Why is there such overwhelming criticism for pretty much every woman in a powerful position? Think Kamala Harris (always angry), Hillary Clinton (chompers and bad laugh), Jill Biden (what’s with those black stockings), Michelle Obama (too many sleeveless dresses), Nancy Pelosi (disrespectful to males in charge), Lynne Cheney (traitor), Gretchen Whitmer (deserves to be kidnapped), Carly Fiorina (horse face), Stacey Abrams (bad teeth)—the list goes on. The criticism is relentless and often cruel. People mock their laughs, their teeth, their voices, their clothes, their height, their weight, and on and on. Why? Is it because we don’t have many role models and so don’t know what to expect? Or are we threatened by their accomplishments and, for whatever reason, feel the need to knock them down a few pegs?
And what happens when these women are constantly attacked and criticized? They become more guarded—less open, more careful. Their detractors then accuse them of not being authentic or lacking charisma. It’s a vicious circle.
The difference in leadership styles between men and women is a complicated and interesting issue. According to recent surveys, it turns out people all over the globe—even in countries led by women—are less comfortable with women leaders. That’s even true in Germany where Angela Merkel has been Chancellor since 2005. Still 41 percent of Germans would prefer a male leader.
When asked why this preference, responses are basically that men are perceived as more authoritarian, stronger, more decisive, more take-charge and more willing to make difficult decisions. Women are perceived as “smaller,” with softer voices, less likely to be taken seriously, more likely to be questioned about their decisions, and more likely to be criticized for issues unrelated to their positions—for example, dress, hair, weight, etc.
A Pew Research study confirms those stereotypes. It concluded that men are perceived as more transactional, autocratic, business-oriented and instruction-giving. Women are perceived as transformational, participative, and self-expressive. It also concluded that men prefer hierarchical structures, and women prefer flatter more collaborative structures.
Other research indicates that strong powerful women who act authoritatively are often called names such as “ball busters and ice queens” and are deemed “not very likeable.” I’m sure we all remember Obama’s comment about Hillary during one of their debates, “ You are likeable enough.”
Still progress is being made–there are more women in Congress and in business leadership positions than ever before. But even with those advancements, only 26 percent of the 117th Congress are women, and women hold only 6.2 percent of leadership positions in the top S&P 500 companies.
Already there is buzz behind closed doors that Kamala Harris is a risky choice for president if Biden decides not to run in 2024. One poll had her popularity at 41 percent; several polls had Biden’s popularity at 58 or 59 percent. Harris was relentlessly criticized for her tweet on Memorial Day when she told people to enjoy the long weekend. And, of course, there’s that “gotcha” interview with Lester Holt, when he attacked her for not going to the border. She responded defensively even though her rationale for going to Guatemala to understand the root cause of the immigration issue rather than for a photo op at the border made imminent sense.
When Harris was running for Vice President, Donald Trump called her “extraordinarily nasty;” Eric Trump called her a “whorendous choice;” and Rush Limbaugh created a slogan, “Joe and the Ho” (ironic considering the sources don’t you think). Such attacks make one excessively cautious—less likely to be spontaneous, conduct interviews and more likely to adopt a lower profile. So, her style as vice president has been one of caution—few interviews, deferential to Biden—sensitive to showing that he’s in charge—perhaps an attempt to temper down the “too ambitious” attack. Smile, but take things seriously. Cut down on the laughter. Don’t be too passive. Be a leader. But show you know you’re second-in-command—not first. It’s a slippery and treacherous slope.
There is some positive news on the “women front.” Women are continuing to make impressive strides: 50.5 percent of medical school students are women; 54 percent of law school students are women; and 56 percent of college students are women. More women are deciding to run for congress. And many of them are doing the serious grassroots door-to-door work that will make them viable contenders in the 2022 elections.
Studies also show that though there is still skepticism about women in high leadership positions, many workers in today’s world prefer more collaborative, supportive, inclusive leadership styles as opposed to that traditional male authoritarian top-down approach to management.
Also, more and more powerful women are taking steps to support those women coming up through the ranks. Mentoring programs, leadership seminars etc., are more prevalent than ever before. Madeline Albright is famous for her quote, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
Interestingly the pandemic has had some influence as well. It required more trust, more adaptive behaviors more collaborations. Because Zoom meetings were so pervasive, many saw superficial optics disappear replaced by a heads-down approach to cranking out work products which resulted in more emphasis on output, work product quality and less on political one-upmanship.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A woman is like a tea bag—you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.” I for one am rooting for all those strong capable women who have walked to the shore and tested the water.
Maria Grant was principal-in-charge of the Federal Human Capital practice of an international consulting firm. Today she focuses on writing, reading, piano, nature, gardening, travel and kayaking.