Spoiler alert – it depends. If Hillary Clinton becomes the first female President of the United States, according to recent research, some women will be more interested in entering politics, while others will be deterred from pursuing a political career.

Sounds like a typical research finding; and it’s an interesting one. And particularly so given the current US presidential media melee resulting from Trump’s accusation that Clinton is ‘playing the woman card’.

What does this say about women in powerful, leadership roles? On the positive side – women are prepared to run for such roles.

On the negative side, gender attributions and expectations remain so strongly entrenched that it is difficult for many voters to be comfortable with the stereotype-challenging association of women with power/leadership/president. Voters for whom the pairing of women with power is ‘wrong’, engage in backlash responses, in an attempt to set the world ‘right’.

In Australia, research published in 2012 indicated that Julia Gillard’s appointment as Prime Minister had a positive effect on women. While her ascension to the role was considered controversial, her leadership was initially associated with a positive increase in women’s sense of political involvement, and trust in politics and the democratic process. (Women voters were significantly more supportive and positive than men.)

However, Gillard’s term in office was characterized by significant commentary about gender, power and political leadership, magnified following her well known misogyny speech. Such commentary has been documented in other research that identifies a backlash effect on those women who seek power through political office. She too was accused of playing the ‘woman card’.

Later research explored the nexus between observing gender-based attacks on high-profile successful women, and the leadership aspirations of women and men. It identified a more complex landscape than the earlier research: women who challenge gender stereotypes are more likely to see women who violate gender role prescriptions, such as Julia Gillard, as positive role models.

Women who conform to gender role prescriptions, and who observe female leaders facing sexist commentary, appear to reduce their interest in a political career. Their beliefs in their own leadership capability do not change. The reduction in their interest to pursue a political career seems to be a direct result of fear of criticism for behaving inappropriately, which the researchers describe as avoidance of backlash.

And the effect on some men is rather intriguing: men with a high level of conformity to gender roles were more likely to report a stronger belief in their own leadership capability, which the researchers hypothesize as a defensive response to the threat inherent in gender prescription violations by women.

These are just some of the complex and paradoxical effects associated with women’s ascension to power. Women must overcome negative stereotypes about their competence and leadership ability in order to win powerful roles, and as they do, they risk being perceived as insufficiently warm and feminine. It’s not just the high profile women who experience this effect (and I’m not sure where they find the fortitude to withstand it). The public backlash effect that they experience has a flow-on effect to other women, some of whom will be encouraged to emulate them, while others will be discouraged and will downplay their career aspirations in order to avoid backlash and criticism. And some men will be more motivated to take the leadership space as rightfully their own.

We’ll know that we are getting somewhere closer to equality and a fair playing field, when ‘playing the gender card’ isn’t referenced in a political leadership campaign. And then more women may feel ready to pursue their leadership aspirations.

 

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