A risky strategy? Clinton puts her motherhood first
If you are like me, you can’t wait to get four hours or so of your day back once this election is over.
In the endless reading I do every day about what could be one of the most potentially terrifying outcomes in politics in my lifetime, I’ve read two pieces that stand out.
This one, by Ezra Klein on the gap between the Hillary as the public knows her and the Hillary everyone who has worked with her describes; the gap between incredibly high approval ratings when she’s doing job but incredibly low approval ratings when she’s running for one.
And this one, written by a Bernie Sanders supporter who realized that he’d been duped by decades of misogynistic trolling on Clinton. And if you are one of those last hold outs who doesn’t believe that sexism is at play when it comes to how the public thinks of Clinton, watch this incredibly disturbing video.
I guess that’s what’s captivating me in this election as much as the fear that a man surfing an ugly wave of hatred could win: It’s an ultimate test of whether women are equal or not; whether words can or cannot truly hurt us.
I was talking about this with another woman last night and she put it better than I did above: “We take for granted how easy it’s gotten for us, even in the tech world to do whatever job we want,” she said. “We may have to go to another company, or work harder to get it, or get paid less, but we can usually do it and be mothers too. But when it comes to the presidency, that’s just not the case.”
Put another way: What we are watching with Clinton is what most professional woman would have faced in their day-to-day lives a generation earlier. And not that we don’t all still get some of it. Since the moment I dared to interviewed Mark Zuckerberg on stage, I’ve been trolled and threatened online most days of my life. People simply made up things about me that weren’t true, again and again, until some people probably believed them as fact. And like that video above, it gets weirdly sexual really quickly. But few of us face it to the extreme Clinton does in our professional lives.
This is what makes her campaign strategy from the DNC on so fascinating to me: She is not only a woman running for president, she is running as a woman-- particularly as a mother. As a grandmother, even.
When most women break through glass ceilings for the first time, they do it by playing the rules of that industry-- ie, behaving like a man. Compare and contrast even the last generation of tech leaders, Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina with the Sheryl Sandbergs and Marissa Mayers of today. The former would never dress as feminine as Sandberg or Mayer, nor would they openly talk about their children and the plight of women in tech. They couldn’t.
That Klein piece I referenced above gets right to the heart of this. He spent months talking to people who have worked with Clinton, about this gap in how they see her and how the world sees her. From the piece:
There is something about her persona that seems uniquely vulnerable to campaigning; something is getting lost in the Gap. So as I interviewed Clinton's staffers, colleagues, friends, and foes, I began every discussion with some form of the same question:What is true about the Hillary Clinton you’ve worked with that doesn’t come through on the campaign trail?...
The answers startled me in their consistency. Every single person brought up, in some way or another, the exact same quality they feel leads Clinton to excel in governance and struggle in campaigns. On the one hand, that makes my job as a reporter easy. There actually is an answer to the question. On the other hand, it makes my job as a writer harder: It isn’t a very satisfying answer to the question, at least not when you first hear it.
Hillary Clinton, they said over and over again, listens.
Klein acknowledges this sounds like a cliched way you’d describe a women. Women are better listeners, just like women are better multitaskers, more emotional and can’t throw a ball as far. These are core stereotypes to femininity.
But that becomes the point of his piece. Clinton is running by putting the core strengths of women first, in a process of getting a job that’s become dominated by core male strengths.
Again, from Klein:
Let’s stop and state the obvious: There are gender dynamics at play here.
We ran a lot of elections in the United States before we let women vote in them. You do not need to assert any grand patriarchal conspiracy to suggest that a process developed by men, dominated by men, and, until relatively late in American life, limited to men might subtly favor traits that are particularly prevalent in men.
Talking over listening, perhaps.
That probably sounds familiar to any woman who has worked in a male dominated industry. Enduring golf. Having to miss rocking your kids for late night dinners and drinks because that’s where work gets done. Or even, in some women’s experiences, having to stomach going to strip clubs with clients. These are extremes, but all women who have broken through glass ceilings have initially had to do it by play-acting as men.
It hit me when I read Klein’s piece, and it’s as bold as it is subtle: Clinton is not only a woman running; she is running as a woman. Then I watched the DNC. Where Clinton’s campaign not only made her case as a woman, but as a mother.
There was the introduction by her daughter, and the description by her husband of her lining drawers in Stanford dorms and never missing a soccer game. But beyond that, there was speaker after speaker who described Clinton’s work for children in this country throughout her career. Whether those were kids in segregated schools, disabled kids who couldn’t get to school, or fighting to get healthcare for children.
Hillary the mother was the thread that ran through the entire convention.
Think of how bold that is when you are running to be the first woman at a job that’s all about traditional masculine qualities. She was reminding voters not only that she was a woman, but her strength as a woman was the very thing men cannot do: Be mothers.
I’m currently writing a book about motherhood and entrepreneurship; about how I felt lied to in my 20s and 30s about how becoming a mother would make me weak and unambitious and ruin my career and even my sense of my independent self. In practice, I’ve found the exact opposite: Motherhood has made me so much stronger in every way.
There is data to back this up. For instance, after a brief period having children, mothers are way more productive employees for the rest of their careers. And the more children a woman has, the more productive they are.
But the bulk of the world doesn’t see motherhood as a strength in the workplace. The so-called “Maternal Wall” is the most blatant bias women face, affecting some 60% of women. The reason it’s so blatant? Many people don’t consider it a bias at all. They believe they are “helping” a mother when they deny her promotions because she should be with her family. The believe that biologically women change when they give birth and simply can’t perform at the same level.
This reality even came up at the RNC in Ivanka Trump’s speech when she said that the gender imbalance was no longer against women, it was against mothers. It was a strange speech that seemed misplaced at the wrong convention. But her point was well taken. For her to say that, and then the DNC run Hillary as a mother first, was staggering to me.
If it works, Clinton won’t just be our first female president. She’ll be our first female president who ran as a woman and a mother, not as a woman play acting at being a man.
There’s more. Amy Cuddy has done some fascinating research on how women are perceived in the workplace before and after having kids. Her research is about balancing whether it’s better to be loved or respected as a leader, and she divides perception into four quadrants: Cold and warm; competent and incompetent.
Career women (and some other minority groups like African Americans too) are seen as cold and competent in the workplace. People may want to hire them and work with them, but it’s not necessarily because they like them but because they’re viewed to have made it this far because they are good at what they do.
But when women have children they change quadrants without even realizing it. They become warm, because children have “humanized” them. This is clearly what Clinton’s team was going for. But they also become viewed as “incompetent.” The Maternal Wall: A good employee is totally devoted to her job; a good mother is totally devoted to her child. You can’t be both, in the minds of many people.
If people see mothers as warm and incompetent, imagine how they see grandmothers. How many times have heard the cliche in the tech world that something is so easy “your grandmother could use it”?
The campaign clearly felt that humanizing Clinton was worth the risk of her maternal strengths making her seem more incompetent.
I’ve thought about this a lot with my own career. I noticed a very clear shift in how I was perceived once I had kids: The level of sexually explicit trolling I got online all but went away. Something about becoming a mother clearly put me in a different quadrant for a lot of people. And because I started my own company, I didn’t have to worry with the downside of that switch, the possible view that I also became incompetent.
The explicit strategy is worth calling out, because if she wins this race as a mother first, it could do more than anything we’ve seen before to convince young women that the incredibly physically, emotionally and mentally challenging task of being a mother is a strength and not a disability.