Tuesday was supposed to be the day America would catch up with history and the rest of the world. Finally, the US would elect its first woman president.
It turns out that the catch up will be delayed. In the World Economic Forum's 2016 Gender Gap report, the United States is ranked 73rd out of 143 countries (Lebanon being 143rd) in political empowerment. The US position is slowly falling down the list, not because the United States' record on electing women is getting worse, but that other countries are getting substantially better. Today there are 60 members of the Council of Women World Leaders, all of them current or former freely elected heads of state or government as president, prime minister or chancellor. On the list of countries that have had such a leader in the past 50 years, the United State is dead last.
The obvious question is, why? Why can't the world's most powerful nation elect a woman president?
In trying to parse what part of this failure is the unpredictability of politics' rough and tumble process and what is sexism, I separate the causes into two categories: "the seed and the soil." The seed is the individual candidate. The soil is the ground in which that candidate has to try to prosper: the institutional structures and processes that either facilitate change or throw up barriers. The United States and its winner-take-all system is tough soil for new growth to take root in. The electoral college, not the popular vote, determines who gets elected, giving more weight to outliers in middling states like Michigan or Ohio. (Secretary Clinton looks now to have received more votes than Donald Trump, just as Senator Al Gore did against President George W. Bush in the 2000 election). In this system, third party candidates can act as spoilers, preventing major party candidates from gaining a clear advantage in some states.
The hurdle for women is lower in countries in a parliamentary system, where the multiple parties can agree to back each other's leaders in coalitions. Parliamentary elections also put more parties in play. The more parties in play, the more opposition leaders there are. And since women often become opposition leader before they become prime minister, there are more opportunities for women to take the top job. Women also often find an entry point to the presidency in countries where the prime minister is the executive and the president wields more symbolic "soft power."
More than 100 countries, furthermore, promote women's chances to lead with some sort of quota system, requiring a certain minimum number of seats in parliament to be filled by women. Women are given the chance to hone their political skills as a MP or deputy, establishing a well-stocked pipeline of experienced women legislators prepared to run for the high office. In the US, where no such quotas exist, the percentage of the House and Senate seats held by women seems to plateau at about 20 percent never attaining what many regard as a critical mass of 35 percent. Affirmative mechanisms are highly unpopular and unlikely to be enacted.
Quotas don't advance unqualified women but remove in-group favoritism and closed social networks, so qualified women can advance.
Fighting to lodge into this forbidding soil, the seed has its own disadvantages. Women simply do not fit the archetype of a leader in a country that stakes its "super power" status on its military might. Men are presumed to be strong until they show otherwise. Women must prove they have strength, which is what made Donald Trump's attack on Hillary Clinton's "stamina" so effective. Using this code word, he played on Americans' unconscious fear that Secretary Clinton was not strong enough to be commander-in-chief.
Nearly all of the female leaders in the Council have experienced scrutiny of their hair, dress, voice, and style that men get much more rarely. In the seemingly endless campaign just ended, the objectification of Secretary Clinton went beyond hyper-scrutiny to misogynistic name-calling, with anti-Clinton T-shirts and signs reading "Trump the bitch." This can happen to some degree in other countries; once in office, Austrian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was subjected to a firestorm of misogyny from her male opposition leader, but he never devolved into quite the gutter attacks this US election saw.
Candidate Trump indulged in this kind of misogyny, but also gave voice to an unsettling loss of centrality that some men feel when faced with the advancement of women (and other historically underrepresented groups). His supporters were given permission to not be politically correct, as they saw it, and vocalize their dis-ease at seeing "rightful" gender roles upset.
Of course women are judged for themselves as much as men are: on their experience and their message, and their likeability. Secretary Clinton, with her baggage of investigations dating back to her husband's administration and her more recent history of email troubles, was widely seen as an imperfect messenger and therefore not deserving of the presidency. In her book Lean In, Google CEO Sheryl Sandburg says that women must be liked and Clinton, polls showed, was not liked. But neither was Donald Trump -- his unfavorable rating was worse than his opponents -- yet he is President-elect.
This anomaly points to a tolerance gap in American politics when it comes to mistakes or misjudgments. In the scrupulous fact checking that the press conducted, prompted by Trump's constant straying from the truth, Secretary Clinton was cited for roughly a fifth the number of "less than true statements" as Trump. Nonetheless he successfully branded her a "liar." A simple litmus test: put one of Trump's false statements in Clinton's mouth ("Crime is rising," "We're the highest taxed country in the world,"), then ask how the voters would react.
This was a peculiar and particularly difficult election for our female presidential candidate, but only in degree. These same individual and institutional difficulties challenge women at some level in every US election. The U.S. now ranks 93rd in representation in the two houses of Congress according to the Interparliamentary Union.
According to Saadia Zahidi, an economist and Member of the Executive Committee of the World Economic Forum who authors the Gender Gap Report, 47 percent of all countries have had at least one female head of state, ever. At the current rate, Zahidi has projected, it will take more than 100 years for the world to get to gender parity, where half of all heads of states are women at any given time. Will the United States get there by then?
The silver lining is that women around the world are making substantial progress in reaching highest level offices. That progress will continue and be sustainable as more women see that it is possible and desirable, in spite of what happens in the United States.
November 13, 2016