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Opinion Elizabeth Warren and the double standards for female leaders

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks at the Poor People's Moral Action Congress presidential forum in Washington on Monday. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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At the end of a profile of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in this week’s New York Times Magazine, author Emily Bazelon asks the senator and presidential candidate how she plans to address attempts by President Trump and others to demonize her and portray her as something she is not. Warren replies with a statement female readers will identify with: “I’ll just keep talking to people."

It’s a statement offering both cheerful optimism — I can win people over! — and more than a hint of lived experience. Needing to win people over again and again and again so they can get ahead is something all too many women are very familiar with.

Academic studies of how the sexes are treated in the workplace show men are lauded for their potential, while similarly credentialed women are told they lack necessary qualifications. Women appear to believe they need to put in more effort on the job to be viewed as competent. They are less likely to be forgiven for their mistakes. Women typically don’t apply for jobs until they have checked off every box, while men send in a résumé if they meet about 60 percent of the listed qualifications. No surprise, women report working harder than men, something confirmed by analysis of time-use surveys.

Joan Williams, a professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and longtime expert on women and work, calls it the “prove-it-again” syndrome. In the book “What Works for Women at Work,” Williams and co-author Rachel Dempsey write that women are “are forced to prove their competence over and over.”

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One proven strategy for getting ahead in a prove-it-again world: developing a unique niche. Williams and Dempsey cite surveys showing such a strategy can lead to a woman executive becoming “indispensable.” And here it could be said that Warren has been preparing for this run for the better part of four decades, even if she wasn’t totally aware of it.

“For her entire career, Warren’s singular focus has been the growing fragility of America’s middle class,” Bazelon writes. That’s not an understatement. Warren achieved academic stardom through her groundbreaking research on bankruptcy, which demonstrated, contrary to the popular perception that people turning to the courts were simply trying to skip out on paying for vacations and unnecessary consumer items, many of those declaring bankruptcy were instead middle-class families beset by medical and employment problems. She mastered academic and trade writing, co-writing two bestselling books on the financial woes facing Americans, before pitching her ideas everywhere from “Dr. Phil” to “The Daily Show.” She conceived of what became the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in an article for the journal Democracy, then midwifed it into existence during the early years of the Obama administration. When denied the opportunity to run it, she ran successfully for Senate in Massachusetts.

Warren has succeeded in moving up in the polls by turning her “prove it again” biography and strategies into a net positive. She’s the woman who has released so many plans to address ills and needs in American life — wealth inequality, corporate concentration, child care, out-of-control housing costs — that her claim “I have a plan for that” is now both an inside joke and a tag line, and all but forces other candidates to try to keep up. She possesses the energy of 10 Energizer bunnies, sprinting to catch a train at New York’s Penn Station with barely a huff or puff. Numerous pundits proclaimed her campaign dead in the water, but (to borrow Mitch McConnell’s words), “nevertheless, she persisted" and proved them wrong.

Yet many voters still fear Warren — or any woman, really — is unelectable. They cite Hillary Clinton — also credentialed, also determined, also with many plans. But not only does that ignore the fact that Clinton received 3 million more votes than Trump, but it also ignores the unique circumstances of 2016. Trump, a practiced con man, campaigned as an outsider even though he was to the manor born. It will be harder for him to pull off that trick a second time.

To be sure, it is also true that it’s hard to defeat an incumbent. But perhaps, just as companies are more likely to promote women when the chances of success are not so great, a phenomena known as the glass cliff, pessimistic Democratic voters will end up giving the nod to a woman.

And here is something else worth noting. The top women running in the Democratic primary have something many of the male contenders lack: a perfect electoral record. Warren and her Senate colleagues Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala D. Harris and Amy Klobuchar have emerged the winner in every race they’ve undertaken. Neither former vice president Joe Biden nor Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) can say the same. (In fact, many thought Warren would not prevail in her Senate bid against now-former but then-popular Massachusetts senator Scott Brown. It was a glass cliff of a run.)

It seems all but certain whoever gets the Democratic nomination for president will need to show not just energy and original ideas but also an ability to take Trump on while not allowing him to dominate the conversation. Trump is in many ways a buffoon, but he remains extraordinarily talented at setting the agenda and making people campaign on his terms. Warren’s sheer determination, a demonstrated commitment to and expertise in the financial lives of Americans, and her prove-it-again style could well be the successful antidote to Trump.

Read more:

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Elizabeth Warren is proving her doubters wrong

David Von Drehle: Elizabeth Warren’s jaw isn’t made of glass

Elizabeth Bruenig: So, what’s the difference between Warren and Sanders?

Karen Tumulty: Elizabeth Warren has something Hillary Clinton didn’t

Helaine Olen: Elizabeth Warren was once a Republican. She shouldn’t hide it.