We’ve known for a long time that men — especially rich white men — are held to different standards than everyone else, but never has the difference been so nakedly clear.
There are now two court jesters leading two of the world’s major democracies: Boris Johnson, a known fabulist considered charming for running late and having mussy hair, just became the prime minister of Great Britain. And here in the U.S., President Donald Trump is a former reality TV star, accused sexual assaulter and known scam artist.
Could you imagine a woman or man of color getting away with any of that?
Female politicians can’t make mistakes ― with their emails, DNA tests or knowledge of world affairs or economics. A black male politician couldn’t even wear a tan suit or hoist a latte without turning heads. None of these people can lie repeatedly and get away with it.
But here we are, supposedly in an era of progress when it comes to gender and race, watching these buffoons land the highest offices in the world.
Basic gender theory explains a lot of this: Men, particularly straight, white wealthy ones, are expected to be competent in male-dominated arenas like politics and business. Even when they screw up, that expectation holds, said Dr. Stefanie K. Johnson, a management professor at the University of Colorado who specializes in the intersection between leadership and diversity.
“You’re starting with a baseline assumption that he knows what he’s doing, so whatever he’s doing must be thoughtful or strategic,” she said.
Women, on the other hand, are expected to be warm but not particularly competent. “Any strange behavior confirms that she was incompetent all along,” according to Dr. Johnson.
With Boris Johnson and Trump, though, there’s another phenomenon at play, she said. These guys have built up something called “idiosyncratic credit.”
It’s a term from sociology that refers to the credibility conferred on someone based on meeting certain societal norms. In Trump and Johnson’s case, they’re white men who fit the “leader” stereotype.
Thanks to their maleness, their whiteness, an Oxford accent (in Johnson’s case), or money (in Trump’s case, and to a lesser extent, Johnson’s), these men have already built up a certain amount of credibility. That credibility allows them to deviate from other social norms — like telling the truth or getting through the day without publicly insulting someone.
Johnson’s been able to escape relatively unscathed from a bunch of scandals ― multiple marital affairs, a plagiarism charge, racist comments. Trump gets a pass for seemingly everything, from attempted obstruction of justice to allegations of sexual assault from more than a dozen women and more than 10,000 documented lies or falsehoods while in office.
“By being white men, they just get credit,” said Dr. Johnson. “Then they’re allowed to use those credits and engage in deviant behavior, and people excuse it.”
If you’re a woman in a male arena like politics, you’re violating norms just by existing. You’ve got no credits. “So if you do something that could be perceived as incompetent, people will trash you,” Johnson explains.
The same holds for men of color, she adds. “To be a black man is also not stereotypical for politicians.” It’s not hard to find examples of Barack Obama being held to a different and higher standard than white presidents.
Female candidates are also expected to be attractive and put-together. Looks are extremely important for female politicians, said Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, an organization that supports female politicians. “Voters decide if a woman is ready to lead based on her presentation and her personal style, tone of voice and speaking style.”
No female candidate could get away with looking like Johnson or Trump, as Bridget Read at The Cut wrote recently.
Johnson purposefully cultivates a sloppy style: crooked tie, wrinkled suits, messy hair. (This serves to make him seem less elite, despite his Eton/Oxford bonafides, Vanessa Friedman writes.) His predecessor Theresa May was rarely seen with a strand out of place.
Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg dons stilettos and perfectly tailored clothes while the company CEO Mark Zuckerberg wears hoodies. Trump did his whole slovenly thing ― Scotch-taped tie, confoundingly baggy pants ― while Hillary Clinton consulted with stylists to figure out her look. She even had a line about her sartorial choices in her Twitter bio (“Wearer of pantsuits.”)
Bernie Sanders looks a bit wrinkled, “seemingly too passionate about the issues to iron,” writes Friedman. Sen. Kamala Harris, also contending for the 2020 nomination, is always polished.
To run for office, some women now take a course ― a course! ― in how to dress.
Beyond looks, female leaders seem to be held to a higher standard in all arenas. Look at former Vice President Joe Biden, now contending for the Democratic nomination for president, catching up on policy on the fly, flubbing appearances and apologizing for myriad missteps over a decades-long career. While Sen. Elizabeth Warren pushes out detailed plan after detailed plan, running essentially her own think tank. Yet her electability is in doubt because of one possible political mistake ― DNA testing. (Oh, and also her gender, of course.)
“For decades, Biden’s schtick has sort of been he says whatever he wants and then says he’s just a straight talker,” said Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia. People just shrug it off as Joe being Joe.
Something similar happens with Boris Johnson.
“His mistakes or perceived errors were always seen as evidence of his authenticity,” Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics, told The New York Times this week in explaining Johnson’s appeal.
Expectations are so low in Johnson’s case that, when he was mayor of London, people were “pleasantly surprised” when the city didn’t crumble under his leadership, according to the Times. It’s like when Trump reads a speech off the teleprompter and is hailed for being presidential.
Still, Johnson and Trump are extreme examples of what male privilege lets guys get away with, Lawless said.
Most politicians ― male or female ― would never allow themselves to act like those two. “Almost no male candidate would think that would be a way to succeed,” she said.