“Why haven’t we ever had a woman President?” Spurred by this question from my then 8-year-old daughter, I set out to find the answer by interviewing the most influential journalists, activists, politicians and thought leaders of today, such as Sheryl Sandberg, Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi, Nicholas Kristof, Melissa Etheridge and Olympia Snowe. Obviously, there is no one simple answer. Though the people I spoke with all contributed their own unique insights and perspectives, some common themes emerged.
1. Don’t present it as a “women’s issue” — it’s a human issue. Getting a woman into the White House needs to be reframed as an essential component of a reflective democracy. This isn’t an issue of equality but of performance. As Nancy Pelosi told me, “To have diversity of opinion in the debate strengthens the outcome and you get a better result.” Sell it as that.
2. Send the right signals. We need women and girls to see themselves as leaders, break out of stereotypical roles and value their own voices and visions. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand says, “The most important message for women is that they can do it. That you can find a way to balance a career and family — that there is a way that you can be part of the decisionmaking fabric of this country and still be a good mother.”
3. Stop stereotyping strong, ambitious women. Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, noted that one obstacle to women’s leadership is, “as a woman gets more successful, she is less liked by people of both genders, and as a man gets more successful, he does not take a likability hit.” Then again, as Steinem pointed out, women also shouldn’t feel dependent on being liked, as much as the culture encourages them to do so. “You just go forward, and you end up changing the image eventually, and you may take a lot of punishment along the way,” she told me.
4. Support working mothers in general. We need better policies, such as family leave, better child-care options and pay equity, before many women will feel comfortable taking on additional roles as leaders. We also need to help men break out of their own stereotypical roles, so they too can share in the responsibilities of taking care of the home and family. As Sandberg told me, “We cannot have equality in the office until we have equality in the home.”
5. Monitor the portrayal of women in the media. Sexist news coverage and the sexualization and objectification of women and girls in television and magazines impact not only a woman’s self-perception but how men view women as well. Studies show that when media coverage focuses on a female politician’s appearance, she pays a price in the polls. Many interviewees pointed to the sexist media coverage that Hillary Clinton was subjected to during her 2008 campaign — with commentators saying things like, “When Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear ‘Take out the garbage’” — and expressed the need for fair and accurate coverage. The media need to be held accountable, and we all need to be conscious about what media we consume and support.