After facing his opponent, Claire McCaskill, in their first Missouri senatorial debate, Todd Akin resorted to a move that’s becoming all too familiar for him — showing he is more adversary than friend to women. Some might even say he has joined, at a leading rank, the war on women.
Akin’s latest attack was subtle and cloaked in the form of condemning his rival, but in actuality it was an affront to female leaders writ large. McCaskill, he contends, was aggressive and much less “ladylike” now than she was in 2006. Moreover, he said, her debate performance was “like somebody let a wildcat out of the cage.”
Akin is at once trapping McCaskill in a female stereotype (is a catfight really the only fight women can bring?) and accusing her of being deficient in some essential characteristics that proper women possess. To be sure, proper women take care and leave the taking charge to men, right? And if women do take charge, they had better well coat it in sugary sweetness.
These traditional and commonplace gender expectations go far in contributing to the pernicious biases that women face in leadership positions. The image most people have of a leader is someone with the stereotypically masculine traits of confidence, assertiveness and competitiveness. This means that, in leadership roles, women confront cross-pressures: As leaders, they should be masculine and tough, but as women, they should not be “too manly.”
These opposing expectations for women have left us stuck in a catch-22. If women come off as “ladylike,” they are often perceived as less qualified for elite leadership positions than men. Yet when women in leadership positions do exhibit these masculine characteristics, they often are seen as deficient in their requisite feminine characteristics and can experience significant social costs.
McCaskill certainly is not the first female politician called out for being unladylike, nor will she be the last. Margaret Thatcher famously earned the nickname “Iron Lady” when she demonstrated her strength and independence as U.K. prime minister. Top female leaders worldwide from Angela Merkel to Nancy Pelosi have been called witch, its rhyming alternative and worse. Hillary Clinton’s backlash came in the form of “Iron My Shirt” posters at campaign rallies and Hillary nutcrackers sold at airports.
This double standard in our culture is as insidious as it is pervasive. Yet, there is a silver lining here.
When it comes to political leadership, the media and voters slowly are starting to recognize and reject the backlash from politicians like Akin who are uncomfortable with strong and competitive female leaders. The privilege that men have enjoyed in the domain of leadership is starting to erode. Akin’s comments appeared as if they came from the same playbook Prime Minister David Cameron was using last year when he admonished Angela Eagle, shadow chief secretary to the U.K. Treasury, to “calm down, dear,” during a Commons exchange. Cameron’s play, like Akin’s, didn’t turn out very well — he faced significant fallout and an increasing lack of support among female voters.
The single most powerful factor that will help counter this sexism is the ever-increasing presence of highly effective women in top leadership roles. One thing that is becoming abundantly clear is that effective leadership is marked by a mixture of traits that do not favor either gender, including intelligence, social skills, initiative and the ability to persuade. Highly effective leaders also tend to have a healthy mix of both stereotypically feminine qualities (such as helpfulness and showing concern for others) and stereotypically masculine attributes (such as assertiveness and confidence).
So, when Claire McCaskill takes charge in a debate, she is not being unladylike. She is being unequivocally leader-like. And my hunch is that the voters in Missouri will continue to look for just that trait.
Crystal L. Hoyt is an associate professor of leadership studies and psychology at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies.
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