The next set of Democratic debates are coming up. Here’s something to keep in mind.
Less than three years after the 2016 presidential election, a pattern is already emerging. Once again, we’re seeing intelligent, qualified women candidates being snubbed by voters who can’t seem to wrap their heads around the idea that a woman can be president.
In his recent opinion piece in The Washington Post, Robert J. Samuelson claims that though the 2020 Democratic candidates were “articulate,” “intelligent,” and “ambitious … without seeming too egotistical or ruthless,” none of them “seemed ‘presidential.’” But if not intelligence and ambition, what makes a candidate seem presidential? There are many answers, but the one that stands out in a presidential election cycle with a historical number of women candidates is gender.
Let’s consider the candidates who performed the best at the debate. Ideology aside, the numbers show that Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris were the stars of their respective nights of the debate.
A FiveThirtyEight poll with Morning Consult found that these two candidates received the highest average performance ratings from respondents who watched the debate, both exceeding expectations. FiveThirtyEight also found that Harris gained the most followers on Twitter of all the candidates — nearly 60,000 — and Warren gained the second most of the candidates on her night of the debate — about 30,000.
Another FiveThirtyEight poll measured changes in each candidate’s support during the debate. While former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke all lost support after the debate, Warren and Harris were among the few major candidates who gained (alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders).
While it is nearly impossible to quantify whether someone is presidential, the same isn’t true for measuring persuasiveness. The numbers show that at the debate, Warren and Harris changed voters’ minds. The capability to convince people to follow you and listen to what you have to say is what it means to be a leader.
It’s worth asking whether male candidates exhibiting the same levels of success at the debates as Warren and Harris would have had their ability to seem presidential called into question. This is not so far fetched, as most have been socialized to attach certain stereotypes and expectations to women that often end up hurting their chances at leadership.
Women in any leadership position, political or otherwise, are trapped between two bad choices. One option is to break free of gender stereotypes, act as a strong leader, and be seen by others as bossy, aggressive, and unlikable. The other is to conform to gender stereotypes and be seen as caring, nurturing, and likable, but also not be taken seriously as a leader. (A bonus option, if you are Hillary Clinton, is to somehow manage be seen as both.)
If persuasive, intelligent women are outperforming men and still just aren’t seeming like leaders to you, it might be time to change your definition of what a leader is. If you see a candidate as qualified and smart but still have that little bit of doubt you can’t seem to put your finger on, that’s probably implicit gender bias.
Implicit bias refers to the subconscious stereotypes we all harbor toward different groups of people. Countless studies (such as this one and this one) show that implicit bias does have an impact on women in the workplace, and that includes the White House.
In a historic election where we have six women in one presidential debate, more than the total number of women appearing in all previous presidential debates, we need to think critically about where our opinions are coming from. As the next debate in July approaches, we must challenge our antiquated views of what a leader is and not let implicit gender bias make our decisions for us.
Gilda Geist is a rising sophomore at Brandeis University and an intern at RepresentWomen.