Twelve women with different backgrounds and areas of expertise are advancing into top leadership roles in President Biden’s Cabinet. Eight are women of color. As advisors to the President, they will be the first women ever to serve in key posts, including Treasury, Defense, and Veterans’ Affairs, all non-traditional sectors for women. Biden has also hired the first all-female White House communications team. The first female appointments to these positions of power and influence will disrupt conventional expectations regarding women’s roles in government, but for them to succeed, they will need the public, the media—and you—to help them be seen and heard. Why?
Some might say that the women nominated or appointed to the Cabinet have already pierced the glass ceiling. The women will participate in debates that will shape the future in health care, national security, justice, the economy, global warming, housing, racial equality, immigration, childcare, and public education, among other issues. That’s why the public needs to hear their ideas and consider what they advise. These will be complex debates at a difficult time for the country, given the disequilibrium resulting from Covid and the inequality, racism, and polarization which threaten our democracy. As a result, these women also face a “glass cliff” at a time when all the variables indicate that women leaders’ risk of failure is high.
The Biden administration promises to be more transparent; journalists will have multiple opportunities to evaluate the performance of diverse cabinet members from their appearances in televised press briefings and hearings. But will the women themselves get a fair hearing? Despite the increasing prominence of women in American politics, it’s disappointing to realize how little has changed in how public exposure to diverse women’s voices takes shape. For example, the majority of journalists who covered the 2020 presidential race were white males subject to their own, even unconscious, gender bias.
A double standard remains for how women and men should look and sound as public figures. When women speakers take a stand or advance a bold idea, their opponents often describe them as strident, shrill or abrasive. By contrast, men who take a stand are typically seen as leaders with every right to assert their positions, no matter how bold.
Audiences, including women, also tend to be more critical of women’s speaking styles– especially when women present ideas that threaten the status quo or express concerns about controversial policies or practices. Biden’s female appointees will be expected to do both, and we deserve coverage that is primarily descriptive of their ideas and less about their speaking style, marital status, and appearance.
Research indicates that women who assert themselves in public presentations have to navigate a fine line between being seen as tough minded, direct, and logical, while at the same time appearing to be relatable and “likable.” The contrast with men is clear: We don’t expect men in leadership positions to smile. We expect them to act authoritatively. When they speak up, men usually don’t have to earn credibility as a voice of authority. They start with it.
In the 2020 presidential election, the media consistently described female candidates more negatively than their male counterparts. For example, Senator Amy Klobuchar’s Presidential candidacy was never given prominence by the media, which was belatedly surprised by her performance in the New Hampshire debate, chalking the performance up to “Klomentum.” Commentator Frank Bruni was disappointed in then Kamala Harris’ “flat, desultory recitation of her biography and philosophy,” wanting her to be more emotional even though after Hillary’s presidential coverage, women leaders were again reminded of the perils of being seen as “emotional.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was called a “moralizing scold” during the 2020 Presidential campaign, but after the Iowa caucuses, she was virtually erased from news coverage. When a woman like Senator Warren, who is an expert in bankruptcy law, a field historically dominated by men, is asked to appear on a panel with all men, her opinion is too often drowned out or “mansplained.”
It takes guts for women to agree to live a public life. All of President Biden’s new cabinet appointees deserve to be respected for their willingness to make themselves vulnerable to public scrutiny. Fair-minded journalistic coverage will be key to their success. To ensure that happens, we also need to see more women of diverse backgrounds, races, and cultures covering the diverse women leaders who will be making headlines.
All of us have a role to play in ensuring that today’s female political leaders are respected for what they represent, say, and do. The principle applies broadly, not just at the national level. When women are outnumbered by men on a panel, for example, attendees can use the Q & A period to ensure that the woman or women are given a full opportunity to elaborate on their ideas. We should ask whoever plans a public hearing or a conference to be sure to include women and ask, “Where are the women?” when they don’t. Showing direct appreciation to a woman for her impressive presentation or accomplishment enhances her leadership status.
When deserved, thank organizers, producers, and editors for being inclusive and unbiased. If we don’t all play our parts as proponents of fairness and equality, harmful stereotypes will continue to infect the coverage and undermine the success of the many diverse women who are now entering the top tiers of government. Take action when you see women leaders being ignored or dismissed by sexist coverage by calling it out. Today, more than ever before, let your voice demand that their voices are heard.
About the authors:
Lois Phillips, PhD, is founder of Antioch University Santa Barbara and faculty representative for Antioch University’s Women in Leadership program. Her essays have appeared in the Santa Barbara News Press and Pacific Business Times. She provides regular commentaries about gender issues in public speaking at www.loisphillips.com/blog and with co-author Anita Perez Ferguson on the Women Seen and Heard podcast https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC12TwoHFfLuJfucuUSMcmYw
Anita Perez Ferguson, PhD, is a Visiting Fellow at Council of Independent Colleges, and advisor to the Inter American Foundation, consultants on Diversity Programs and Board Development. As the former President of the National Women’s Political Caucus, she speaks often at state and national conferences. https://www.linkedin.com/in/anita-perez-ferguson-phd-68897a8