Sunday 23 October 2016

Watch out, Hillary - women have a harder job than men in getting elected

Niamh Gallagher

Published 30/07/2016 | 02:30

Hillary Clinton addresses the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia Picture: Getty Images
Hillary Clinton addresses the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia Picture: Getty Images

It's official - Hillary Clinton is the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. Second time lucky, and in a race that was much tighter fought than many expected, she beat Bernie Sanders to become the first-ever female candidate for a major political party to run for US president.

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But for Hillary, has being a woman helped or hindered her in her campaign? Is what she has now achieved - the first woman ever truly in the running for the top job - seen as unique, or as ordinary? And what lessons are there from Hillary's experience for our newly elected female TDs and senators here at home?

If the media coverage surrounding her victory has been anything to go by, it does not feel like the heady days of 2008, when Barack Obama's victory - both as nominee and later as president - were marked around the world as truly historic moments.

A black man in the White House was truly revolutionary; but a woman shattering the glass ceiling, is that as significant? Does it herald an openness, diversity, a genuine equality in the way Obama's presidency was percieved?

Analysis in the US suggests the voting public is ready for a female president, with 80pc of those polled by CNN/ORC holding this view; of those, however, this is a priority for just 31pc.

To an extent, that is fair. Politics must be about more than gender and voting for a woman because she is a woman undermines what she stands for. True equality in politics is choice on the ballot paper: a variety of women running across the political spectrum, so that voters can at the same time vote on issues, and support a preference for increased women's representation. This may be wishful thinking in the two-horse race that is the US presidential election, but it is a standard to strive for.

But getting women elected - at any level - depends on voters voting for them, so how voters perceive female candidates is key to their ability to succeed. And here, women have a harder job than men. Watching Clinton over the past year demonstrates exactly why. Criticised at the same time for being too hard - when talking foreign policy - or too soft - when playing the granny card - it seems Hillary is expected to be all things to all people. Were we concerned about Sanders's age or sartorial choices? Did we ask about his grandfather status or think he was too tough on those Wall Street bankers? We were not and we did not. And therein lies the difference.

This double standard is not a figment of the feminist imagination. Voters want candidates who are competent and likeable. They want to relate to their personal lives and know they will do the right thing under pressure. This is the challenge unique to female politicians: being seen as too strong affects likeability, being seen as too weak undermines credibility.

A study in psychology undertaken by Susan Fiske at Princeton University found that women who present traditionally feminine traits - for example, women who choose to stay at home and raise their families - are seen as likeable, but not competent. Women who are seen as less traditionally feminine - lesbians, athletes, feminists and working women - are seen as competent but not likeable. Women, unlike men, are rarely seen as competent and likeable, that magic combination we want from our politicians.

So should Hillary play the woman card or ignore it? Her campaign at the start went for yes, then reined it back in. Celebrating her nomination, she introduced it again, alluding to that famous glass ceiling. Electing the first female president would be truly historic, no less so than Obama's election in 2008. But Hillary must tread carefully. There is a body of evidence that shows women govern differently to men (not better, not worse, just differently - hence the need for a mix), and that women in high office mobilise and motivate more women to run for political positions down the chain.

These are good things, but they will not win a US presidential election. To do that, Hillary must play voters by striking that balance between competent and likeable. She cannot undermine her ability by playing granny, yet she must show her personal side to bring enough Americans with her.

This uniquely female challenge is a deeply frustrating one. Last February, we celebrated the largest number of women ever elected in the history of our State - 35 women in Dáil Éireann, which is 22pc.

While this is progress, it brings us from a catastrophic figure to a dismal one: still less than a quarter of our elected representatives are female.

Hillary's experience in the US provides a moment to reflect on our perception of female politicians at home.

Here too we expect women to be both tough and caring, yet we criticise them for hard decisions or take public issue with their family choices. Take the blame levelled at Joan Burton for cuts in the Department of Social Protection, or the disapproval towards Susan O'Keeffe when she missed a meeting to be with her daughter the evening before her Leaving Certificate began. Would a man have been subject to the same level of interrogation and disappointment? Unlikely.

We have not yet struck a balance between recognising and celebrating diversity in politics, while at the same time judging our male and female politicians by the same yardstick.

Hillary's run for US president has exposed this issue in stark terms. Here, we can watch, learn and accept that liking our politicians is far less important than ensuring they are competent to do their job.

Irish Independent

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