The Double Bind
This time, let’s not settle for, play into, or be victims of simple tropes.
Just as Senator Amy Klobuchar was set to announce her decision to run for the presidency in 2020, reports appeared in Huff Post, Buzzfeed and on CNN claiming Senator Klobuchar is a “mean boss.” One former employee, who said she was in the room at the time, claimed “The senator tossed papers and one aide was accidentally hit with a flying binder, but the senator did not intend the throw to make contact.”
It‘s indeed a matter of human resource record that the senator has a high staff turnover rate. So let’s agree, for purposes of this discussion, that Senator Klobuchar really is more demanding than her “Minnesota nice” persona suggests.
Even still, these articles, with their timing, raise big questions about who we are, what we wish to be, and what we need to demand.
My obvious question is why is this a discussion point at all? I don’t recall any men running for office standing accused of being “mean to staff.” I do recall men being accused of rape. I recall men being accused of racism. I recall men being accused of drug possession. I recall men being accused of various forms of campaign finance tomfoolery, and outright theft. But being mean?
I suppose one could say if this is the worst they have.…
But there is a bigger issue, and it speaks to the underlying sexism already at play. Why is it when men are “tough,” it’s often seen as a compliment, or at least a fair and tolerable behavior, whereas a tough woman is cast as somehow “out of control,” or “incapable of managing a team.”
Ironically, our current president has an unprecedented rate of staff turnover. His high ranking officials’ departure rating is over 65%; many have left in disgrace—Sorensen, Higbie, Price, Scaramucci, Flynn, Pruitt, Zinke, and the list goes on.
Gender bias is a sneaky foe.
Consider the question: if you took all the presidents of the United States, what are the actual odds of having 45 presidents who are all men?
The answer, per NPR’s Shankar Vedantam, is that if men and women had an equal shot at the White House, the odds of this happening just by chance are about 1 in 36 trillion.
Welcome to the world of the double bind.
According to researchers, a woman’s role is based upon the stereotype that women are nice, and kind, and compassionate. This often forces them to choose between being liked but not respected, or being respected but not liked.
Carly Fiorina, the Republican presidential candidate and high-profile former CEO of Hewlett Packard, described this phenomena (also known as “ambivalent sexism”) succinctly: “I’m either a bitch or a bimbo.”
So women who adhere to traditionally feminine roles meet with benevolent approval—but are not seen as go-getters. Women who don’t adhere to feminine scripts are respected but seen as having personality problems. In shorthand this is a textbook example of the he’s-assertive-she’s-aggressive syndrome. Similarly, there’s “she’s a shameless self-promoter” versus “he’s a man who knows his own worth.”
And then there’s anger. While angry women in the workplace are dubbed “shrill,” or “shrewish,” displays of workplace anger actually raise the status of men. So not only are men allowed to be demonstrably mad, they can even get bonus points for it.
U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, a Democrat from Illinois, was elected to the US Senate in 1992. She was the first female African-American senator. And in her race for office, she assumed racism would be a more daunting obstacle than gender bias. But as she relates to NPR, that wasn’t the case.
“I think in some regards the gender biases are more profound and more central to our culture than even the racial ones, and that to me was the surprise.”
Over twenty years later, she still recalls one particular moment, “There was a cartoon from one of the newspapers in the state that showed me as a puppet, with my campaign manager’s hand up my dress,” she says. “And the idea that I was a puppet of this guy who was managing my campaign was shocking to me.”
So what’s Amy Klobuchar, or any woman, to do? Be nice, and kind, and friendly, as our gender stereotypes about women require? Or be tough and decisive, as our stereotypes about leadership demand? To be the former is seen to be nice, but weak. To be the latter is seen as competent, but unlikable.
I think the answer is that we must demand better, from ourselves and from each other. Stop allowing ourselves to mock a woman’s looks rather than listening to what she says. Stop rolling our eyes if a woman tears up, and putting her down if she doesn’t. Stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.
One nation, one standard, for all. ▼
Stefani Deoul is a television producer and author of the award-winning YA mystery series Sid Rubin Silicon Alley Adventures, with On a LARP and Zero Sum Game.