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Keli Goff

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Are Female Voters to Blame for the Failure of Female Candidates?

Posted: 03/12/2012 11:14 pm

During her remarks at this year's Newsweek/Daily Beast Women in the World Summit, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reiterated one of her favorite maxims: "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."

According to a new study, it looks like the ladies' room in hell will be quite crowded.

Just in time for International Women's Day, which was March 8, London-based company Business Environment released a study of 1,000 women, and let's just say the results didn't exactly scream, "Girl power!" The study found that 25 percent of female managers expressed reluctance to hire a woman who has children or is of child-bearing age, while 72 percent admitted to judging female coworkers for what they deemed inappropriate dress, compared with just 60 percent of men.

The findings seem to confirm earlier data, including a 2010 study from the Workplace Bullying Institute, that found that when women are accused of workplace bullying, the targets are almost always other women, in numbers that outpace the number of men accused of bullying other men.

So why should we care if a few women engage in a bit of Mean Girls behavior around the office water cooler? Because the long-term ramifications for all women are much greater than just a few hurt feelings. The bullying directed by some women in the workplace appears to rear its ugly head in the voting booth.

Though women have comprised both the majority of the population (51 percent) and the majority of the electorate (56 percent) in recent years, women have struggled to translate these numbers into any representative majority in elected offices. According to the 2012 Project at Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, the U.S. currently ranks 71st worldwide in terms of female elected officials -- just behind someplace called Turkmenistan. While there have been some high-profile successes here and there, Governors Nikki Haley and Susana Martinez being recent examples, last election cycle the number of female members of Congress dipped for the first time in more than three decades. This step backward in the House, combined with our country's inability to elect women -- of either party -- to the highest or even second-highest office in the land (something nations like Pakistan have done) begs the uncomfortable question: if women are the majority of American voters, then does the blame for the dearth of women leaders lie with women voters?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gov. Sarah Palin, and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann may have little in common, politically speaking, but one common bond they all share is running, and failing, at the highest level and on the biggest stage in politics -- and being a lightning rod for female voters while doing so. Though some female voters were their biggest supporters, many others were their toughest critics, with few occupying the middle ground. According to the Associated Press, these two extremes are not limited to these three women, who many consider polarizing:

An AP analysis of data from the 2006 American National Election Study Pilot Test found that when it came to selecting a candidate for president, gender matters more for women than for men. But it's a two-way street; women are more likely to vote for a candidate because she is female, and also more likely to dismiss a candidate because of her gender, according to the analysis.

While it would be easy to dismiss the opposition of these women among women as being partisan-based, it's not that simple. It was noted during the panel discussion on female leadership at the Women in the World Summit (a panel that featured Gloria Steinem and Jill Abramson of The New York Times, among others) that while Hillary Clinton enjoyed support from women over 50 during the 2008 election, she trailed behind two male opponents for the support of younger women (Barack Obama and John Edwards, respectively). Polls showed that Sarah Palin's favorability rates were always higher among men even before her personal baggage and struggle to answer questions about her reading habits came to light. At some rallies headlined by Palin during the height of the 2008 presidential campaign, the gender ratio in the crowd reportedly skewed 70-percent male to 30-percent female.

"If you look at Sarah Palin, men supported Sarah Palin more than women did," said Anne Kornblut, who covered the 2008 election for The Washington Post. She added, "Women also look at women's appearances and judge them just the way men do, and sometimes more harshly... I think women are critics across the board in ways you may even consider sexist if you didn't know who was saying it."

Tiffany Dufu, president of the White House Project, a nonprofit organization committed to increasing female leadership at the highest levels, including the White House, was more circumspect. "Yes, female voters are tougher on female candidates. Male voters are tougher on them, too. Any individual who does not fit the leadership status quo has to meet a higher bar."

Congresswoman Jackie Speier recalls being surprised by the reaction of female voters to her candidacy for Congress: "When I first ran for Congress in 1979, I was 28 years old, and I kept hearing, 'I'm not going to vote for her just because she's a woman,' and it wasn't men saying it but women." Kornblut, who also authored the book Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win, adds, "Women look at women running for office and say, 'I couldn't do that. I'm a mom with two small kids, and I couldn't be governor. How could she do that?' Or they say, 'Why is she so ambitious? Why does she want to do that when she has a family at home?'"

Rep. Speier echoes this sentiment: "For whatever reason, there's a competition that some women see when other women succeed. We've got to change that dynamic. Men see an opportunity of both rising. Women see a threat that somehow if one woman succeeds, another falls."

So how do we begin changing that dynamic? "I think we change it in part with our young girls in soccer and baseball and playing a team sport, so they recognize the power of working together," Rep. Speier said. "When I was a youngster, that wasn't available, but it is for this generation. I'm hoping it will have an impact on how they view each other as they move forward." (Click here to see my interviews with Rep. Speier, Angelina Jolie, and other speakers at the Women in the World Summit.)

In the new book INSPIRATION: Profiles of Black Women Changing Our World, CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King weighed in on the competitiveness that so often seems to rear its head among professional women. "It saddens me when women think there's not enough to go around, because there's more than enough," she said. "It's a big old pie out there. I believe that when you're good at what you do, it only makes me better."

If only more women agreed.

Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a contributing editor for Loop21.com, where this post originally appeared.

 
 
 

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