The same old script about a gender double standard
What do Godzilla and female politicians have in common?
I saw “Godzilla” this week. So did everyone, it seems. And one moment, midway through, almost made me spill my popcorn in a fit of feminist pique. The scientists, on the trail of a gigantic primordial insect, discovered another gigantic primordial insect, bigger than the first — and realized, with horror, that it was female.
Instantly, I sensed where this was going: This lady monster would be a stereotypical villainness, Leaning In and being bossy and pushy and all, attacked with awesome force by the military brass while the male monsters went off and played golf.
I turned out to be wrong; she was just taking part in an especially destructive mating dance. But forgive me for assuming. So many news and cultural events these days get wrapped up in the same conversations, littered with the same catchphrases, that it’s hard not to get caught up. Jill Abramson gets fired from The New York Times; is it a textbook case of gender bias and pay inequity, or a complicated story about flawed individuals and the management of an industry in turmoil?
Yes, the pay gap is real (and far worse outside the rarefied realm of executive bonuses and stock options). Yes, stereotypes persist. Still, it’s depressing when every situation gets whittled down to buzzwords and generalities, like watching endless remakes of the same old movie.
And what happens when conventional wisdom turns out to be wrong?
Take, for instance, the matter of women in politics. Nearly everyone assumes that today’s female politicians face a brutal “double bind”: maligned for not being tough enough, penalized for not being feminine enough. But a new book by Deborah Jordan Brooks, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, offers a new perspective. It’s called “He Runs, She Runs: Why Gender Stereotypes Do Not Harm Women Candidates.”
Brooks’s work began back in 2008, when Hillary Clinton shed her instantly famous tears before the New Hampshire primary. Brooks got calls from reporters, seeking research to support the “double bind” — and realized there was no empirical proof that a double standard even existed. Most assumptions about women’s political experience, she said, were based on testimonials from 30 years earlier.
So she embarked on some research of her own. She wrote a series of fake news stories about a member of Congress, running for Senate, encountering typical obstacles: making a gaffe, erupting in anger; being rude to a constituent; crying in public. She showed the stories to two group of readers, changing only the candidate’s name. One half read about Kevin Bailey. The other half read about Karen.
Then Brooks asked readers to judge the candidates on a range of standards, such as effectiveness, intelligence, compassion, strength, and honesty. Across the board, she found, gender made no difference in how the candidates were viewed. (And nobody was penalized for crying.) There was one exception: A burst of anger helped the female candidate more than the man. It made her look appealingly tough.
Brooks calls this the “Leaders, Not Ladies” phenomenon: When women reach a certain stature in public life, their gender becomes less important than their accomplishments. But the idea of the double standard is repeated so much, by commentators and consultants, that politicians come to believe it. This week, Political Parity, a nonpartisan advocacy group, released a survey of 171 female legislators who described the obstacles they faced, their concerns about running for higher office, partly due to that “double bind.” Sometimes, women take bad advice and “gender themselves” on the trail, Brooks said. Her fear is that conventional wisdom becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
“The reason why we don’t have more women in office is that they don’t run,” she said in an interview. “If they think they’re at a disadvantage, that’s not true.”
It’s surely tougher in the corporate world, where women are still woefully scarce on boards and in C-suites. Brooks said there’s evidence that it takes a critical mass, in any single corporate setting, before women at the top are seen as anything but tokens.
But things usually aren’t as simplistic as they seem. And it’s heartening to think that the electorate could actually be leading the way. Our Massachusetts gubernatorial race has been deathly dull so far, but we have two credible women in play, and gender has barely come up. It makes sense; campaigns are filled with rich individual stories, and the public decides on a case-by-case basis. But sometimes, old monsters are exceedingly hard to kill.