Suzanna Danuta Walters is a professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University.
In 2013, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg urged women to “lean in” to their power and break through that pesky glass ceiling. Predictably — and correctly — feminists argued that “leaning in” not only left male-dominated corporate culture intact but also depended on underpaid female domestic workers to clean and care for children. Both Sandberg’s book and the critiques of it left actual men out of the analysis, as if leaning in (and sorting out the limits of this proposed solution) was yet more women’s work.
I’m reminded of that omission as we head into the Democratic primary season. More women are seeking the party’s presidential nomination than ever before. And yet a few white men sit at the top of the polls and rake in big fundraising hauls. As candidates such as Sens. Kamala D. Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar lean in, maybe it’s time for some of their male competitors to find ways to lean out.
Early media coverage of the campaign demonstrates why merely leaning in can’t dismantle the double standards and deep structural misogyny women face. Studies by FiveThirtyEight and my colleagues at Northeastern University found both fewer “media mentions” of female candidates and also more negative coverage than of their male counterparts. Meanwhile, Beto O’Rourke apparently merits multiple profiles, an HBO documentary about his failed Senate run and an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot in Vanity Fair — while Pete Buttigieg got a literally glowing New York magazine cover profile.
The candidates themselves do not demonstrate much more awareness of these dynamics. O’Rourke acknowledged having “privileges that others could not depend on or take for granted,” and then, well, continued to make the case for his candidacy. I suppose he deserves a tip of the hat, if only by comparison to Bernie Sanders, who, when asked if Americans really need another white man as president, replied: “Well, I think you need this one.”
A real reckoning with privilege goes beyond acknowledgment and into action. Given the unbroken record of male presidents and what we know about the double standards under which female candidates run — including obsessive attention to their voices, their bodies, their clothes — it is worth asking what steps male candidates of good faith can take to even the playing field.
First, they could do more than give the notion of privilege a cursory nod.
They could refuse to give interviews to news organizations that have practiced gender discrimination in their coverage of the campaigns and say “no thanks” to the magazine covers that curiously feature only them. They could call out the disproportionate attention they receive, as well as the presumption that they are more electable by virtue of their gender, and instead point out the fact that the women running have already won multiple races, written many books, and have deep executive and policy experience — claims that could not be universally made of their male counterparts.
Male candidates should definitely stop offering a patronizing nod to women through the “offer” of a vice presidential spot on the ticket just so they keep on benefiting from the massive affirmative action plan that is male privilege. Naming Stacey Abrams his running mate wouldn’t actually fix Joe Biden’s problems with women — especially if, as Abrams said, that’s not actually a role she wants. Telling women we can play second fiddle is not proof of a commitment to equality.
Of course, some candidates don’t even offer women that much power. Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts has as his main credential an unsuccessful effort to topple Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House.
The really radical thing for a male candidate to do in 2020 would be to step down and step away, realizing that real gender equity is achieved only when men actively refuse the benefits they receive simply for being born male.
Gender and racial equity are not zero-sum games: Everyone is a winner when we have a more diverse and representative government. But we can’t achieve that vision without men taking responsibility for the inordinate space they take up in the media and the candidate field.
There’s only one president and only so many seats in Congress or on corporate boards or as chief executives or union bosses. If we want to get even a rough version of parity, men will need to take less, have less, make less and, in so doing, recognize that the more they always got was at the expense of those who got less, courtesy of sexism.
Women are leaning in like mad, leading the resistance, voting in higher numbers and signing up to be candidates for office. But men have a responsibility — if they really do want a more gender-equitable world — to lean out, work actively to disavow their privilege and pitch in to get a woman elected president.
There are several highly qualified female candidates running for president. Every single man currently running or thinking of running should drop out and support one of these women. Now that would be real leadership.