During Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, former Vice President Joe Biden gave himself some credit for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s signature achievement: proposing a new federal agency called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and working to get it passed into law.
Debate moderator Anderson Cooper had asked if Warren’s vision of “big structural change” would attract the voters necessary to beat President Donald Trump next year. In response, the Massachusetts lawmaker brought up her successful fight to shepherd the CFPB from her own idea to reality following the 2008 financial crisis.
The conversation about the CFPB could have ended there, but Biden jumped in to dubiously claim that it was his achievement, too, modeling several examples of how not to talk about your female colleague’s accomplishments in one single sexist exchange.
1. He took credit.
“I agreed with the great job she did, and I went on the floor (of Congress) and got you votes,” Biden said, turning to Warren and gesturing in emphasis. “I got votes for that bill. I convinced people to vote for it. So let’s get those things straight, too.”
What Biden was doing was taking shared credit for her accomplishment to raise his own stature and lower hers. The achievement is known to be Warren’s: Former Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), for whom the legislation that included the creation of the CFPB was named, told The New York Times in 2015 they did not recall Biden playing a central role in getting the measure passed.
Voicing ideas as their own usually works for men. Research has shown that men get credit for voicing ideas in group discussions, which is key to being seen as a leader, but women do not get that same credit.
It’s part of the same long history of men in power who claim they “made” a woman’s career and “discovered” her, as if she sprung fully-formed from their head. And it often works. Kanye West has tried this in his lyrics. Major scientific discoveries have been misattributed to male scholars. Male co-authors in economics today are still seen as the lead contributor in group projects with women.
2. He was entitled.
The entitled edge of “let’s get those things straight, too” is in the same condescending lane as the male colleague who needs to get a last word in before the group can move on, just to let everyone know about the value of their voice.
Warren gave a masterclass in how to handle a male colleague who is needling you about your accomplishments: Don’t engage with their exasperated energy that seeks to rile you up. Calling Biden on his credit-taking would have narrowly redirected the debate to who deserved what part of the credit. But instead of taking this defensive posture, Warren went on the offensive with a mention of who she really wanted to thank.
After Biden said he got her the votes, Warren expressed gratitude ― to former President Barack Obama. “I am deeply grateful to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law, and I am deeply grateful to every single person who fought for it and who helped pass it into law,” Warren said, pointedly not giving Biden the cited credit he thought he deserved. This prompted laughter from the audience.
3. He congratulated her for for all the wrong reasons.
As Warren thanked others for helping her establish the agency, Biden interrupted her to say “You did a hell of a job in your job.”
She paused, and that pause put us back on her time, not his.
“Thank you,” she finally retorted, in a tone known to women everywhere, which prompted more laughter in the audience. Saying she was doing a “hell of a job in [her] job” implied the accomplishment was just her job, anyway.
It was not the first back-handed, diminishing compliment Biden has given Warren. In 2005, then-Sen. Biden of Delaware dismissed Warren as she was testifying before the Senate on bankruptcy reform with, “Okay, okay, I got it; you’re very good, professor,” implying that she was a know-it-all.
In both of these cases, he used her credentials to undermine her.
The best way to defeat credit-stealers is to make people aware of who really did the contributions, loud and clear. Warren did that. Biden just needs to listen.