In 1981, a research team at Cleveland State University made national headlines when it released a study showing that, despite substantial gains over the preceding decade in the number of women in the workforce and noteworthy shifts in public opinion regarding women's capacity to succeed there, strong evidence of sexism in American culture remained.
The proof: Commercial voice-overs -- the disembodied but influential voices of trust and authority telling Americans where to bank, how to plan for retirement or even the best source of dietary fiber -- were overwhelmingly male. In fact, more than 90 percent of commercial voice-overs featured male voices in 1981, up from about 87 percent the decade before.
And in the decades since, subsequent studies conducted by different groups of researchers have found that not much has changed. A 2014 study found that male voices still narrate more than 80 percent of all ads, including sometimes for products primarily used by or purchased by women.
Those figures matter because they point to one of the few quantifiable ways in which ideas about leadership, wisdom, authority and stability permeate the culture and shape all of our behavior. If the overwhelmingly male voice of authority weren't prompting millions of Americans to buy this product, use this service, shop at this store, logic follows that advertisers wouldn't continue to use them in such a pervasive way.
So, what's all that got to do with presidential politics? Well, it turns out, quite a lot.
Campaigns are in many ways extended sales pitches. They are very expensive, extended efforts to sell American voters on the idea that one candidate and his or her policy ideas will be best. And the race for the presidency often centers around questions of leadership in ways that even other elections don't.
Both the Republican and Democratic primary debates have one thing in common for now: A sole lady on the stage. That's why The Fix checked in with three experts before Wednesday night's debate to talk about the challenges that existed for Carly Fiorina and those that will hang over Hillary Rodham Clinton when it's her turn on the debate stage.
A warning: Our experts offered their thoughts on how to win, not how to eliminate sexism as a social force. This is a practical guide to political debate tactics in 2015, not a course in gender equality.
- Ann Bookman is the director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts-Boston's McCormack Graduate School
- John Hudak is a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
- Ruth Sherman is a political communications consultant and coach and former faculty member at the Yale University Women's Campaign School.
Recognize that different standards do exist
BOOKMAN: The stakes are higher for women and they are scrutinized in a different way in part because there are fewer women in this arena, so they just stand out. And voters and other candidates are, whether they know if or not, still getting accustomed to women in this space. Remember that at all times.
SHERMAN: Do advance work to protect your appearance. Most podiums are built for 6-foot-tall men. So for many women and shorter men, standing on something or making advance arrangements to get the right-sized podium and any microphones properly positioned. Otherwise, they risk looking like Edith-Ann in the big chair on a debate stage.
HUDAK: Be the most prepared and knowledgeable person on that stage. Donald Trump -- who it is worth noting is white, male and tall, the trifecta for presumed competence in American culture -- can get away with saying he doesn't know something or even doesn't need to know something or that he can hire people to do that. But anyone who varies from that trifecta has to battle voter suspicions and stereotypes that make more voters wonder if they are incompetent or unqualified. This year, this means female candidates can talk about their outsider status but can never say or do anything that implies that they are amateur.
Be firm -- especially with the men on-stage
HUDAK: Don't ignore name-calling, sexism and other out-of-bounds, overt and dog-whistled slights. Acknowledge them, make them bigger than just yourself so that it gets even easier for, say, men to understand how out-of-bounds critiques and commentary make life more difficult for their daughters and wives, for black voters to get concerned about what's said about Latino immigrants and so on.
BOOKMAN AND HUDAK: Whatever a woman does, she should not cry. If a woman candidate starts to tear up or seems very emotional about, for instance, how many homeless families we have in this country, she will be described as overly emotional and unable to deal with policy objectively. Culturally, if a man teared up during a policy discussion about homelessness, it is much more likely to be be understood as compassion. But every candidate, especially women, should speak with conviction.
SHERMAN: Demonstrate the ability to keep up with, stand up to and if necessary correct other candidates. Women must demonstrate the ability to operate as the alpha, or an alpha among alphas.
But not too firm
HUDAK: If you have to describe comments as somehow out-of-line, do all of the above quickly and generally just once. Coming back to the same slight repeatedly can start to smell like opportunism or suggest that a candidate is easily distracted.
SHERMAN: Culturally, women are expected to nurture, to caretake, to soothe and to assist, to be a helpmate or carry water. And studies have shown that women can be even harder than men on women who don't exhibit this capacity or who demonstrate "too much" strength. So, women on a debate stage have to exhibit some evidence of a kind of compassionate or caring leadership.
Focus on your tone
SHERMAN: Be very mindful of vocal tones. Try to stay on the low end of your natural range and avoid upward arcs and the like. Both Clinton and Fiorina already exhibit some knowledge of this. Both women's voices today sound lower in public speeches and at public events than they did years ago. Some of that might be a natural function of aging. Most voices get deeper with time. But some of it may be a very wise and practical concession to certain cultural realities.
SHERMAN: Don't try to be "like a man" or anything that to voters may signal masculinity such as excessively aggressive, loud or combative. This can get perilous for men too, but for women it can quickly become an affirmation of stereotypes about women's emotional variability or offend some voters' sense of appropriate behavior. This can trigger the idea that a female candidate is "masculine" -- or worse, a certain b-word comes to mind.
Emphasize commonality and personality
BOOKMAN: For women, there might be moments where it is necessary to point out what they have in common with other candidates. Virtually all campaigns use focus groups to help shape their messages. Most candidates running for president have to raise that money from wealthy people or hope that an outside group that wants to see them elected can do so. Clinton's integrity has been questioned due to both in ways that (until last night, at least) other candidates are not.
SHERMAN: Show some pizzazz. Self-deprecating humor is particularly effective in reasonable doses because it can bring levity to long, serious discussions and demonstrate that, although the candidate is serious enough to do the job, they don't take themselves too seriously. For female candidates, showing that you don't take yourself too seriously can convey the idea that they are competent but fun and counteract the aforementioned b-word perception.