In a few days, the vice-presidential debate will occur between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, and we certainly anticipate a different style of conversation to the confrontation we saw during the recent presidential debate. 

There also is likely to be a separate level of analysis beyond the typical fact-checking/who appeared (vice) presidential/who made the best points/who “won” the debate assessment in which the pundits will engage.  Inevitably, someone will analyze the inflections of her tone, Is she too assertive or maybe too aggressive?  She seems angry, maybe hysterical. Is she dismissive, does she talk down to the American people?   They will comment on her outfit, her hair, they will dissect her laugh, its too loud, its raucous.   Simultaneously, she will be “too tough” and “not tough enough.”

In the book Women for President: Media Bias in Eight Campaigns, author Erika Falk looked at the campaigns of 8 women who ran for president between 1872 and 2004 and argues that sexism in media coverage persists.  Falk suggests that female candidates are generally portrayed as “unviable, unnatural, and incompetent, and are often ignored or belittled.” Jay Newton Small, in the book Broad Influence:  How Women are Changing the Way America Works, notes that image has always been a major challenge for female candidates, who receive excessive scrutiny usually centered around their appearance. 

Women in all professions and at all levels, routinely face some of these challenges.  A 2018 Harvard Business Review article addresses the different words we use to describe male and female leaders.   “Women are told on one hand that they’re too bossy or aggressive, but on the other hand told that they should be more confident and assertive.”  HBR references significant research that has found that “when women are collaborative and communal they are not perceived as competent — but when they emphasize their competence, they are seen as cold and unlikable.”  I’ve had that experience, and I know many of you have too.  In a Yale University hiring experiment, male and female actors were used to portray candidates, and resumes and interviews were designed to be identical.  The SAME words, spoken in the SAME way by a woman, were evaluated as arrogant and overselling. 

So,  what do we do?  We have to be strong, but not too strong… If we are collaborative we are weak. Directives given by a man, are followed, the same directives given by a woman are questioned.  Men are considered assertive, women are aggressive/angry.  Men are commanding, women are bossy.  Men are confident, women are vain or arrogant. Men are ambitious, women can also be ambitious, but NOT in a good way.   Why? Because that’s not how society expects women to behave.

The flip side of this is just as damaging, extremely informal and inappropriately familiar ways in which women are addressed or described in a work setting.  A few years ago, I remember sitting in an audience of young AAU basketball players listening to my colleague talk about the NCAA recruiting process.   She was asked a question [by a certain shoe company executive in the room], she responded, and he followed up with…”Honey what you need to understand is…”  well, she didn’t miss a beat, “Don’t call me Honey and this is the answer to your question.” 

Where a man would be described as extremely helpful, a hard worker and committed, a woman is described as a “sweetheart.”  This diminishes the perception of our professionalism and our competence. Some may not realize the implication of this and may actually believe that it is flattering and welcomed.  It is not — It is objectifying, it perpetuates an imbalance in power and reduces women to this non-relevant, abstract, soft, amorphously cuddly thing…  I’ve never seen a job description that lists “sweetheart” as a preferred quality. We don’t refer to men as sweetheart, babe, doll, darlin’ etc., in the workplace.  Don’t call me sweetheart…and no, I’m not angry.

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