What, exactly, comprises the “presidential look” that according to Republican candidate Donald Trump, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton lacks? Although he demurs when asked for specifics, stating “I’m just talking about general,” (Parker, 2016), it can be concluded based on his former comments about women in general and former female political opponent Carly Fiorina in particular that there are gender politics at play in his remarks (Estepa, 2015). Unfortunately, Trump is not alone in his doubts about whether someone who looks like Clinton (i.e. female) would be able to project the aura of authority the office of the Presidency requires. The uncomfortable truth is that hidden sexism operates in our society, and many of us are uneasy with seeing women in a powerful role.
Penn State psychology professor Terri Vescio explains the gender bias that operates in the political sphere as a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation, in which “the more female politicians are seen as striving for power, the less they’re trusted and the more moral outrage gets directed at them…[because] if you’re perceived as competent, you’re not perceived as warm. But if you’re liked and trusted, you’re not seen as competent” (Bush, 2016). This catch-22 for women in politics (and in business) undermines their support among both men and women, and because much of it is implicit bias, it is often unrecognized. For example, even within the Obama administration female staffers often had to struggle to make their voices heard until they struck upon a strategy of “amplification” whereby they mutually drew attention to each other’s significant contributions in order ensure that the proper party received credit for the idea (Eilperin, 2016). I point this out in order to be clear that sexism is an issue that transcends political party affiliation, and therefore we all stand to lose out if valuable contributions from women are silenced by oppression either blatant or subtle.
Hostile sexism is easier to recognize for what it is, but there is another side to sexism that is more insidious: benevolent sexism. For example, I would describe myself as a feminist, but when I took the “Are You Sexist” quiz offered by PBS.org, my results indicated that I hold a fair degree of subtle gender prejudice:
I encourage you to click the link above and see your own results – you might be surprised at what you learn about yourself. Anyone familiar with the Harvard implicit bias tests will recall that we don’t have to hold explicitly negative beliefs about others to be influenced by bias. Our implicit beliefs can lead us to behave in a manner which is discriminatory while we simultaneously think of ourselves as fair and considerate.
When you combine elements of hostile and benevolent sexism you get ambivalent sexism. We can see the interplay of these elements in Donald Trump’s statements about women, both positive and negative. Recently, professor Peter Glick, who along with Susan Fiske proposed the tripartite understanding of sexism stated, “Trump’s views are consistent with conventional ideologies that view women as wonderful…but with a catch” (Glick, 2016).
“Heterosexual men’s intimate interdependence on women (as objects of desire, wives, and mothers), fosters a ‘benevolent’ side to sexism. Benevolent sexism encompasses genuine warmth toward women, but only when they support rather than challenge men’s status, power, and privileges” (Glick, 2016).
Regardless of which candidate we choose to vote for in the upcoming election, I hope that we will all pay closer attention to our own assumptions about gender and competence. Often we hold women to different standards than men without realizing that we are doing so. In light of what I’ve learned in in this course (particularly Swim and Hyer’s (1991) research regarding women’s responses to sexist comments), I will not only strive to resist social pressure to silence myself, but will also do more to support other women as they work to make their voices heard. If enough men and women do the same, perhaps we can arrive at a point sometime in the future when saying that a female political candidate doesn’t look “presidential” will fail to cause some of us to nod in agreement.
Allen, J. (2016, July 21). Anti-Hillary Clinton rhetoric has become dangerous and violent. Retrieved September 27, 2016, from American, http://www.rushhourdaily.com/anti-hillary-clinton-rhetoric-become-dangerous-violent/
Bush, D. The hidden sexism that could sway the election. Retrieved September 26, 2016, from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/features/hidden-sexism/
Eilperin, J. (2016, September 13). White house women want to be in the room where it happens. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/09/13/white-house-women-are-now-in-the-room-where-it-happens/
Estepa, J. (2015, September 10). Donald Trump on Carly Fiorina: “Look at that face!” . Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2015/09/10/trump-fiorina-look-face/71992454/
Glick, P. (2016). Benevolent sexism and the art of the deal. Retrieved September 27, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-enquiry/201609/benevolent-sexism-and-the-art-the-deal
Parker, A. (2016, September 7). Donald Trump says Hillary Clinton Doesn’t have “a presidential look.” Politics. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/07/us/politics/donald-trump-says-hillary-clinton-doesnt-have-a-presidential-look.html
Santhanam, L. (2016, August 10). Are you sexist? Take this quiz. . Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/are-you-sexist-take-this-quiz/