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How sexism is going to make Kamala Harris’s life harder

As presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden vows to nominate a woman for vice president, female politicians discuss sexism in politics. (Video: The Washington Post)

Here’s a reality: As Joe Biden’s vice-presidential pick, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) is certain to face sexism during this campaign. And based on what we know from research about women in politics, it will manifest in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways — from her opponents, yes, but also from voters who may not realize the gender-specific expectations they put on female candidates. Such as:

Whether voters like her will be a major factor in how they perceive her.

Harris isn’t at the top of Democrats’ 2020 ticket, and there’s little evidence about whether a vice-presidential pick sways an election. But research from the nonpartisan group Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which advocates for women in politics, shows that women have to prove they’re likable before they receive a person’s vote. By contrast, voters will cast a ballot for a man they agree with but don’t necessarily like.

She’ll have to be tough, but not too tough.

Harris, like all vice-presidential candidates, must show she has the leadership skills to be commander in chief, if necessary. For most candidates, that would mean coming across as tough. “But,” warned Amanda Hunter of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, “if she appears too tough, then she could jeopardize her likability, and that’s a nonnegotiable for women [when voters are deciding whom to vote for].”

We got a glimpse of how toughness comes across on Harris during the 2020 presidential primary when she was running for president. In a debate, she attacked Biden for his record on civil rights and contrasted his hesitation on mandatory busing to how she benefited from a policy integrating schools.

The Washington Post's Dan Balz analyzes Sen. Kamala D. Harris's (D-Calif.) breakout moments during the June 27 Democratic primary debate. (Video: The Washington Post)

Biden’s wife, Jill, described it as “like a punch to the gut.” Harris later chalked it up to politics. Harris was recently accused by people in Biden’s orbit of not being apologetic enough for her attacks. (Biden has indicated that he holds no grudges against her for it.)

Still, a tough debate performance in her one vice-presidential debate against Vice President Pence might be a smart move for Harris. Hunter said her group’s research found that a strong debate performance was an indicator to voters that this woman is “strong enough” to lead.

She’ll have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that she’s qualified for executive office.

Women are underrepresented in government and politics, but especially in executive offices, like governor’s mansions and, of course, presidential tickets. Voters don’t seem to inherently trust that a woman is qualified to be the final decision-maker.

Last year, I wrote that it was no coincidence that many of the women running for president put a premium on coming up with detailed policy proposals. (“She has a plan for that,” was Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s unofficial slogan.) And when she was running for president earlier this year, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) talked about the résumé of fellow candidate Pete Buttigieg, a small-town mayor, and wondered whether voters would give talented women with such résumés a chance.

Fair or not, this gender-specific qualification has particular resonance for the Biden-Harris ticket. He’s 77, and it’s possible he may not run for a second term, meaning Harris could have a head start on running for president in four years. All vice-presidential picks face that scrutiny, but Harris probably will more than most.

“There is still an entrenched stereotype in this country of what a successful vice-presidential candidate looks like,” Hunter said, “because for hundreds of years, it was a straight White man.”

She’ll have to work as hard as Biden to show that she can handle a crisis.

And we’re in a few of those. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation found that voters say this is their top priority in a female candidate. So Harris probably can’t rest on Biden’s experience alone in her campaigning for their ticket.

She’ll have to be confident, but not appear arrogant.

“Voters will not like Harris if she does not seem confident,” Hunter said. And voters use several factors to size that up — a woman’s clothing, her demeanor and her tone of voice. It’s one reason women are often accused of shouting. You’re hard-pressed to find a male politician being criticized for his voice volume.

“I haven’t been shouting,” Hillary Clinton said deliberately calmly at a 2016 presidential debate — as documented by The Washington Post’s Monica Akhtar in the video above. “But sometimes when a woman speaks out, people think it’s shouting.”

She’ll have to work doubly hard at all of this as a woman of color.

Hunter said there is “basically no room for mistakes” for both female politicians, but especially women of color, who have to work harder than anyone else to show their qualifications.

But Hunter also said Harris has a unique chance to redefine how women campaign at the highest levels of politics. It’s just so rare to have a vice-presidential nominee of a major party be a woman, and Harris will be the first Black and Asian American woman to run for the No. 2 job. Maybe there’s a way for Harris to break some of the “rules” of women in politics and still be well received. That would be a glass ceiling of its own being shattered.