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Sexism is complicated

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“Why can’t a woman,” asked Henry Higgins, “be more like a man?”

The fate of the 2020 election just might hinge on that question. Your evaluation of female management candidates, and their strategies for persuading you to hire or promote them, might hinge on it as well.

Caveat first: Selecting a presidential candidate is, at best, imperfectly analogous to selecting a manager, just as running for office is imperfectly analogous to applying for a management position. Among the differences: Candidates for management jobs won’t debate each other in an open forum, nor will they assemble large organizations to lobby you to hire them.

Filters second: While the original field of Democratic candidates included six women, only three are worth talking about. Kirsten Gillibrand was embarrassing, providing little more than vague generalities, and not many of those. Tulsi Gabbard’s contributions to our political dialog have been puzzling at best. And as a candidate, I’d say Marianne Williamson was a joke, except that jokes are supposed to be funny.

That leaves Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren. Was sexism the reason none of them made the cut? Do you or should you have similar concerns about your management team?

Opinion: Ascribing the Democratic Party’s results to sexism oversimplifies the situation. After all, in 2016 the Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton, who then received three million more votes than her opponent in the general election. The Democratic Party can and has nominated a woman; American voters were willing to elect one.

So while women, whether in politics or business, still have to contend with the Ginger Rogers syndrome (she had to do everything Fred Astaire did, only backward and in high heels), sexism is not the sole reason Harris, Klobuchar, and Warren lost.

Another reason: Imagine you’re interviewing a management candidate and she makes an impassioned case for why one of the other candidates isn’t fit for the job.

It’s a bad interview move, and roughly equivalent to Harris resurrecting school busing as an issue to flog Joe Biden with, likewise Warren’s verbal assault on Michael Bloomberg. Credit where it’s due: while Klobuchar did go after Buttigieg, her heart didn’t seem to be in it.

Regrettably, her heart didn’t seem to be in her policy proposals either. She seemed more interested in asserting she could do the job than in explaining how she’d go about it.

Warren? Her “I have a plan for that!” tagline made her interesting, but her plethora of plans violated the sponsor-no-more-than-three rule effective leaders follow. Having a detailed plan for each thing meant she had no plan for everything. At least, no plan voters could keep in their heads all at once.

So a non-sexism-based interpretation is that Biden and Sanders haven’t survived because they’re old white guys. It’s that Sanders has focused passionately on what he would do as president; Biden has emphasized how he would lead the country. Neither has wasted time and energy attacking the other candidates.

But Biden and Sanders made plenty of mistakes too. These weren’t exactly ignored, but neither Sanders’ praise for Fidel Castro nor Biden’s non-arrest in South Africa did much damage.

Is it a clear case of Ginger Rogersism?

Maybe. But I think something else has been at work too: Which of the candidates was more “presidential.”

Personally I found Buttigieg, who had, based on his resume, no business even being in the audience, more presidential than anyone else. He was thoughtful, imperturbable, focused, and genuine. And, he left a positive impression that’s hard to describe and articulate.

For me, Biden and Sanders seem more presidential than Warren, even before her strange and pointless Bloomberg take down; likewise Klobuchar and Harris.

But … and this is the point of this column … how I define and gauge presidentiality, and, similarly, how I define and interpret business leadership and management potential, is to a significant extent a matter of conditioning. I have a lifetime of exposure to and working with and for business leaders who were, with few exceptions, male.

That experience has inexorably led to how I evaluate potential leaders and managers.

It’s sexism via immersion. I imagine that, no matter your gender, you’re in the same situation.

And so, whether you’re hiring or looking to be hired for a management role, think hard about how your impressions of what leaders and managers look and sound like have been conditioned by your experience.

Adjust your evaluation accordingly.

Comments (7)

  • “Harris resurrecting school busing as an issue to flog Joe Biden with”

    This is politics, not a boardroom or an HR sensitivity meeting, and a candidate’s public record on various issues, especially a candidate with Biden’s long and seasoned career, is absolutely germane to the conversation.

    Biden’s record on social issues is one any Republican would be proud of having, and I can assure you Bernie is going to spend a lot of time enumerating Joe’s various public positions and sponsored bills over the years, flogging him with the worst ones. And I bet Joe will do the same if the numbers tighten. Will you feel differently about it being done if men are doing it?

    There is nothing wrong with pointing out ANY candidate’s public history and policy positions while that candidate held ANY elected office.


    • Seriously? Biden’s record on social issues is one any Republican would be proud of having?

      Maybe what we used to call a Rockefeller Republican. Maybe even a Reagan Republican.

      But a 2020 Republican?

  • 1. I applaud you for bringing up the topic and starting the conversation.
    2. My definitions: sexism – a bias and prejudice against women, solely because they are women. misogyny – a blind and mindless hatred of women, almost always independent of any facts or consistency of moral or ethical principles.
    3. Until about 2 months ago, I would have agreed that sexism was not playing an obvious or significant role in the process. But then, none of the leading candidates seemed to be without serious flaws. Biden had touched some women inappropriately and frequently seemed confused, with no specific policies. Buttigieg was inexperienced, but more important for me as a black man, he was unable to heal the racial wounds of his home town, and pick up significant black support.
    Sanders has been a demagogue, repeating slogans loudly but not producing concrete plans, and being disingenuous about how he would pay for those slogans. Plus, he has thoroughly earned his low ratings with blacks and most Latinos.
    Harris is smart and charismatic, but still a bit inexperienced and thin in her plans. Klobuchar, I felt, had the best plans, but she didn’t know how to garner minority support. Also, expressing her visions would have helped. And, Warren was probably the most articulate, charismatic, and likable of all the candidates. But, she presented a solution, real socialism, that few Americans saw as the solution to our problems.
    Nothing attractive to a moderate Democrat.
    Yet, when Warren came in third in her home state, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that she, along with Klobuchar, and maybe even Harris, had been the target of the “bone-deep misogyny” former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright talked about after the 2016 election.
    It just seems like the women have to run a perfect campaign to get the same support as men. I don’t know if misogyny is true in all men, but then not all whites have to be bigots for racial prejudice to persist and do devastating damage.
    And, as with racial prejudice where those most racist don’t walk around with an “WR” for white racist on their foreheads, misogynists don’t walk around with an “M” on their foreheads.

  • Not a 2020 Republican. I should have said pre-Trump Republican, but yes a Republican.

    A partial list of Biden’s past accomplishments:

    -Was instrumental in getting Clarence Thomas, one of the worst justices in memory, onto the Supreme Court in 1991 by eviscerating witness Anita Hill during the hearings.

    -Wrote a crime bill that helped incarcerate tens of thousands of black men for minor drug crimes in 1994. Some of those men are still in prison for possessing small amounts of marijuana and crack cocaine. The same bill made crack cocaine (used by some poor black people) a major felony, while powder cocaine (used by some white people as a party favor) remained far less of a criminal offense. Chemically, crack and powder cocaine are identical substances. When charged with possession, black people went to prison, white people paid a fine.

    -Wrote a ‘counterterrorism’ bill in 1995 that became the Patriot Act, which he also voted for in 2001. Encouraged Obama to sign Patriot Act II.

    -In 1995 promoted and backed a bill to cut Social Security

    -In 1996 voted against gay marriage

    -In 1999 voted to repeal the banking regulations that kept the vampires in the financial community under control. This eventually led to the housing bubble crisis, where his buddies in the financial community got the taxpayers to pick up the tab for their stupidity and the public got screwed.

    -In 2002 voted in favor of the Iraqi war and pushed other Senators to do the same.

    -In 2005 voted against any bankruptcy protection for those saddled with student debt.

    I’ve skimmed the surface. His record is not very pro people. All those things have or will come out. If there’s another debate, Bernie will talk about all of it, I think. I don’t want four more years of Trump, but Joe scares me. Last week at a rally he shouted to the crowd how pleased he was to get their support in his run for the Senate.

    I apologize for the political bent of these posts, but you started it :-).

    • While I haven’t and not willing to review every vote Biden made, I’d say that with a political history as long as his it wouldn’t be difficult to choose data points that “prove” he’s wherever you want to prove he is on the political spectrum. Reviewing my own policy positions over the course of my life I’d say there are some I’m proud to have taken, some I’m embarrassed about, and some that seemed like a good idea at the time but proved not to be.

      One of Biden’s I read about recently was the Washington Post’s Fact Checker’s analysis of Biden’s history with respect to Social Security. It’s well worth your time: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/03/08/sanders-versus-biden-social-security-guide-claims/

  • Another factor is we are electing people based on debating skills, not their ability to actually run a country. They are two different skills.

    Successful companies can have a great debater as CEO, but that person has a tremendous cabinet (COO, CIO, CFO, etc) behind them to run the business.

    I have yet to see a candidate in either party tell me how they will run the business of America. Pretty sad. Kind of like working for Control Data in the 80s.

  • I’m reading the book Sapiens now about how humans invent culture. At first, I thought the author’s tone was way too snarky, but now that I see his main point, I understand his tone.

    What does looking presidential look like? It looks a lot like a white male, but one with manners and honor. Warren isn’t male enough (period) and Trump isn’t presidential enough because of his manners.

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