In the wake of Elizabeth Warren’s exit from the presidential race, I was surprised to see media coverage and social-media posts asserting that sexism wasn’t to blame for her defeat and to instead see people argue that she failed because she just wasn’t likable. One friend said that Warren lost because she was “shrill” and “angry.” It was all a big reality TV show, he said, and “she failed the screen test.” Another post mentioned that people just never really warmed up to Warren like they did to Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders because she didn’t smile enough. Some mentioned that her voice was irritating, she “flapped her arms too much,” and she had an annoying habit of wagging her finger at people. Too bad, they said; she had so much potential. She was so qualified and obviously so smart, but listening to her talk was like getting scolded by an angry grandmother, and who wants to listen to an angry old lady screech for the next four years?
In response, I argued that these reactions, while real and sincere, were likely influenced by society’s deeply ingrained notions of how a woman should behave. I argued that Warren has been judged much more harshly for shortcomings for which the men in this race have gotten a free pass. Nope, they said. She was just too mean.
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Some folks insisted that it wasn’t about her gender, they just did not like her performance in the debate in which she eviscerated Mike Bloomberg. I loved that debate, but OK, fine, if you thought she was too mean, I get it. This is, after all, the woman who famously told Congress that she was either going to form a strong consumer protection agency or leave “plenty of blood and teeth” on the floor trying. My point isn’t that she has been sweet as honey throughout the campaign. It’s that neither have any of the men and no one is calling them shrill.
Biden has had several poor debate performances and tense, aggressive exchanges with voters. But people still like him. Bernie often yells and points and is angry. But people still like him. Pete Buttigieg was also given leeway when it came to attacks on other candidates. Late last year, the New York Times did an entire story on the fact that “his stock in the presidential primary didn’t rise until he attacked his leading rivals.” In fact, it was Warren who came to Amy Klobuchar’s defense when Pete went after her in a debate for failing to remember a name. But no one is calling Pete shrill. Instead, he’s brilliant; he’s inspiring. People like him.
The most jolting comparison is Trump. Combativeness is Trump’s entire brand. No one, not even his supporters, would accuse him of being nice. He’s not warm; he’s not poised. He’s angry and belligerent and . . . powerful. For the people who like Trump, power is likability.
And that’s the whole ballgame: Women still don’t have a working model of how to be powerful and likable. For women, there’s no guidebook for how to take down one’s political opponents and not come across as too aggressive or mean. Female candidates are trying everything from working with voice coaches to sound less “shrill” to specifically using their gender to try to appeal to female voters. So far, it hasn’t worked.
This cycle has seen several very qualified and politically savvy women attempt to defy the odds in different ways. Klobuchar seemed to use gender stereotypes to her advantage. She was all about being “Minnesota nice.” She talked a whole lot about her role as a mother and about how her experience giving birth to her daughter pushed her into politics. She projected no-nonsense midwestern-mom energy; she’s the one with a great tater-tot hot dish recipe who runs a tight ship and just wants to take good care of everyone. Warren on the other hand, and to some extent Sen. Kamala Harris, seemed willing to smash those gender stereotypes instead of work within them. They both presented themselves to the voters as strong and assertive, brilliant and tactical, disciplined and poised. They got angry when the moment called for anger. They embarrassed their opponents by demonstrating a shockingly strong grasp of the substantive issues. And they both made their name in fields that aren’t often seen as “women’s issues:” finance and criminal justice. They emphasized their qualifications more than their likability. Simply put, they played the game the way the men have been playing it all along.
And it didn’t work. It didn’t work for Klobuchar, it didn’t work for Harris and it didn’t work for Warren. And as we all know, it didn’t work for Hillary Clinton before them. Tulsi Gabbard is still technically in the race, but she has won only 2 delegates compared to Biden and Sanders’s combined 1,237. Apparently, we just haven’t found any likable, electable women yet.
We can either keep perpetuating the same pattern, or we can talk about what is really going on: implicit bias, or “bias that results from the tendency to process information based on unconscious associations and feelings, even when these are contrary to one’s conscious or declared beliefs.” Really, implicit bias is about all the millions of split-second associations our brains make every day. It is why we associate wearing glasses with intelligence and why, if I told you to close your eyes and picture a sad young woman on the couch wearing sweatpants and wrapped in a blanket, eyes red from crying as she mourns a recent breakup, I don’t even have to tell you what she is eating, we all know. Ice cream, obviously. Our brains have been trained to fill in the blanks so that we can quickly make sense of the world. But those unconscious thought patterns can be problematic when they make it harder for us to view other people as whole and complex human beings.
A 2018 report by Forbes on gender bias cites several prominent psychological studies for the proposition that women are expected to be “caring, warm, deferential, emotional, [and] sensitive” while men are expected to be “assertive, rational, competent, and objective.” In what psychologists have dubbed “the double-bind dilemma for women in leadership,” men are often assumed to have better leadership skills based on our inherent cultural biases, and the women who defy those biases by presenting themselves as strong leaders are often deemed unlikable for their failure to comply with our unconscious expectations. On the flip side, when women display warmth and compassion, they are viewed as more likable but less competent.
A few years ago, professors Frank Flynn and Cameron Anderson conducted an experiment at Columbia Business School and NYU. They took the resumé of a real-life female entrepreneur named Heidi, replaced her name with the name Howard on half the copies, and asked students to evaluate both candidates. The students found them to be equally qualified, but they judged Howard to be much more likable and described him as a good colleague. Heidi, on the other hand, was described as aggressive, selfish and not likely to be a team player. In another study, researchers had male and female actors pose as political candidates and gave all the actors true statements of fact to read. They then asked audience members to guess which candidate was lying. Although all the statements were true, the female candidates were significantly more likely to be chosen as the liar.
Since the first step in addressing implicit bias is simply recognizing that it exists, I would humbly suggest that the people who found Warren to be too “shrill” but who aren’t put off by similar behavior by male candidates should examine why they feel that way. This isn’t an attack. We all have biases, and I am not doubting the sincerity of your reaction to Warren. I’m hoping that we can start an honest dialogue about why you felt that way.
But here is where this essay may take a turn that surprises you. I think a lot of us who are devastated by what happened to Warren also need to stop for a moment and really take stock of our own implicit biases as well. Why didn’t we shed any tears when Kamala Harris dropped out of the race? Why didn’t Stacey Abrams’s heartbreaking defeat in Georgia last year feel like a loss for all womankind in the same way that Warren’s defeat feels monumental and universal? Why do we focus so much more on the historic nature of Hillary and Warren’s campaigns than on Shirley Chisholm’s truly groundbreaking run for the presidency decades earlier? Finally, if we are being honest with ourselves, who did we spend more time trying to convince to vote for Warren, other middle-class white folks or our friends and neighbors of color? And if we weren’t reaching out to black and brown communities and trying to persuade them to see Warren as a great candidate, why not?
This is called affinity bias. It’s natural and completely normal — we often gravitate toward people that we think are like us in some way. And maybe that helps explain why Warren and Clinton have become larger-than-life symbols for so many white women while Harris, Abrams, “The Squad” and other female leaders of color have not. If we are going to have an honest conversation about implicit bias, we have to start talking about that part, too. Until we view a female candidate of color as the human embodiment of all our hopes and fears for our own daughters, we will continue to harbor the same kinds of unconscious biases that held Warren back and are hurting black and brown women every day. It’s easy to say “oh, this article isn’t really about me because I liked all those other female leaders, too;” but it’s harder to examine exactly why we like Warren more. I’m not pointing fingers here; I’m looking inward. I responded to Warren on a deep and emotional level, and I don’t think that is necessarily wrong. But it is tone deaf for us to lament the role that sexism played in this race unless we are also willing to confront the role that racism also played.
Addressing our biases is long, exhausting, messy work. For privileged white folks like me, it should be lifelong work. So instead of trying to wrap this piece up in a neat and tidy bow, I will simply offer you some resources that may be helpful in your own journey. I am far from an expert on these issues, so I consulted Amber Booth-McCoy, CEO and founder of The Diversity Booth, Inc., a senior diversity specialist with UAMS’s Division for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and vice-chair of the Little Rock Racial and Cultural Diversity Commission. She suggests that we all take one of Harvard’s implicit bias quizzes. You don’t have to share your results with anyone, but they can be a powerful tool to help you understand yourself a little bit better and identify the thought patterns you might want to start trying to actively challenge. Taking a good implicit-bias training is a valuable next step. I dreaded attending my first implicit-bias training because I feared that it would reveal unknown biases that I would be embarrassed or ashamed of, but the entire experience turned out to be positive and empowering.
Booth-McCoy also suggests that look into the public programs on diversity, equity and inclusion offered by Just Communities of Arkansas and The Diversity Booth, Inc. Finally, for a daily dose of mindfulness, equity and inclusivity, you should definitely go follow The Diversity Booth, Inc. on Facebook. And let’s promise each other that we will keep having these conversations because identifying and confronting our unconscious biases is the only way we will ever change them.