11/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Breaking the Gender-Merit Link

The notoriously liberal state of Massachusetts has never had a
female senator in its roughly 220-year existence, a deficit that may persist
unless we stop saddling women with a higher burden to prove that they are
qualified. This year, in a special election to replace Ted Kennedy, we have
a woman running for the office. Not just any woman, but Attorney General
Martha Coakley, a highly qualified woman whose entire life has been
dedicated to public service. Yet already we see media stories linking her
gender to her merit.

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

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

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!"

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