To see more women in leadership, shift the burden to men.
Just over a week ago, Elizabeth Warren, the last viable woman candidate for president, suspended her campaign. The collective gut punch to women was palpable. Few were naïve enough to think that a woman president, or even a woman presidential nominee, was inevitable in 2020. But more than a decade after Hillary Clinton suspended her 2008 campaign for president by stating that there were 18 million new cracks in the presidential glass ceiling “and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time,” women in 2020 are left wondering if the path has really been any easier for women in presidential politics.
In 2016, President Barack Obama noted, "There has never been a man or a woman, not me, not Bill, nobody more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.” But qualifications are not always enough for presidential candidates. For Clinton, her qualifications were the very thing that often yielded criticisms that she was too “establishment,” not “authentic” enough, and – as is the dilemma often facing high-achieving women – unlikeable. In 2020, few could question Elizabeth Warren’s intellect and resume as preparing her well for the presidency. Like Clinton, Warren is an exceptionally smart woman. But there was more – she came closest to meeting the many demands of many Clinton skeptics; Warren was more progressive, more engaging and charismatic, less “establishment,” and arguably more “authentic” – in the sense that few could challenge the consistency of her beliefs and priorities – than Clinton.
That makes Warren’s loss to two white men – neither of whom check all of these boxes – all the more frustrating for two reasons. First, it raises doubts that there is any woman candidate that will be able to clear the higher bar that women face en route to winning the presidency. And second, it reinforces the experiences that many women have had themselves; they often work twice as hard to reach the same results as white men. Sometimes they work harder but still fall short due to gender biases long baked into the system. By illuminating the stubbornness of American political institutions, Warren's loss is a reminder that the burden on women to do more to achieve the same is persistent and resistant to change. That feels exhausting.
This frustration and exhaustion is not new. Women have navigated through it time and again in American politics to push for and achieve progress. They have never thrown in the towel before, and, as Warren urged in her interview last week, they will persist. What's important in this moment is that women don't feel the weight is only on their shoulders. Men need to play a more vocal and active role in both calling out bias and pushing for a politics – especially a presidential politics – where men and women are held to the same standards and where women's leadership is as equally valued as men's.
Here’s another way to think of it: women should not have to persist within institutions built for, by, and to the advantage of men. Disrupting the balance of gender power within these institutions is necessary, and that work cannot only fall to women. In the aftermath of Warren’s departure, MSNBC commentator Zerlina Maxwell stated this especially plainly. She said, “I would like more men to be vocal about the fact that they want to see women in positions of leadership.” That’s a start. But voters – men and women alike – also play an enormously important role in both what we demand of candidates and what we accept as qualifications and credentials for the job. Rejecting masculinity as the standard by which fitness for presidential office is measured would help to create an environment in which traits, expertise, and experiences more often associated with women are equally valued as merits of presidential contenders.
Voters can also perpetuate or confront biases in ourselves and in others. In 2020, the perpetuation of the electability myth for women in presidential politics reinforced an advantage for men. Despite efforts by candidates and experts to debunk it, this bias placed an additional burden on the women running for president. But they should not be alone in addressing the burden of gender bias. In fact, those most effective in confronting gender bias in others are what social psychologists call non-targets – those who aren’t hurt by this bias and thus cannot be disregarded as complaining or self-interested. That means we’re looking especially at white men to intervene and admonish gender bias in how people evaluate and assess candidates.
Male candidates also play an important role in creating new conditions for candidate success. For white men especially, this means recognizing the ways in which their gender and race have constrained their experiences and understanding of what’s at stake in politics and policy instead of assuming that these identities make them most fit to lead. We saw some examples of this in the 2020 Democratic primary race. When Governor Jay Inslee (D-WA) told CNN that he approached his presidential candidacy “with humility” because he had “never been a woman talked over in a meeting,” he at least recognized the danger of women’s exclusion from powerful positions. Likewise, after Beto O’Rourke was admonished for joking that his wife Amy was raising his three children “sometimes with [his] help,” his response evidenced the value of men’s reflection on gender-biased institutions. He apologized by noting, “[it] should have also been a moment for me to acknowledge that [women’s bearing the caregiving burden] is far too often the case, not just in politics, but just in life in general,” adding, “I hope as I have been in some instances part of the problem, I can also be part of the solution.”
These examples of gender disruption are not alone going to lead to the types of big structural changes that we need in American political institutions in order to upend the gender norms and expectations that have put hurdles in women's path to success at and below the presidential level. But they are a place to start, particularly for men and at a moment when women are especially fatigued by persisting. They should also serve as an important reminder that the gender story of the 2020 presidential election is not over because the race is down to three men (Biden, Sanders, and Trump). These men will play a key role in either reinforcing or rejecting the dominance of masculinity in presidential politics in the rhetoric and imagery they use, the tactics they adopt, the traits they tout, and the prioritization and perspective they bring to policy debates. Rejecting masculine dominance and rethinking the credentials, experiences, and perspectives we value in presidential politics are not only important for creating institutional change. They are also important steps to creating the conditions where more women can run and win…perhaps with a bit more ease the next time around.