Presidential politics took an odd turn a few weeks ago when one candidate summarized the prospects for Ms. Fiorina's presidential ambitions in four words: "Look at that face." My immediate reaction couldn't for the most part be printed in these pages, but the comment stuck with me. The equally ugly comments last week against ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza, who had the audacity to call a major league baseball game, prompted me to consider both attacks, in all their blunt honesty, at greater length.
Power is traditionally and still predominantly a male construct, and no position embodies the concept of power more than that of President of the United States. And while there’s nothing in a woman’s DNA that prevents her from understanding a squeeze play or a sacrifice bunt, few women have been able to break into the most high profile positions in sports-casting. So if there is a compelling case study of power and gender, it is in reactions to a woman’s attempt to work within those spheres. And the "think it/say it" style of the men behind the attacks gives us a rare unveiled view into the challenges faced by women seeking leadership or power roles.
Some months ago I was reading about image archetypes and how they help us interpret the world. For example, we perceive an object as a "table" when it conforms to some degree with the archetypal image of a rectangle with four legs.
Research tells us that we continue as a culture to struggle with our perceptions of women in positions of leadership or power. A Catalyst study identified what it called a gender-based “double bind,” concluding that there is a much narrower range of behavior that is acceptable from a woman in a leadership position than from her male peers.
Following that logic, I did a Yahoo Image search of the term "CEO." The search returned hundreds of images of persons of different ages and dress and skin color but almost all of them were male. Indeed, I was over 100 images into the search results before a single female image emerged and it was that (sadly) of "CEO Barbie." The image was of an anatomically improbable female shape with a pinched waist (possible I think only if a few ribs have been removed) in a blue mini-skirted suit with a smart pink desk and matching brief case. If there is an archetype of a female CEO, it is certainly not that. A few dozen images later I thankfully found an image of Marillyn Hewson, CEO of Lockheed Martin.
The invitation to "look at that face" prompted me to do a second image search, this time of "President." It’s not going to surprise anyone that the search again returned images almost exclusively of men. I was probably 400 images into the search before I found a female image, that of South Korea's President Park Geun-Hye. I think it’s fair to say that when someone says "CEO" or "President," we are unlikely in our collective psyches to associate those words with female images.
An image search of “sports analyst” produced a slightly more mixed result, but it’s not going to shock anyone that the faces most often associated with professional sports broadcasting are male and that the voice viewers expect to hear from behind the desk is that of a man.
But I don’t think the challenge is limited to the image a female face projects – it’s also about the actions and conduct one might expect from a "President" (or a candidate seeking to become one) and a professional sports analyst, and how that squares with expectations of culturally acceptable female behavior. After all, the tweeted reference to Ms. Mendoza could not have been more graphically clear that the objection was to her femaleness. Mr. Trump too reacted to Ms. Fiorina because she was a woman, saying "I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posedta’ say bad things, but really folks, come on. Are we serious?"
So let’s get serious. Research tells us that we continue as a culture to struggle with our perceptions of women in positions of leadership or power. A Catalyst study identified what it called a gender-based “double bind,” concluding that there is a much narrower range of behavior that is acceptable from a woman in a leadership position than from her male peers. The margin between a woman leader being too soft or too tough is razor thin, and women in positions of power can be perceived as difficult (as opposed to determined) or overbearing (as opposed to strong). By contrast, "overbearing" is not a word that is easy to associate with a male executive – strength and determination in men is generally interpreted as, well, leadership. As a case in point, just this morning, a male political analyst opined (I think correctly) that the margin of acceptable error for Ms. Clinton in the upcoming Democratic debate will be zero, whereas her male counterparts will not be held to such an exacting standard.
There is also evidence that high achieving women in positions of leadership or power are much more likely to be perceived as abrasive than are their male peers. Or consider this, particularly in the context of a female politician or sports analyst – research has found that if a woman talks too much she risks being viewed negatively. Male politicians can fill the airwaves with speeches and bombast without hurting their power image while female politicians face a penalty. And male sportscasters certainly don’t make a name for themselves by being demure.
This research all suggests that femaleness and power are still an uncomfortable combination for many to accept. The Catalyst research also concludes that a woman leader can be perceived as competent or likeable, but rarely both. That's not a choice that any leader should have to make.
Despite changing American attitudes, the gender gap is as persistent in industry (particularly the tech sector) as it is in government or sports media and Executive Suites across the country remain predominantly male. There are no quick or easy solutions, but there is at least one step we can take.
I think we should accept the invitation to take a “look at that face.” Do you see that female face as a CEO or Chairwoman or President or a MLB sports analyst? If that’s not an easy place for you to go, study your discomfort – discomfort is the path to growth.
Then take another look at that face and decide that you will judge the woman and her prospects for success by her record of achievement, by her contributions and knowledge and by the content of her character, not simply by the contours of her gender.