Over the last few days, I’ve been watching all the comments about the Vice-Presidential Debate. Not because I am polling people’s political stance, but rather because I’m curious about the perceptions of how the two candidates performed. I’ve been fascinated by the responses to Kamala Harris.
What I’m seeing looks a lot like gender bias and the fine line women walk when attempting to be assertive. This isn’t a new topic; I’ve seen articles going back to the mid-1980s on the perceived differences in how men and women leaders communicate. What’s is striking to me is that little seems to have changed in the last 25 years.
One description for this is that it is a double-bind for women. Most desirable leadership traits are masculine in nature: confident, bold, assertive, focused, decisive, among others. However, women are expected to be collaborative, empathetic, and compassionate. We have learned a bias that is gender based. Leaders are seen as strong when they act decisively, yet when it’s a woman leader it feels off because that’s not how women should act. Women who behave in this way are often labeled as bossy, volatile, overly emotional, abrasive, and other derogatory descriptors. This is the bias rearing its ugly head. So how does a woman demonstrate leadership abilities without being assertive, bold, confident, etc.?
My belief is that women need to be assertive in their approach while being collaborative, empathetic and compassionate. They aren’t mutually exclusive yet it’s a delicate balance. We can be firm but fair, listen to others while holding them accountable for their behavior, and work with a team towards a goal we champion.
When we are judging the behavior of others, we need to look at ourselves first. What bias may be coming into play? Are we unfairly determining one person to be better than another because they act the way we assume they should, because they look like we expect that role to look like, because they speak the way we think is appropriate? Are we applying cultural standards that hold one person to different standard? If we closed our eyes and listened their words without seeing who was speaking would we judge them differently? Could we unconsciously be reinforcing the existing bias with our judgement?
For women to assume leadership roles we need to stop judging them to by two different standards. They must avoid being too bold, too confident, too assertive, or too decisive in their behavior because that’s not feminine which then triggers the perception that they aren’t strong leaders. Let’s stop making it harder for women to lead by unrealistic expectations. Let's challenge ourselves to look at other perspectives, examine our bias and hold everyone to the same standards of behavior.
When I see a woman who can clearly articulate her position I see someone who wants to make a difference in this world. I don’t have to agree with her to be proud of her for taking a stand. When I see a man who will interrupt and talk over others I see someone who wants to control over the situation without regard for others.
What do you see?