What the Presidential Election Actually Means for Women's Careers
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What the Presidential Election Actually Means for Women's Careers

by Daphne Stanford
February 26, 2016

THIS ELECTION YEAR, ALL EYES ARE ON HILLARY CLINTON, THE WOMAN WHO COULD CHANGE IT ALL WHEN IT COMES TO QUESTIONS OF GENDER AND EQUALITY. OR CAN SHE? 

With the 2016 primaries well under way, a woman running for president has yet again sparked discussion about how this election might affect women’s rights. Between coverage of Donald Trump’s latest soapbox speech and news of Jeb Bush stepping away from the campaign trail (and any dreams of a third Bush in office), news agencies seem inevitably to gravitate back toward Hillary Clinton.

The questions they ask certainly include the essentials (Is she the most qualified candidate? What would she do for foreign policy? Domestic?), but they also touch on what seems, whether fairly or unfairly, to primarily set her apart from the other candidates: her gender. Could electing Hillary actually changes women’s lives for the better?

THE HILLARY CLINTON CONUNDRUM

Although I am a feminist, I have trouble understanding the simple logic that we should elect Clinton in order to advance women’s rights, then call it a day. And I’m certainly not the only one. Meghan Speed, a young college student, was quoted in this recent New York Times article: “But I came to the realization that if I am supporting her because she is a woman, that’s equally as bad as not supporting her because of her gender.”  Or, as Allison Hantschel opines, it’s not the “height of feminism” to have a woman serve as president. 

On the other hand, Lara Brown, program director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, recently argued we should actually support both Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina in the 2016 election—if only because a contest between Clinton and Fiorina would do more to unsettle gender stereotypes than were only one of them to make it onto the November ballot. In making this argument, Brown was painfully aware of the embarrassing gap in U.S. political leadership between men and women in political office, so it makes sense she would argue for any female political representation—regardless of party.

A WOMAN IN THE WHITE HOUSE:  MYTH OR MOVEMENT?

There’s something to be said for the idea of a woman heading the White House, mostly because it’s never happened. And that is a travesty.  The thought is pretty amazing, though it still feels depressingly out of reach, if only because it seems like all the momentum—in my circles, at least—is behind Sanders.  The lack of female representation is undeniably there—we see it, read about it, discuss it at dinner parties— but often it seems like we’re using the presidential election as a stand-in for a greater inequality issue in American politics.  

Although I am a feminist, I have trouble understanding the simple logic that we should elect Clinton in order to advance women’s rights, then call it a day.

Let’s talk some real numbers and facts:

Sadly, women make up slightly less than 20% of Congress—a pathetic state of affairs, considering that in 2016, women make up more than half—50.8%, to be exact—of the U.S. population. Here’s another fact:  ironically, women in politics come out ahead of there male counterparts in most areas during their tenure, including working out compromises, honesty and ethics, and standing up for their beliefs. But the number of women elected remains consistently low. So what accounts for the persistent shortage?  

There are a few key differences in the way men and women are perceived in political leadership positions, according to the Pew Research Center, meaning women are working against broad stereotypes before they even enter a race.  In fact, a 2008 study conducted by faculty researchers at Arizona State University found that women are already at such a disadvantage, politically, that negative television ads have significantly less negative impact than they do for male politicians. Despite current statistics for women who hold office in the U.S. Congress, though, 73% of Americans expect to see a female president in their lifetime. Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost sight of numbers and started thinking solely in terms of ideals.

The bottom line to all this talk of gender equality—or lack of, thereof—is that it’s important to get involved with getting our numbers up, on both the political front and the business front. 

The major difference in women pursuing careers in politics versus men is disconcerting when you consider what the biggest concerns for female voters are today. Women have been polled numerous  times about the issues most important to them, and they’ve repeatedly responded that their top concern is making enough money for their families’ bills and expenses.  Moreover, this concern apparently crosses party lines: both Democrats and Republicans are concerned with economic security issues like equal pay for equal work, higher minimum wage, and paid family leave.  These are real issues beyond the simple act of putting a woman in the Oval Office.

THINKING OUTSIDE THE OVAL OFFICE

So is there a better way to use our voting power?  

Actually, yes. As opposed to allowing ourselves to fixate on the national spotlight of the presidential election, it would be in our best interest to elect state and local officials who are willing to create and enforce mandatory affirmative-action-style policies for leadership in the workplace in order to correct the disproportionately high number of men in corporate leadership positions. Logically speaking, it makes sense that more female politicians would equate to tax breaks and other policies encouraging companies small and large to adopt more aggressive plans to combat gender inequality—especially among corporate leadership.

Corporate quotas are nothing new, and correcting the gender imbalance can only help companies with developing marketing strategies that more successfully appeal to female customers.  Many European countries—France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, to name a few—have instituted quota systems for publicly listed companies.

Encouragingly, according to recent research at the University of Cologne, policies like quotas can draw out a substantial number of qualified but somewhat introverted women who never might have applied for the position, otherwise. Change in this country has taken place at a glacial rate, and there’s no use in denying reality and ignoring the blatant bias that continues to prevail in the absence of dramatic legislation or financial incentives that encourage businesses to change their policies. 

The bottom line to all this talk of gender equality—or lack of, thereof—is that it’s important to get involved with getting our numbers up, on both the political front and the business front. Whether the best candidates to endorse bills and legislation that encourages the same are male or female isn’t always readily apparent, so it’s best to do your research before leaping to conclusions about politicians’ intentions.  However, it seems that it could only be a good thing to get more women into political office—if only to reach ever-closer to the ideal of gender parity and a body of Senators and U.S. Representatives who truly reflect the people they represent, back home. 

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What are your thoughts about this election year and equal rights for all genders? We'd love to hear them. 

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