leadership?

5 years ago

Just after my election as president of the Homeowner’s Association in our town home complex in 2004, an older male neighbor stood nose to nose with me and said “you really need to get some men on the board because women don’t know how to do anything.” 

Initially drafted to the position, I worried about receiving “who the hell does she think she is” snipes every time I made a decision or gave an instruction, no matter how respectful or civil my conduct.  My neighbor’s insult notwithstanding, my practical nature never steered me wrong and I learned to trust myself as much as others learned to trust my judgment.  The neighbors were most unhappy when I resigned after five years.  Another rather blustery male neighbor has even taken to cajoling me to take up the position again. 

I pondered what made a good leader.  I liked Hillary Clinton’s method as Secretary of State.  Start by getting the lay of the land, keep your head down and master your brief before retooling the place.  Sometimes good leadership is about anticipating opposition or problems before they take hold.  More often, it is about giving others a respectful hearing – the fifth of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People:  Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.  Lastly, it involves taking a fiduciary and cautious approach to spending other people’s money.  

Elizabeth Warren was credited with designing and staffing the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, yet President Obama chose a man to chair it.  The brilliant Sheila Bair, who not long ago ended her tenure at FDIC, has been credited by the Wall St. Journal and the New York Times as turning that organization into one with teeth.  When it counted, she was passed over for Treasury Secretary in favor of Timmy “turbo-tax” Geithner.  Bair offered fabulous ideas for getting the housing and financial sector in line.  Why were they not implemented?  Why was her leadership not tapped?  I have been told I give the impression I could command an army.  So do many women, without being emasculating by the way, so why the perception that we “don't know how to do anything” or that “you would never want to work for a woman.”  Are these just rallying cries that protect against disrupting the status quo?  Fear of altering that standard can come from women as well as men, even today. 

While my foray into leadership may seem a silly comparison, studies have shown that the same concerns and criticisms of women being unfeminine, bitchy, ball-busting, incapable and/or hysterical exist for female politicians, especially those working to break through the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.”  The Barbara Lee Family Foundation has long studied the particular hurdles faced by women candidates, finding that no woman is ever quite right.  When polled, American voters like the theory of a woman leader.  In practice, they don't.  Not unlike Goldilocks' porridge, either too hot or too cold.  Some of these perceptions are changing, albeit too slowly to suit me.  Even today, researchers tell women to frame their political candidacies as “normal" and to "avoid emotional expressions.”   What does that mean?  Be an automaton? Act and dress like an oatmeal cookie?  Be warm and pleasing?  Then we’re back where we started… 

The worst part of attempting to concoct the perfect female political personality is fighting perceptions created by the media.  Many supposedly reputable media outlets offer every wild-eyed, unflattering photo they can dig up of a female politician, while the male opponent is depicted as calm, cool and collected.  Think back.  I’m sure you can remember recent occurrences…the epic 2008 battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama comes to mind.

I am a somewhat animated person, so if you take a picture of me saying “I love Fudge!” at just the right moment, I too, might look like I’m hurling expletives when I’m just asking for chocolate. 

Hillary Clinton endured this regularly on the campaign trail.  Pundits’ vicious name calling of Hillary notwithstanding, thousands of pictures exist of this women, yet every effort was made to couple news stories with photographs of her looking like a deranged harpy.  The truth of her long tenure has proven she is anything but.  Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann was later depicted as a wild-eyed whacko on the cover of Newsweek.  The picture was captioned “The Queen of Rage.”  

Yup.  Pick the pic that looks like she's going to blow us to kingdom-come once she's got her hands on those nuclear codes!  As Professor Kathleen Jamieson once stated in an interview with PBS' Bill Moyers, depicting Hillary Clinton, or any woman, as a lunatic is a technique known as “visual vilification.”  If you can attach a “negative affect” to the candidate via a photograph, making the voters uncomfortable every time they look at her, you can also get someone to abandon that woman in the voting booth.  Jamieson further noted that some still operate under the theory that “you cannot use your uterus and your brain at the same time.”  

In 2008, one of the most painful side effects of watching the media’s assault on Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, in which they were alternately depicted as virago, moron, conniving “b*tch” or Caribou Barbie was that I was blindsided by people, a party, and a media, I thought I knew.  The intolerance and outdated stereotyped commentary made me wonder what people were saying about me when I gave the orders?  How someone behaved face-to-face vs. behind my back began to wear on me and I wondered how deeply ingrained this behavior really is. 

This week, I was outraged by the horrid treatment of journalist S.E. Cupp by Hustler Magazine, wherein these vicious fools photo-shopped a picture of her to look as though she had a phallus in her mouth, to punish her for her political views.  But contrary to the view that it is only conservative women who are treated this way, in 2008, both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were excoriated.  This illustrates that political party is no protection from such negative depictions.  It is politically inconvenient women who will be vilified – visually and verbally.  

Party be damned.  It is just plain wrong to treat any woman like this. 

Once women embrace the fact that it is destructive to all women to dismiss any woman with sexist stereotypes or demeaning images, we will make true progress toward grading a woman by the same metric as a man.  

Perhaps we can travel beyond even that and celebrate the unique qualities a woman can bring to a leadership position.  After all, the goal is not to be a man.  The goal is to celebrate one’s womanhood and still be a leader.  In leading fairly, we lead everyone; not just one party or one sex.

Image Credit: Orin Zebest, via Flickr



Anita Finlay is the author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin: Sexism and Sabotage, a Hillary Supporter's Rude Awakening, available at Amazon in print and Kindle editions.

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