This Should Be A Sexism Wake-Up Call To Young Women

Hillary Clinton attends an event where she addressed her staff and supporters about the results of the U.S. election at a hot
Hillary Clinton attends an event where she addressed her staff and supporters about the results of the U.S. election at a hotel in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., November 9, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

When I taught at USC with Betty Friedan, she wanted us to be in the "second stage" when men and women would live and work together in mutual respect. But we are still far from the second stage.

Sure, we can convince ourselves that gender had nothing to do with the outcome of the presidential election this week. But that would be deceiving ourselves. How often we've heard that Hillary Clinton has coldness in her eyes, speaks too loudly, dresses wrong for a woman and other comments based on gender expectations many of us refuse to examine.

Malcolm Gladwell attributed a large part of Hillary's "dislikability" to her being a woman.

Here is what Gladwell had to say even as he hesitated to draw too many conclusions from one election cycle:

To me, the most disturbing lesson about this election is that the United States is a good deal less open to women in positions of power than it would like to pretend that it is.

He explained:

She is being penalized for having a series of traits that people find unacceptable in a woman.

He noted the negative perceptions of Clinton predate her email and Benghazi issues. "This goes back two decades now."


He said that there are traits that women in leadership are "allowed to have."

It is very difficult for society to accept an ambitious woman -- an openly ambitions woman.... We continue to expect that women will have a kind of modesty in positions of authority. It makes it easier for us to accept that they have moved into a man's realm.

It wasn't elitism that alienated many from Hillary, because Hillary came from ordinary circumstances. Donald Trump is elite and has been since birth, yet the label stuck to her. Why? Because it worked for some who needed a handy reason to reject her and to reject that they might be sexist, whether male or female themselves. Also, no thanks to many in the media who repeated this mantra.

Gladwell also pointed to a "moral licensing" America has experienced in having voted for a black presidential candidate. It sort of allows us to be more biased now because we weren't last time.

And we might add that calling out sexism is often met with sarcastic quips about political correctness. "Oh, here we go again with political correctness" is a handy sentence for dismissing claims of actual sexism in language. Don't fall for it.

Gladwell's views are not a shock to anyone who has been following gender issues in work and government. I wrote the reprint bestselling Harvard Business Review case "The Memo Every Woman Keeps in Her Desk" about the challenges women faced getting ahead at work in the 1990s. My book They Don't Get It, Do They? followed. Betty Friedan described it as a "blueprint for real communication between the sexes." In the process of providing that blueprint, the book also describes the many dysfunctional patterns in day-to-day male-female relationships and sexist perceptions that to this day hold women back in their careers.

Salon writer Amanda Marcotte wrote this week that America has essentially chosen to self-destruct rather than elect a woman. Let's hope that's not the case. Yet, she makes it well.

Even before the election, I feared that the U.S. wasn't ready for a woman president -- that the unstated fears and disdain for women's success, many rationalized as other things, would rear their ugly heads.

As President Obama graciously admitted, Hillary Clinton was more ready to be president than he was when he took office and more ready than Bill Clinton. Vice President Biden spoke of how difficult it is for a woman -- harder than for him -- to demonstrate her competence.

Hillary Clinton is exceptional in so many ways, prepared and superb in her debates, but many in the media, Donald Trump and people not ready for a woman president picked her apart. It was death by a thousand cuts.

There are few women who haven't experienced some version of this in their own lives -- gender expectations and insecurities being used against them. Hence, that sick feeling that many women are still experiencing days after the election.

Where does this leave us? When will we see a female president? If our most prepared woman was rejected for not being sufficiently sweet and charming, being distrusted even as her opponent lied constantly, we're in trouble.

Sweet and charming women tend to be admired, but they're also perceived as too weak to lead. Gender is a Catch-22 for most women -- be highly assertive and competent and you're cold and maybe a bitch or be sweet and "feminine" and you're a pleasure to be with but unfit to lead.

It's easy to push the gender issue aside. Sexism is so easy to deny. I expect some will write to me having not read this article clearly. They'll say I'm totally blaming sexism. That's not the case. But it's a significant factor and one not going away unless we keep up the fight.

The election was a wake-up call. It has shaken many to their core. It has shown us how far people will go to avoid having a woman in The White House. It has shown us that our children's children may not see a woman president.

Yes, people wanted change. Yes, the Democratic Party has fallen out of touch with their base. And yes the 30 plus years Michael Moore described as having created a Donald Trump candidate definitely contributed as did other factors. But part of America would rather have a racist, sexist, narcissist with no experience as president than an exceptionally prepared, tireless, impressive woman with their best interests at heart.

One inadvertent good thing may have come from the 2016 presidential election. Young women, and many young men, who thought sexism was a thing of the past received a loud-and-clear wake-up call. The job is not done for them or their children. The race is not over. We know for sure now that no generation can just sit this one out. Sexism goes underground sometimes, but it doesn't go away. If we don't face this fact, there will never be a female U.S. president. And that's just not acceptable.

Kathleen also blogs here.