Last week the Boston Globe published an op-ed by Yvonne Abraham titled "Merit over Gender" and PolitickerNY had an article by Steve Kornacki titled "The Martha Coakley Story". What's wrong with these articles? Why are they examples of the unconscious gender bias in the media that keeps women down?
I'll start with the "Merit over Gender" piece. Why is it that when someone suggests gender diversity as an asset of a job candidate, the reply is often "Oh no, I'm only interested in merit". Yet name some other quality needed for the position, and the idea of merit is assumed, not questioned.
Take for example the selection of Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. Some people said, "we need a judge from the Midwest in order to have a more balanced and diverse bench." I never heard anyone recoil in horror and reply "Oh no, I'm only interested in merit. " One assumes, of course, that it would be a meritorious candidate from the Midwest!
Obama wanted a candidate with "empathy". Did anyone believe he wanted a person with empathy but no merit? They might have disagreed with the need for empathy, but they never suspected that empathy precluded merit.
So why do people jump to the conclusion that if a woman is running, we have to worry about her merit. Linking these two things plays right into the stereotype that is what gender (and race) bias is - namely that women (blacks) really are inferior. Otherwise, why would the subject even come up? Linking merit to gender perpetuates an unconscious bias that has no basis in fact. Stereotypes applied to groups spill over to taint our judgment of individuals who belong to that group.
I've seen the exact same thing in college admissions. Colleges often proudly announce that their students come from every state in the US. I've even known of people who consider moving so their kids will have a better chance of getting into a prestigious college. I have never heard anyone question the importance of having a college class that is diverse geographically. But say you want to take gender or race into consideration and whoa - listen to the howling, "Can't have that. It's only merit that matters".
What about Kornacki's snarky-toned piece about Coakley? Maybe I'm being oversensitive on this one but to me the tone is decidedly negative. And what is Coakley's crime? Too ambitious! Imagine a woman wanting this job and planning how to get it and getting in ahead of the guys. And you know what other crime she has committed? Being female. That gives her an unfair advantage in the race according to Mr. Kornacki. Excuse me? Recall the data in sentence one above. I don't' see that women have had much of an advantage running for office in Massachusetts!
My friend has coined a phrase for this phenomenon, saying that a female candidate being examined through an unconsciously sexist lens is being "Hillaried." During the Democratic primary, women watched in amazement that morphed into disgust, as Hillary Clinton was subtly and not so subtly bashed relentlessly by the media for the sin of being female. The worst kind of female: an ambitious one. It wasn't just the disgusting primitive media stuff - the nutcracker, the cleavage, the tears - but the more subtle bashing that many of us believe brought her down unfairly. And we can see that its already happening to Martha.
And here's the worst thing about both articles: Both writers should be taking the view that "Eureka!" we finally have a woman who can become a senator in Massachusetts. It's about time and God bless her. She can put an end to the embarrassment of being a state that has never had a female Senator. Why aren't we down on our knees saying, "Thank you Martha, and how can we help?"
The US ranks about 70th in the world in terms of female representation in its central government. The Senate has a paltry 17% women. How embarrassing is that? And how can we help change the world and make it better if we can't be leaders in this area? As Nicholas Kristof has brilliantly written in the NYTimes - women's rights are the human rights issue of our time. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has brilliantly declared, women's equality worldwide is the answer to many of the world's most serious problems. How can we not be begging Martha Coakley to run, showering her with money, and saying, "Thank you Martha for helping the US be a leader in equal rights in the 21st century!"