Fighting on two fronts: how sexism hurts women leaders

It made me sad.

Then it made me mad.

On an historic evening — when one of this country’s major parties finally nominated a woman for president — I read the following in the New York Times:

“As the Democratic National Convention begins here on Monday, there have been debates inside Mrs. Clinton’s operation over how much her nomination this week should be focused on women. Some advisers believe that overemphasizing Mrs. Clinton’s historic achievement as the first woman to accept a major party’s nomination could backfire, driving away men who favor her Republican opponent, Donald J. Trump, and alienating younger women who are less motivated by gender.”

Even at this moment, women are expected to make way for men. To be cautious of their feelings, rather than celebrate a tremendous achievement.

To lessen ourselves in order to appeal to them.

This campaign shines a bright light on sexism in our culture. Double standards abound. The GOP nominee lies reflexively, insults and demeans people and entire groups of people, has committed countless acts of fraud, and has the attention span of a fruit fly.

But, you know, boys will be boys. No big deal.

Clinton has been subjected to lies and innuendo for the past two decades. Her achievements have been belittled, her mistakes blown all out of proportion. If she’s passionate, she’s shrieking. If she’s focused, she’s boring. If she shows any emotion, she’s weak. She’s “cold and calculating”, not strategic and focused.

Her hair, wardrobe and figure have been scrutinized since she entered public life. Other female political leaders have experienced the same thing. As if any of that mattered to work or accomplishments.

Clinton is constantly expected to answer for her husband’s scandals. As if she’s responsible for his behavior. Newspapers even announced her nomination with photos of her husband.

I’ve been told it’s sexist to feel excited about Clinton because she’s a woman. As if electing the first woman president is inconsequential — or should be — for me. Sorry. It’s exciting, whatever your politics. President Obama’s election was a huge moment for our country. So will President Clinton’s be.

If you’re not seeing the sexism, you’re missing something. Clinton offers a timely and obvious example. But benevolent sexism hurts us all.

We know this phenomenon isn’t new. Studies have shown a serious discrepancy in the way people judge men and women’s abilities. Men who get along well with others are seen as capable. Women who do so are seen as weak.

It’s often not even conscious. Most women could give you examples of the “benevolent sexism” they’ve encountered. It’s not really benevolent. It’s a kinder, gentler way of putting women in our place. A finding from the same article:

“…in countries where the men were likely to condone benevolent sexism, men had longer life expectancies, were more educated, had higher literacy rates, made more money, and were more politically active than women.”

For most of our history, being white and male has been the default — anything else is less than ideal. Gender roles remain less flexible than we’d like to believe. Women on average are still paid 79 cents on the dollar.

The nuclear family is worshipped, but not supported. Child care, paid leave — the things that will clear the way for equitable treatment in the workforce — are not the reality for most women. Certainly, the Republican Congress wants no part of those ideas.

This isn’t limited to politics, of course. I wrote about gender issues in the nonprofit sector here and here. Gender bias is embedded in our culture.

Yet we desperately need women’s leadership skills.

The qualities most associated with women are those that are found in the most effective leaders. We need cooperation, listening, team-building. We need leaders who can hear as well as talk.

But with the bluster and noise, we often miss women’s value.

Even the parties have been described in binary, male/female terms: the GOP as the Daddy party — the strong leader, the fighter, concerned with our dominance in the world. And the Democratic Party has been called (disparagingly) the Mommy party — concerned with “soft” things like healthcare, equality, education.

Can we just stop and think about that a little while?
Democrats are less-than because they care about people? And if a party supports health care and education, it can’t also defend the country?

Caring isn’t weak. Listening isn’t weak. Collaboration rather than domination isn’t weak.

It’s smart. It’s effective. And we need more of it. In our businesses, in our schools — and in the White House.

Thanks for reading. If you agree, please be sure to vote! If you don’t, let’s talk about it here.

Either way, I’d be grateful if you’d share or recommend this.

About me: I’m a copywriter and consultant for nonprofit organizations. You can read more at

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