Hillary Clinton’s Campaign and the Issue of Gender

Today on Big Think, I posted a blog entitled “Hillary Clinton and the ‘Women’s Point of View’ Conundrum.”  As Clinton launches her campaign for the U.S. presidency, she faces a number of challenges related to being a woman.  One of those challenges has a lot to do with how human beings think, particularly about women.  While men are rarely expected to speak for most or all men, women who reach high-level, visible positions in male dominated fields are often expected to represent the “women’s point of view” on issues for which even believing there could be one is ludicrous.  Clinton will confront this issue.  The press will remind us constantly of her gender, even when it is irrelevant to the issue at hand.  Highly effective and successful women I’ve known and interviewed have learned how to feel confident about being women, while also helping people get to know them as individuals.

This is one of the major challenges facing Clinton.  She’ll need to assist those who usually think in terms of categories (that’s most us) to get beyond that tendency– to come to know her as a woman and also as an extraordinarily capable and experienced leader.  While many women don’t think they should have to do this work, that people should not notice their gender first, knowing it’s a human tendency to rely on categories makes the task easier to accept.  To the extent that Clinton and her campaign clearly define for people when gender is relevant and when it is not, without defensiveness, her chances of becoming the first female President of the United States will be greatly enhanced.

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Hillary Clinton and the Gender Challenge

We are already getting glimpses in the media of how big a role gender will play in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. We are on the doorstep of history again. The battle will be intense. There is no doubt about that. Clinton has come closer than any woman in history to the U.S. presidency.

How she handles the gender challenges inherent in running for president will partially dictate whether she wins.  In that sense, skillful communication and persuasion are critical.  She can’t talk too much about being a woman or too little without hurting her campaign.  Accentuating her gender has its risks.  She may have learned from the last campaign, however, that downplaying a good part of who you are inhibits spontaneity and thereby authenticity. People don’t think they know you. Distrust results.  This time she is likely to be more comfortable with her gender and better able to expertly manage how it’s expressed.

There is no way to escape gender.  Most of us cannot ignore it as a category.  It influences our expectations.  We have never seen a female U.S. president, so imagining how gender might influence one is difficult.  Realizing that it influences how we perceive candidates, what we expect from them, how we expect them to communicate and how we vote is also difficult.  Yet, few of us escape categories our minds have been taught to apply.

Clinton will need to help voters get past categories that keep them from seeing who she really is and what she would bring to the presidency.  The “thin pink line” is how I described the challenge in They Don’t Get It, Do They?  It refers to the sense women have that expectations for them are entwined with their gender.  If they are assertive, they risk labels like “ice queen.”  They’re frequently faced with the Catch-22 that acting like a woman makes them appear less qualified to lead.

There continue to be major challenges faced by women who seek to obtain leadership roles in government and business.  While bias is part of the equation, a lack of familiarity with women at these levels and a widely shared habit of thinking of strong leaders as men enter into it as well.

Also, how a female leader should communicate trips us up.  It’s relatively unfamiliar ground, especially in politics.  Clinton is not only running for president, she is essentially forging important communication latitude groundwork for future female leaders.  She’ll be helping a country and the world learn what a leader, who happens to be a women, sounds like.  We’ll learn how she leads.  This doesn’t mean that women taking on such roles in the future will necessarily act and speak like her, but rather that Clinton will, as a candidate for the presidency and certainly if she wins, make female leadership somewhat more familiar.  She will widen the thin pink line, even more than she did as senator and secretary of state.

Whether you support her candidacy or not, a female candidate with a strong chance to win the presidency shifts the way many of us think.  It helps to interrupt antiquated habits of thought regarding gender that have lasted far past their applicability.  Many people will cling to those habits.  Hopefully her candidacy will make retaining their intractable mindsets more difficult.

(Updated April 13, 2015)


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What’s Easier for You: Giving Credit or Criticism?

“Giving Credit Even When It Isn’t Due” is the title of the blog I posted today on Big Think.  It’s a reminder that giving credit to others for effort, good intentions and accomplishments on the way to a goal not only makes them feel better about you, it motivates them as well.  Few people are motivated for long by fear of punishment or humiliation.  They resist or retaliate, when they don’t just give up.

For those of us more inclined to criticize than to give credit, the reason is likely habit.  As I’ve written about in my books and on this site, we are creatures of habit in our communication.  We get stuck in ruts.  One of them for you or people in your life may be finding fault more readily than seeing promise.

As the blog at Big Think explains, there are ways to give credit that enhance persuasion. In other words, giving credit can be considered a persuasion strategy.  I remember my father used to nudge me to achieve goals.  Rather than express annoyance or anger, he mentioned that what I’d already achieved meant the next step was in reach.  It worked. Indeed, many of those next steps weren’t too far.  What made them especially achievable, however, was his belief in me — his recognition of past successes, even small ones, as indications of future potential.

That’s what motivates many of us.  Who doesn’t like to hear that what they’ve already accomplished is an indication of how much more is within their grasp?  So, next time you’re about to criticize someone, consider whether a little credit for what he or she has done is in order.  It may work wonders and get you out of a rut too.


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More on Disagreeing Without Being Disagreeable

I posted today on Big Think about a process from my book, It’s All Politics (PURRR) that can help avoid reacting rather than responding, especially at work.  Often many of us say what we don’t mean, speak before we think, and slip into patterns that diminish the likelihood of work being done well.  Such events raise tension at work and home.

The PURRR process is a device to use in turning around the inclination to speak before adequately thinking ahead to potentially undesirable consequences.  Once you become proficient at this process, thinking about the steps becomes unnecessary — until you find a booster of PURRR necessary because you’re slipping into old habits.

It’s a particularly useful technique if you’re inclined to taking things personally.  There are content and relationship meanings imbedded in much of what we say.  We have the option of attending to either or both.  The example provided in the post shows how to focus away from the personal.  If you don’t know how to do this well, someone else’s bad mood can become your issue and your mood as well.

Choice points (see categories in right column of this page for more) in conversation are opportunities to bring about preferred outcomes.  Often, we can alter the direction conversations take by recognizing choice points and selecting a path forward that takes us away from altercations, hard feelings, or spending the day seething.


Twitter: @kathreardon

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Is There Still an Art to Connectedness?

As human beings we have a need for inclusion — being connected to others. Professionally, such connectedness can be a considerable advantage as well.  As I wrote in a blog at Big Think today, however, it’s easy to forget that “real” connectedness, the kind that matters socially and professionally, requires more than counting links or followers.

Certainly there is something to be said for quantity of connections when attempting to reach people with our ideas or products.  These same contacts can provide advice, at times, and information about other social and professional opportunities.

But being connected in a way that matters is still an art.  As I described in The Secret Handshake and It’s All Politics, one of the greatest gifts we can give or receive is truly listening, truly being heard — truly being present in conversation.  That means taking time to pause, to think, to recall what is important to people with whom we’d like to generate and/or maintain more than just passing acquaintances.

Borrowing from three of the many people I interviewed when writing about politics, the Big Think blog shares one of the key ingredients of the art of connecting.  Employ this approach and what is now merely quantity of connections may be imbued with quality as well.

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Protecting Yourself From Media Lies

The poor quality of most televised and print journalism in the U.S. is an issue that is even more concerning as a presidential election draws nearer.  And so I wrote the blog featured today on Huffington Post about how that kind of coverage will influence the campaign of Hillary Clinton, should she decide to run.

Whenever anyone writes about Clinton, other important points in the article are ignored by many who feel compelled to disparage her.  That’s to be expected as Hillary Clinton generates angst — far more and far more intense than a woman of her extensive contributions to her country warrant.  In the context of reason and debate, such disdain has no place.  The primary issue of how the press is already and will be handling her campaign is important, not just to her, not just to women, but to democracy.

It’s only by obtaining accurate information, to the extent possible, that people can make informed choices.  Resorting to cheap shots, twisting of the facts, poisoning of wells, and other underhanded forms of influence are less likely to occur and catch on in cultures where more than “some people say” journalism is the status quo.  Yet, that’s what is most common in the U.S.

Having studied persuasion, influence and politics all of my career, I’m concerned.  It used to be that you could expect junk journalism from sensational rags.  Now, standards for superb journalism have given way to demands for profit.  Who loses?  The voter trying to make an educated decision.  It falls to each of us then to bring to the forefront of our minds when ingesting information whether that source can be trusted — not whether their writers agree with us.

Being even adequately informed is a tall order now days.  With so much polarization and overt disdain among our leaders, once considered unprofessional, the 24 hour news and entertainment cycle and an absence of vigilance on the part of viewers, we are at risk of being duped — often.  We all need a little voice inside our heads, that we teach to our children, asking, “How credible is this source?”  In persuasion study this is referred to as generating counterarguments.  Essentially, being wary of one’s sources involves forming counterarguments when what we’re hearing or reading lacks adequate support and yet is passed off by media owners as “news” rather than free-flowing opinion.  There’s nothing wrong with the latter, so long as we recognize it as such.

This is all common sense.  Yet, it’s uncommonly applied.  We need to change that for our own good.

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Debunking Myths That Stall Women’s Careers

Shellie Karabell, leadership writer for Forbes, helped debunk some myths about female leadership this week in her blog about female killer whales.  Apparently if the male killer whales fretted as much as male and female humans about whether females should lead, they’d starve.  It’s the females who learn where to find salmon.

My blog posted today on Big Think  draws upon her analogy, to look at some of the ludicrous assumptions that not only hold women back but deny organizations the advantages women bring to senior management and executive boards.  I don’t think, for example, that I’ve ever heard of men wondering if they were chosen to be on a board because of anything other than their competence.  And yet we’re told that women invited onto boards, especially due to quotas, may feel that the reason for their selection had more to do with gender than merit.

From the Big Think blog:

Apparently, there’s no panicked silly “scrambling” among male killer whales over where to find enough experienced females, no “grooming” obstacle regarding claims that females haven’t been sufficiently mentored. No wringing of fins and flexing of hubris goes on about lowering the bar. They’re hungry. She knows where the salmon are. That’s critical. Case closed.

Researchers do not appear to have found female leader whales haunted by being “required” leaders. Maybe they even skipped the “token” period that supposedly made women insecure for decades. Somehow they lead undaunted despite smaller pectoral muscles and tail flukes.

If you’ve consulted for boards as I have, you know the selection criteria often has less to do with competence, often a given, than it does with power, connectedness, creativity, money or visibility.

Quotas like the ones put into law in Germany last week wouldn’t be needed if the assumptions treated as fact were questioned more often — especially that companies need to “scramble” to find women for executive boards.  That should be funny.

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