The sexism in liberal politics is real

The sexism in liberal politics is real
© Greg Nash

Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill Democratic senators want probe into change of national stockpile description Democrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus MORE is just too much of an intellectual wonk for the largely less educated American electorate.” Many analysts would have us believe this goes far to explain the “great fall” of the presidential candidate from Massachusetts. While there is likely a kernel of truth here, it is a kernel at most. We latch on to a “too intellectual for the electorate” narrative as a way of justifying something that is more difficult to accept. Democratic voters, like their more conservative counterparts, are sexist.

It is true that Warren received the greatest support from highly educated white people, leading others to opine that the majority of the electorate did not want to vote for an intellectual. But how does this square with our long history of Democrats nominating brainiacs? Why have other bookish presidential candidates, from Barack Obama to Bill Clinton, not faced the same fate from their liberal constituents? The resulting failure of Warren to gain traction among the less educated electorate is not just because she is too wonky for voters. It is also because she is too female.

Social science research has shown a strong link between education and sexism, with less schooling indeed robustly predicting higher levels of sexism. We have an abysmal history of women in politics in this country. Even after the victories in the House in 2018, the United States still ranks number 76 out of more than 190 countries across the world in terms of the representation of women in national legislatures or parliaments. We know where we stand when it comes to electing female presidents. There are several factors that limit the access of women to leadership positions, with sexism in the political system playing a principal role.

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Gender prejudice is not the sole dominion of conservatives. Liberals are also sexist. Moreover, it is not just those with lower levels of education, it is with all of us. The misogyny among those who regard themselves as gender equitable can be particularly pernicious as it comes disguised in varied and subtle forms. This sexism is pronounced in more ambiguous situations when we do not have clear guideposts, such as when choosing from a crowded field of variously qualified political nominees.

We like to believe that we live in a fair society where our preference for a leader derives from their individual achievement and talent rather than their gender. But in this land of ostensible meritocracy, pervasive biases steeped in prejudice and gender stereotypes make it difficult for women to reach the pinnacles of leadership in the United States. The still deeply ingrained beliefs that women take care and men take charge can give rise to subtle prejudice and discrimination against female leaders.

Social scientists have illuminated these inequities in numerous robust lines of research. When evaluating candidates with equivalent credentials for leadership positions, for instance, identical qualifications are deemed “better” or more “meritorious” when there is a male name attached. Other research shows how the very criteria used to define what is meritorious is constructed in ways that advantage men in leadership roles.

It is not only Warren or the countless other female candidates who lose out because of this. The rest of us lose out as well. We need more women in political life in the United States. Effective leadership is marked by a mixture of stereotypically feminine and masculine qualities. Women are particularly skilled at manifesting leadership that does that, combining compassion and action, both taking care and taking charge.

Women can bring to office distinct values, priorities, and perspectives. Increases in the empowerment of women as political leaders have been associated with increases in policy representing the concerns of women, families, and minorities, as well as increases in standards of living, health, education, and infrastructure. When women hold political office, there has been shown to be more responsiveness to the needs of constituents and greater cooperation across party and ethnic groups. When women are involved with peace negotiations and governance and reconstruction after conflicts, there is also a greater chance of lasting success.

As Andrew Yang asserted, Warren deserved to do better in the primaries of this cycle. But until Americans stop limiting access to top leadership positions and start fostering the full participation of women and other voices in politics, we do not deserve a leader as good as Warren.

Crystal Hoyt is professor of leadership studies, holds the Thorsness Chair in Ethical Leadership, and is associate dean for academic affairs with the University of Richmond Jepson School of Leadership Studies in Virginia.