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Opinion: Still chipping away at highest, hardest glass ceiling

Truth Be Told

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It was March 5. Sen. Elizabeth Warren just dropped out of the presidential race. She stood outside her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to answer questions from reporters. One asked about the role of gender in the 2020 campaign.

“Gender in this race – you know, that is the trap question for every woman,” Warren said. “If you say, ‘Yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner.’ And if you say, ‘No, there was no sexism,’ about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?’”

Warren was the last viable female contender running for president this election.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar had dropped out days before, and Sen. Kamala Harris suspended her campaign at the end of last year. Author Marianne Williamson and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand dropped out early on. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is effectively out after securing only two delegates as of press time, although she has not suspended her campaign.

Out of the most diverse pool of candidates ever, the Democratic race has narrowed to two white men in their 70s.

Warren’s exit after lackluster support on Super Tuesday didn’t surprise anyone. But there was a collective sigh. I heard it, mostly from friends my age, and I felt it. No, 2020 would not be the year this country elects its first female president. That will have to wait.

There was seemingly instant chatter and commentary among the national news media on vice presidential picks. The two Democratic contenders will surely pick a female VP. That would be the smart thing to do, they said.

A friend shared an article from Vox Media’s The Cut titled: “Brace yourself for second place.” It put words to that collective sigh. A reminder that the highest and hardest glass ceiling, while cracked, is still there.

“It feels like a consolation prize; women being asked to smile while holding a second-place trophy, knowing the game was never quite fair and the hurdles were higher and any other metaphor for the sexism women face when running for office,” wrote gender and political writer Caitlin Moscatello.

So are men and women running for president playing the same game? Not quite.

The Pew Research Center in 2018 found 6 in 10 people believe women have to do more to prove themselves as candidates. A smaller number, 11% of men and 5% of women, say gender itself is a disqualifier, saying women aren’t tough enough for politics.

But a Pew analysis of surveyed Americans determined little difference between men and women on their leadership traits and competencies, such as dealing with public policies from education to the federal budget.

As six women were vying for the Democratic nomination for president last summer, a Ipos/The Daily Beast poll found that 33% of Democrats and independents said they believed their neighbors would be comfortable with a female president.

In 2020, this so-far impenetrable glass ceiling comes down to bias. Gender isn’t a legal, physical, skills or intellectual barrier – it’s a bias barrier. For some, the unease of a woman becoming president is rooted in their unconscious bias. And yes, some are more direct about their feelings. A female president is unfamiliar, and change takes time.

A recent New York Times article pointed to a 2010 paper by Yale researchers that found “people’s views of a fictional male state senator did not change when they were told he was ambitious. When told that a fictional female state senator was ambitious, however, men and women alike ‘experienced feelings of moral outrage,’ such as contempt, anger and disgust.”

I can’t imagine all of these individuals truly felt disgust at a woman’s ambition. But that’s what unchecked bias looks like. Bias is not something you have to live with. You can identify and work on it.

So 2020 isn’t the year a woman will become president. But in the past four years, women have achieved an awful lot in politics. Hillary Clinton secured the first nomination of a woman from a major party. A record 102 women served in the 116th Congress. And political action committee EMILY’s List reported at least 42,000 women have reached out to the organization about running for public office this election cycle, an extraordinary jump from 920 women in 2016.

I would not elect a politician because of, or in spite of, his or her gender. Having a woman president should have happened already because there is no shortage of qualified contenders. I’m hopeful this election cycle causes us all to pause and check our biases. We might be missing out on something great because of fear of the unknown.

And to quote Clinton, I’m so ready for a female president to one day be an “unremarkable” victory.

Springfield Business Journal Features Editor Christine Temple can be reached at ctemple@sbj.net.

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