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Stop bias from tainting female presidential candidates

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“She was very abrasive,” I said about Carly Fiorina to a room full of female family members after one of the 2016 Republican debates.

It did not go over well.

Immediately, comparisons were made to the debate behavior of Donald Trump, which was even more fitting of the disapproving adjective. And yet, my initial reaction was to perceive the aggressive woman as abrasive, and let Trump’s behavior go without comment.

Unfortunately, reactions like mine to women in leadership positions are far from uncommon — even among women themselves. There is real danger in this kind of unconscious bias, particularly when it comes to presidential politics. The reality is that we will never fully realize an equitable democratic process if we are not able to break free of the societal influences that have gotten us to this point. The upcoming Democratic debate offers us a unique opportunity to push back against our subconscious and evaluate the candidates based on critical factors like policy positions and leadership qualities, rather than gender.

The debates are a critical moment

In tonight’s Democratic presidential debate, three out of the 10 candidates are women: Senator Kamala Harris of California, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Since each of them entered public life, they have been targets of sexist remarks and judged by different standards than male politicians. The reasons for this are complex, but much of it has to do with how we are conditioned to think about leadership. Through socialization we learn that leaders are supposed to be strong, confident and assertive. Interestingly, we also develop gender stereotypes that are at odds with our notion of what constitutes leadership. Men have substantial overlap with these leadership descriptors, but women are supposed to be something else—compassionate and gentle. This leaves women in an impossible situation. For example, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, and Nancy Pelosi are more likely to be perceived as less warm than prototypical females, and also receive backlash when act they like prototypical males.

Scott Dust.
Courtesy of Scott Dust

Debates are critical in that they help viewers evaluate whether the candidates are, well, presidential. Unfortunately for the female candidates, when their male colleagues are aggressive they are viewed as competent and strong, but when women do the same, they are viewed as mean or angry.

For example, following a Democratic primary in 2016, Sean Hannity said Hillary Clinton “looked angry” and “sounded angry.” Similarly, during a 2016 debate, Donald Trump infamously accused Hillary Clinton of not having the “presidential look” and that she “doesn’t have the stamina”to be president. Leading up to the election, Clinton was the subject of an unusual amount of discourse and was labeled everything from a “ nagging wife” to “ bitchy.”

Thankfully, there has been progress over the last 20 years in conscious gender bias. In a 1995 Gallup poll, 46 percent of respondents said they preferred a male leader, 19 percent a female leader, and 33 percent had no preference. In a subsequent 2017 poll, 15 percent said they preferred a male leader, nine percent a female leader, and 72 percent had no preference.

This positive trend can be attributed in part to intentional actions by corporations and other institutions to correct for gender and leadership inequities, like introducing equity and diversity training and instituting new policies. But the real challenge lies in changing what is going on inside our heads. By definition, we do not know when our subconscious mind is puppeteering our actions.

Read more: Presidential debates have always been political theater. Here are some of their most memorable moments.

How to break free from biases you may have

There are several things we can do while watching the debates to break free from these cognitive biases.

First, don’t assume, like I did, that because you don’t engage in conscious bias that you won’t accidentally engage in subconscious bias. We are all susceptible, no matter our gender or political persuasion. Priming yourself with a self-critical mindset should reel in your subconscious tendencies.

Second, when you begin to develop an opinion about a candidate, challenge yourself to articulate out-loud or in writing why you feel that way. In doing so, you are bringing your subconscious thoughts to a conscious platform, which should help you focus on more objective characteristics.

Third, keep an open mind when female candidates go on the offense, especially in the early debates, where many do so in order to stand out (e.g., Kamala Harris attacked Joe Biden’s busing record during the last debate). Don’t allow yourself to be turned off by female aggression; the men are doing it too, and it is just part of the political process.

Read more: Presidential resumes: We asked voters the qualities they want most in a president, and these are the 2020 Democratic candidates who look best on paper

Finally, don’t automatically subscribe to the leader prototype. Spend some time breaking down what leadership characteristics, such as integrity, determination, sociability, are genuinely important to you. For example, female leaders, compared to their male counterparts, are considered more adaptive in that they can be assertive yet still work well with others. Perhaps this is precisely the type of leadership than can navigate a divided congress.

Great progress has been made to counter gender bias over the last two decades, but most of our progress is specific to conscious bias. The responsibility to continue this progress lies with each of us to push back against the unconscious bias within our own minds. Although it may be challenging to do in the moment, we must be attuned to and flag these thoughts as they happen. As you watch the upcoming debates, be sure to carefully critique your inner-dialogue. The equity of our democratic process depends on it.Scott Dust is an assistant professor of management at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Ohio who specializes in leadership and gender equality.

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