Hillary Clinton and the Gender Challenge

We are already getting glimpses in the media of how big a role gender will play in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. We are on the doorstep of history again. The battle will be intense. There is no doubt about that. Clinton has come closer than any woman in history to the U.S. presidency.

How she handles the gender challenges inherent in running for president will partially dictate whether she wins.  In that sense, skillful communication and persuasion are critical.  She can’t talk too much about being a woman or too little without hurting her campaign.  Accentuating her gender has its risks.  She may have learned from the last campaign, however, that downplaying a good part of who you are inhibits spontaneity and thereby authenticity. People don’t think they know you. Distrust results.  This time she is likely to be more comfortable with her gender and better able to expertly manage how it’s expressed.

There is no way to escape gender.  Most of us cannot ignore it as a category.  It influences our expectations.  We have never seen a female U.S. president, so imagining how gender might influence one is difficult.  Realizing that it influences how we perceive candidates, what we expect from them, how we expect them to communicate and how we vote is also difficult.  Yet, few of us escape categories our minds have been taught to apply.

Clinton will need to help voters get past categories that keep them from seeing who she really is and what she would bring to the presidency.  The “thin pink line” is how I described the challenge in They Don’t Get It, Do They?  It refers to the sense women have that expectations for them are entwined with their gender.  If they are assertive, they risk labels like “ice queen.”  They’re frequently faced with the Catch-22 that acting like a woman makes them appear less qualified to lead.

There continue to be major challenges faced by women who seek to obtain leadership roles in government and business.  While bias is part of the equation, a lack of familiarity with women at these levels and a widely shared habit of thinking of strong leaders as men enter into it as well.

Also, how a female leader should communicate trips us up.  It’s relatively unfamiliar ground, especially in politics.  Clinton is not only running for president, she is essentially forging important communication latitude groundwork for future female leaders.  She’ll be helping a country and the world learn what a leader, who happens to be a women, sounds like.  We’ll learn how she leads.  This doesn’t mean that women taking on such roles in the future will necessarily act and speak like her, but rather that Clinton will, as a candidate for the presidency and certainly if she wins, make female leadership somewhat more familiar.  She will widen the thin pink line, even more than she did as senator and secretary of state.

Whether you support her candidacy or not, a female candidate with a strong chance to win the presidency shifts the way many of us think.  It helps to interrupt antiquated habits of thought regarding gender that have lasted far past their applicability.  Many people will cling to those habits.  Hopefully her candidacy will make retaining their intractable mindsets more difficult.

(Updated April 13, 2015)


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