Updated: Apr 8, 2020
Gender stereotyping keeps women from breaking the glass ceiling.
This piece was originally published in The Hill.
There are more women in politics now than ever, a resurgence of women’s rights activism and the possibility of another woman as the Democratic presidential nominee. Yet, it could still take 88 years to reach gender parity in Congress and 208 years to reach gender equality writ large in the United States. So what is holding us back?
You’ve surely heard hyperbolic claims like if women were running the world, we would all live in harmony. Even President Carter holds this line of thinking. He said, "there's no doubt in my mind that a woman is more inclined to peace than a man is, so I think we can move towards peace if women get more and more positions in parliament and more and more positions as president."
I advocate for more women to obtain positions of power and know that the world would be a better place for it. But the reason why I, and other gender equality professionals, know this to be true, is not because of any supposedly feminine qualities like peacefulness. In fact, gender stereotypes risk the upward trend of women’s political power and harm the efforts of gender equality professionals. Women deserve to have political power because we exist, and we have the right to control the destiny of our world just as much as men do.
That gender stereotypes still persist in our society is understandable, though, as everything from the toys we buy our kids to the ads on TV reinforce gender norms. These stereotypes are then perpetuated, performed and also policed. Both women and men can be harmed by these generalizations — and gender nonconforming people experience negative repercussions to a greater degree.
The European Institute for Gender Equality sums it up nicely: “Gender stereotyping can limit the development of the natural talents and abilities of girls and boys, women and men, as well as their educational and professional experiences and life opportunities in general…[Gender stereotypes] are used to justify and maintain the historical relations of power of men over women as well as sexist attitudes that hold back the advancement of women.”
Though some characteristics associated with femininity could be seen as positive leadership qualities, others can be weaponized against women as candidates and elected officials. After 9/11, voters considered women less qualified to lead on national security and military because of their supposedly peaceful nature, and the willingness to support a woman presidential nominee plummeted. And now, the question that many are asking, “Is a woman candidate electable?” is evidence in and of itself that we as a society know that gender stereotyping still stymies women from breaking the highest glass ceiling.
To rectify this disparity, gender equality professionals do not advocate for a matriarchy or for radical actions like for women to stage coup d’etats. After all, in a scenario where women rule the world, we would still have a one-sided power structure and the resulting pitfalls that come with leaving out half of the population.
Instead, gender equality professionals conduct activities to counter gender stereotypes and secure a platform for women to lead on matters of national security and to foster credence in their abilities to do so. Groups like The Leadership Council for Women in National Security emphasize the danger of groupthink when making its bipartisan case for parity in national security appointments. Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security uses its platform to advocate for the redefinition of national security and the inclusion of diverse communities. Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy convenes leaders from a wide range of organizations to make actionable pledges to even the playing field for women working on the world’s most dangerous weapons. And the Women Legislators’ Lobby champions elected officials that are committed to securing a safer future and helps enhance their peace and security toolbox through professional development, model legislation, and information sharing.
So how do we square the circle that women and men do in fact govern differently? Research shows that when women are involved in conflict resolution and peacebuilding, peace is more likely to persist by 35 percent. We also know that women legislators put more tax dollars back into their communities. But it would be false to attribute these differences to inherent qualities of women. Rather, there is reason to believe that this phenomenon is better explained by diversity research, which tells us that diverse groups perform better and have more innovative and creative solutions to problems. Women’s experiences are complex and vary widely, so we should expect that they bring a nuanced perspective to the policy-making table.
I encourage those who advocate for women at the tables of power to understand that stereotyping can do more harm than good. We all want a safer, more prosperous country, and women are needed to make that happen. Not because we are inherently peaceful — but because our perspectives and experiences provide us with the tools necessary to solve our nation’s toughest challenges.