The 2016 presidential campaign has been good theater, particularly for those of us who are students of gender and group dynamics. It just doesn’t get better. With a woman seeking the nomination in both parties, it’s fascinating to observe how these candidates project themselves and are perceived and treated by the media — especially as it highlights the problematic balance faced by women in power, or seeking a position of power.
We all know the dynamic. While men are applauded for being assertive, driving, independent and self-confident, women demonstrating those same leadership qualities are labeled “pushy,” “brusque” and “overbearing.” Put bluntly, they are considered b*tches. This is the famous “double bind” that women in leadership face. A woman needs these traits to be leader-like — but if she has them, she drives away potential followers.
Women and men communicate loudly through both their words and their body language. The messages sent by tone and volume of voice, facial expression and posture all contribute to the perception we walk away with after watching a candidate at the podium, on stage or in an interview. And even when Carly or Hillary displays the same exact non-verbal behavior as, for instance, Marco or Bernie, you’d better believe our perceptions of the female candidates will be different from those of their male counterparts.
With women, there is a heightened focus on whether the candidate is smiling and how she is smiling. The smile cues us to think that this is a likable person, an approachable person, a caring person. And we want and expect women to be likable, approachable and caring — much more so than men. If her mouth is smiling, while her eyes are not, we see it as artificial and somewhat unnerving, signaling to us that she is untrustworthy. Even more damning is the lack of a smile. This tells us that she is stern, wooden, uncaring, withholding. If she isn’t smiling at us through the TV, we can feel rejected, seeing the candidate as haughty, superior, a “b*tch.” If a man doesn’t smile, we believe he is serious and means business — just what we want in a president…