Hillary and the feminine-leadership mystique

Posted on Oct 18, 2016

After the debate, TV pundits opined that Hillary should smile, but not like that

After the debate, TV pundits opined that Hillary should smile, but not like that

Sometimes satire is exactly the crowbar we need to get right inside the truth. We absolutely loved Sarah Cooper’s hilarious Nine Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies for Women, which went viral just over a month ago and which might be even more timely than ever, given what is happening in politics in the United States right now.

Leaving aside for the moment the tweets, the memes and the hot-mic videos, we can tell you that as Hillary first faced into debate season with The Donald, a lot of us were personally quite petrified for her. What, exactly, was the way to behave, not only so that she would not be metaphorically trampled by the marauding buffalo in a power tie that was her opponent, but so that, simply, her message would be heard? How should she act, so that she’d be perceived as strong, but not aggressive; in control, but not cold; warm, but not too soft ’n’ cuddly to be (as Americans constantly phrase it) the leader of the free world? Articles were written by the dozen in the lead-up to the first debate. Television pundits opined that she should smile, but not like that. After debate number one, a senior editor at The Atlantic tweeted that she had smiled too much, or in the wrong way, or something, saying that she looked like she was at her granddaughter’s birthday party. Thanks for the constructive criticism, man who has never been told what to do with his face in his whole life.

But the truth is, as Cooper’s essay reminds us, we still do live in a society that is ruled by biases against female leaders – even subconscious biases, and even held by other women. We do pay more attention to, and frequently object to, how a woman leader says and does things, even if the very same words and actions would go unremarked-upon coming from a man. In a way Hillary is doing us a favour, by putting all the ridiculous nonsense every woman leader goes through right out where we can see it.

But how should female leaders act in leadership? Is there any truth at all in Sarah Cooper’s satirical advice to soften requests (‘What do you think about getting this done by Monday?’), suffer mansplaining graciously and use millions of smile emojis? (Perhaps not that last one.)

‘Unlike their male counterparts,’ writes Claire Warner at Bustle, discussing Cooper’s essay, ‘women in positions of power are often expected to navigate a fine line between authority and femininity — two things that society tends to think of as mutually exclusive, even though they’re absolutely not.’ We agree. We feel Warner is getting at something very interesting. To fully step into power, women are in a position to combine traditional leadership skills (translation: things men stereotypically do) with discovering what stereotypically female leadership strengths might exist in each of us, and making the most of them.

For example, much has been written about how Hillary is supposedly not as charismatic an orator as Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama or indeed Bill Clinton. But what Hillary does excel at, according to Ezra Klein at Vox, is collaboration: listening to many differing views, holding all the data in her head, and then finding ways to connect all the disparate needs and demands of otherwise-incompatible interest groups. For her, the word compromise doesn’t mean ‘we failed’; it means ‘we found a middle ground everyone can live with’. ‘Presidential campaigns are built to favour the charismatic speeches and cults of personality more typically associated with men,’ writes Emily Crockett at Vox. ‘But Clinton’s greatest asset as a politician is her ability to build relationships and coalitions — a task that’s less publicly visible, and also more stereotypically feminine.’

What are your strengths as a leader that might be uniquely feminine? (Even if you’re a man?) How can you develop those strengths, and use them?

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