“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.