Act Like A Man: Deconstructing Political Gender Biases

AOC at a rally

Niamh Axe

Niamh is a second year BSc Politics and International Relations student at University College London from Ireland. Her literary interests include social justice, gender equality and sustainable development.

13th February 2021

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While the US elections have shown that the future of female politicians continues to brighten, women remain targets of incessant gender-oriented abuse and character assassination. Although recently making history by becoming the first female Vice President, Kamala Harris was by no means immune to this abuse, painted by Republican opposition as anangry Black woman ”. Subjected to the same double-bind of masculine/feminine expectations many women faced in years past, Harris was criticised for being too tough in the primaries, and for “over-smiling” in the VP debate. Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren battled similar degradation: portrayed as bossy, accused of being “preachy” and advised to “stop the finger-wagging” – whereas Bernie Sanders’ similar demeanour won him praise for “authenticity” and “passion”. 


Four years prior, Hillary Clinton was equally reprimanded for behaving either too feminine or too masculine, with Trump on numerous occasions challenging her “stamina” and “strength”, criticising her for playing the “woman’s card”, and leading his supporters to attack America for becoming “too soft and feminine”. While the results of the 2020 elections – marking the most women in US history being elected to Congress – have given women in politics reason to celebrate, there has been little change in the depiction of female politicians as they strive for success in a male-dominated field. 


Gender biases in politics have consistently led to the vilification of women, where despite the success of female politicians in 2020, the discourse surrounding their behaviour is no more forgiving than in 2016. The backlash facing women for being too ‘masculine’ or too ‘feminine’ severely disadvantages women running for higher office, painting them as either caring but weak, or strong but bossy. Considering that societal constructions of what it means to be ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ set the stage for political inequality, how can these biases be remedied in order to sustain the trend of increased opportunities for women in politics?


Gender-learning begins from infancy, where children are socialised to perceive their gender identities as fixed and unchangeable, in turn cementing the role of women in domestic rather than professional domains (Oakley, 1972). While women are perceived as warm but incompetent, men are viewed as cold and competent, qualifying the latter as effective leaders and the former as essentially, effective mothers (Jones, 2017, p.10). Yet, as a social construct, gender is performative rather than a biological inevitability (Ibid., p.15). Hence, women acting ‘masculine’ in politics does not reinforce the notion that men are more suited to political careers, but rather embodies a rejection of culturally-instilled ideas about what it means to behave like a woman. Just as Kamala Harris did in the VP debate by acting “tough and pointed”, female politicians must employ a repertoire of socially constructed ‘masculine’ characteristics in order to better conform to the prototype of an ideal leader: that is, a man. 


Although the necessity for women to adopt ‘masculine’ communication repertoires in order to achieve political power is rooted in the deeply patriarchal foundations of society, it can in fact help to undo the misogyny that bleeds into every facet of political life. While the reality is that women who act ‘masculine’ are more successful than those who do not, this masculine self-presentation dismantles the stereotypes that inhibit women from being perceived as competent leaders. Political bias can be reduced by altering perceptions of traits held by women, suggesting that once society normalises women adopting ‘masculine’ traits, such traits are no longer associated with men and instead become gender-neutral (Benstead, Jamal and Lust, 2015, p.89). As masculinity and femininity are social constructs, they can equally be socially deconstructed by women acting ‘masculine’ and men acting ‘feminine’. Particularly in politics, women acting ‘masculine’ tears down the notion that effective politicians and leaders are likely to be men, and further normalises men acting with compassion and empathy without being accused of showing weakness.


Branded the “Iron Lady”, Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister throughout the 1980s, ensured her political success through her ‘masculine’ leadership style as cold and competent. It was Thatcher’s masculinized self-presentation that ensured her political success: she could not be undermined for being too ‘feminine’, compassionate or caring. By undergoing a “linguistic makeover” and adjusting her leadership style, Thatcher qualified herself as an effective leader and helped to normalise stereotype-defying behaviour that dismantles the idea that competency is inherent to male leaders (Jones, 2017, p.17).


Encouragingly, with time the window of ‘acceptable behaviour’ has shifted to include more typically ‘feminine’ leaders, such as New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Following the Christchurch shooting, Ardern was praised for her compassion, proving that “typically ‘feminine’ behaviour is powerful”, and was further commended for her “clarity and compassion” in response to COVID-19. Ardern’s presentation as both ‘feminine’ and strong-willed in the face of adversity helps to detach femininity from roles purely associated with domesticity. Although Thatcher presented herself as ‘masculine’, Ardern’s self-presentation as ‘feminine’ functions in the same manner: to tear down stereotypes associated with a single type of behaviour and career path. Both feminine and masculine forms of expression, communication and behaviour are normalised in political environments, paving the way for leaders of all genders and self-presentations.


And yet, despite more women being elected to higher office – and their leadership proving effective – we  still live in a world where competent female leaders are consistently undermined, subjected to the double-bind of masculine/feminine expectations. But fortunately, change is already in motion. With the increasing political influence of women, such Alexandra Ocasio Cortez’s social media mastery and Sarah McBride’s victory as the first trans state senator, comes the normalisation of multiple modes of communication and gender identity expression, preventing the notion of gender from being perceived as fixed and unchangeable. Women acting ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ to achieve political power is essential in dismantling the patriarchal society that defines what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a leader.


Further Reading

Benstead, L. J., Jamal, A. A., & Lust, E. (2015). Is It Gender, Religiosity or Both? A Role Congruity Theory of Candidate Electability in Transitional Tunisia. Perspectives on Politics, 13(1), 74-94.

Jones, J. J. (2017). Talk “Like a Man”: Feminine Style in the Pursuit of Political Power [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. University of California Irvine.

Oakley, A. (1972). Sex, Gender and Society. Maurice Temple Smith.

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