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How does the U.S. view women leaders? UHCL prof offers insights

The selection of Kamala Harris as then-presidential-candidate Joe Biden's running mate in the 2020 election was seen as a sign of the increasing diversity of the Democratic party. But although research shows that the electoral impact of vice presidential candidates is fairly limited, Harris' nomination as the first woman of color evoked a strong, but mixed, reaction.

In this Q&A, University of Houston-Clear Lake Associate Professor of Sociology Amy Lucas, who also teaches in the university's Women's and Gender Studies program, explores the reasons for the deep-seated biases that still exist against women in leadership.

Q: In your view, what are the main differences between how men and women in leadership are perceived?
A: There is research that consistently shows that Americans have differing conceptions of what traits we associate with men and women. Here, gender is still considered binary — that is, traditional male and female. We have structured and organized our lives accordingly, with men and women in those categories. Although that idea is shifting, and younger people are much less rigid, it's still a societal norm and the basis of American culture, and it shapes the way people see the world and how they perceive people.

Q. How are these "societal norms" impacting us in terms of how we view women leaders?
A: We may not realize how much we are influenced by these societal norms and values.

In 2018, the Pew Research Center did a survey asking what society values in men and women. It revealed that men and women are viewed differently, in terms of their strengths. For example, the words "powerful" or "strong" are positive attributes for men; society values those traits in men.

However, those same words are perceived negatively as pertains to women. So, if you're in a position of leadership, if power and strength are associated with men, then it follows that men should be natural fits for those roles. Under that paradigm, those words don't associate positively for women, so that creates a significant difference in how men and women in authority are viewed.

For women, words like "kindness," "compassion," "responsibility" were highly valued, but the traits associated with men — strength, power, decision making — carry much more agency for action and are traits more typically associated with leadership roles.

Q: Why do you think so many people have a negative reaction to Vice President Kamala Harris?
A: The concept of intersectionality is very important, as it recognizes that someone's identity is not due to one particular category or factor — she is a woman of color in a leadership role. Viral video clips of Kamala Harris have often been ones that demonstrate her intellect and her ability to think quickly on her feet, such as clips of her during debates or hearings in the Senate when she's questioning a witness. She exudes strength and intelligence, which can make people uncomfortable and it's not the association we have with warm, caring women.

Q: Can you explain more about how responses to Harris are shaped by her intersecting identities?
A: I think it's important to note that not all women are perceived or viewed in the same manner. Research shows, for example, among women who make mistakes in their profession, women of color are penalized more and viewed more negatively than white women. This will come into play with Vice President Harris. Women of color tend to be criticized more and held to higher standards than white women.

Polls suggest that Vice President Harris's favorability rating is several percentage points lower than President Biden's. This difference might be due in part to people who are dissatisfied with the Biden presidency and find easier to focus on her than on him.

For example, there was more coverage and criticism, both on Twitter and in the news, over Vice President Harris's Memorial Day-related tweet to "enjoy the long weekend" while there was considerably less coverage of President's Biden tweet that same weekend to "stay cool this weekend, folks."

Prof. Amy Lucas's research focuses on gender along the lines of family and relationships and teaches undergraduate and graduate-level courses in sociology focusing on genderwork and family.

In this recurring feature, University of Houston-Clear Lake faculty answer questions about current events that impact our community. For more information about UHCL's Women's and Gender Studies program, go online.