Woman in Power: Upending Social Norms


For the second time in as many presidential elections, a qualified female candidate failed to shatter the highest political glass ceiling in the United States of America by being elected president.  In 2016, former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton became the Democratic nominee as arguably the most qualified candidate this country has ever seen only to be defeated by a former reality television show host, lukewarm businessman, and accused sex offender with no political experience whatsoever.  While that shocked Clinton supporters, the implications that American society is simply not ready to accept a female president remained evident as Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Kristen Gillebrand, Tulsi Gabbard, Marianne Williamson, and Elizabeth Warren all attempted to achieve what Clinton could not.  Of those six women, Warren was touted as the “favorite.”  In fact, Warren was thought to be a strong contender for the nomination, even ahead of the men (Bacon Jr., 2020).  Bacon Jr. (2020) writes, “Once voting started, however, the delegates never really materialized.  Warren...never finished higher than third in any primary or Caucus” (para. 2).

Understanding why Warren couldn’t advance as far as Clinton did just four years ago is a complicated and not entirely knowable circumstance.  Bacon Jr. (2020) suggests reasons ranging from her being “too liberal” to trying to siphon support off of Bernie Sanders’ equally liberal platform to her academic elitism to the tried and true notion that men are simply more electable.  Garber (2020) cites vitriol from a variety of media sources who referred to Warren as “sanctimonious,” “a narcissist,” “self-righteous,” “abrasive, “intensely alienating,” a “know-it-all,” and “unlikable” with a “high school principal demeanor” (all quotations found in para. 3). MSNBC’s Donny Deutsche said, “This is not a gender thing.  This is just a kind of [a] tone and manner thing” (quoted in Garber, 2020, para. 3).  According to Garber (2020), “Boston Magazine ran a 2017 story calling Warren ‘the new face of the Democratic Party and a favorite for the 2020 Presidential race. The article was entitled ‘Why is Elizabeth Warren So Hard to Love?’” (para. 10).  What all of these mixed messages do is lead to another highly competent, qualified candidate to fail to advance politically because of some amorphous understanding of how she was perceived by the American media and voters alike.  For a candidate like Warren who once, after being formally silenced on the floor of the Senate, prompted Senator Mitch McConnell (2017) to say, “She was warned, she was given an explanation.  Nevertheless, she persisted” (quoted in Lazarus & Steigerwalt, 2018, p. 172), toughness and fortitude aren’t much of a question.  As the “poster child” of such persistence, Warren knows better than most that female politicians must develop this drive to carry on.  As Lazarus & Steigerwalt (2018) write, “It is an adaptive trait women have almost evolutionarily developed that allows them to successfully navigate an electoral arena that is much more precarious for them than it is for men” (p. 172).  Even so, Garber (2020) writes, “One of the truisms of the 2020 campaign -- just as it was a truism in 2016 and in 2008 -- is that women candidates are punished, still, for displays of ambition” (para. 11).  Understanding why is the “million dollar question” on the table.

The Issue

The issue of female leadership is global.  According to Conceição et al. (2019), inequalities based on gender exist in every country worldwide, regardless of the nation’s wealth status.  Some scholars estimated gender equality to be possible by 2030, but current estimates suggest  that if current trends persist, it would take two hundred fifty-seven years to close the gap (Conceição et al., 2019).  Out of one hundred ninety-three countries globally, only ten have female heads of state, which is down from fifteen in 2014 (Conceição et al., 2019).  Part of the issue has to do with the mixed messaging of telling young girls they can be “anything they want” while blocking their access to power (Conceição et al., 2019).  The simple truth is that women can make the biggest strides when there are the lowest stakes.  As Conceição et al. (2019) writes, “They face a glass ceiling where they have greater responsibility, political leadership, and social payoff in markets, social life, and politics” (p. 3).  US Representative Barbara Le (2015) quipped,  “How do these deeply entrenched barriers manifest in the political spheres?  They turn into roadblocks on the path to power, allowing women to sometimes get a seat at the table but not at the head of the table” (quoted in Lazarus & Steigerwalt, 2018, p. 173).

In the United States, Schneider et al. (2016) report that “men continue to dominate representation...at all levels of government but the causes for disparity continue to puzzle scholars” (p. 515).  Since voters generally agree they have no issue casting a ballot for a female candidate, gender still has relevance in their selection because of expected behavior or even competence on specific issues (Sanbonmatsu & Dolan, 2012).  Female politicians are thought to be warmer, more compassionate, and more liberal/Democratic than their male counterparts, who are thought to be stronger, more conservative leaders, which means that issues related along those divergent lines are generally considered to be better handled with a candidate whose gender matched the issue at hand (Sanbonmatsu & Dolan, 2012).  

These gender stereotypes drive a wedge between expectations of female and male candidates before either could so much as give a stump speech.  According to Sanbonmatsu & Dolan (2012), “The less voters know about a candidate, the more likely they are to use a candidate's gender in order to make inferences” (p. 262).  Similarly, female candidates are more likely to be successful in campaigns centered on issues commonly associated with female causes -- such as education, health care, or reproductive rights -- than those that are considered to be more masculine platforms -- like crime, economics, or security -- even though voters do not see either gender as actually being better equipped to handle those issues while in office (Sanbonmatsu & Dolan, 2012).

The bottom line is that women today are “the most qualified in history” (Conceição et al., 2019, p. 5) but they still face social resistance when trying to assume meaningful leadership roles.  This is just as true globally as it is in the United States, though it truly baffles scholars and voters, alike.  Trying to assess why, exactly, it is that women struggle to break that glass ceiling may be tied to perceived gender norms. Conceição et al. (2019) writes, “Gender inequality...is characterized by inequality across multiple dimensions with a vicious cycle of powerlessness, stigmatization, discrimination, exclusion, and material deprivation all reinforcing each other” (p. 12).  What this social bait-and-switch instructs is that “a norm will be stickiest when individuals have the most to gain from complying with it and the most to lose from challenging it” (Conceição et al., 2019, p. 10).  Even more bluntly, Garber (2020) states that “[misogyny] rewards those who uphold the existing order of things; it punishes those who fight against it” (para. 12).  

Historical Perspective

The United States has stood as a sovereign nation just shy of two hundred fifty years, about a century of which women have had the right to vote, and, even so, elected female leadership remains woefully underrepresented (Raphael & Black, 2019).  Even over the last decade or so, the United States Congress has gone from being 83% male in 2009 (Fox & Lawless, 2010) to 76.3% male in 2019 (Raphael & Black, 2019).  That means that in modern day America, where women make up 50.8% of the population, only 23.7% of Congressional representatives are women and only 8.7% of those representatives are women of color -- that means four women of color, three of whom were elected in 2016 (Raphael & Black, 2019). Out of nearly 200 countries, the United States ranks 79th in terms of women’s representation in the federal government (Raphael & Black, 2019).  At the state level, women hold 28.7% of seats, women serve as mayors in 22% of cities with more than 30,000 people, and thirty states have had a woman governor at some point in the nation’s history (Raphael & Black, 2019).  This is true despite research that shows women have made up the majority of voters since 1964 (Sanbonmatsu & Dolan, 2012).

A historic look at traditional limitations for female candidacy alone reveals a few structural factors, namely the likelihood that the incumbent is male, the assumptions attached to traditional gender roles, and the mere fact that fewer women run for public office (Fox & Lawless, 2010).  Scholars time and time again identify recruitment as being the silver-bullet of sorts to close the gender gap when it comes to the political realm.  When approached, women don’t necessarily need effusive recruitment efforts nor might they feel dissuaded to run, but the fact remains that women simply aren’t identified by political powers-that-be as potential candidates at the same rate as men (Fox & Lawless, 2010).

Another consideration has to do with Edmund Burke’s 1780 proposal that there are two distinct types of representatives: trustees and delegates.  While a trustee acts in the best interest of the big picture, delegates explicitly follow the directives of their constituents they were elected to serve (Lazarus & Steigerwalt, 2018).  Lazarus & Steigerwalt (2018) report that those who support the delegate model should vote for female candidates and those who support the trustee model should vote for men since female representatives historically prioritize their constituents over everything else.  Lazarus & Steigerwalt (2018) write, “It may be that an unintended side effect of strong constituent orientation is increased bipartisanship” (p. 185).  That willingness to work for the people allows for more negotiation, more compromise, and less polarization.  The other simple truth is reflected in Fox & Lawless (2010): “As long as local, state, and national political networks and institutions continue to operate with a gendered lens, progress pertaining to women’s emergence in the political arena at all levels of government will continue to trail the gains they have made in economic, social, and legal domains” (p. 323).  Women may be the kind of leaders that constituencies want but it may also be the reason they have struggled to emerge as such with transparency.  Lapinski et al. (2016) reports that “better educated voters will have stronger, more established issue positions and they will want to select a member who represents their beliefs” (p. 536) -- but  being too willing to compromise allows for a weakening of that representative’s overall power; and if that compromising person is typically a woman, that’s the ballgame.

When considering the darker side of being willing of female elected officials to work for the betterment of the constituents, the facts are stark: bills introduced by women are less likely to become laws than bills introduced by men and women are more likely to agree to have their name taken off of a bill and thus abstain from getting any “credit” for it in order to move the legislative process along (Lazarus & Steigerwalt, 2018).  The result is fewer women seeing political upward mobility, both because of their willingness to sacrifice their personal power for the good of the community they serve and because their willingness to make such a sacrifice makes them seem inherently weaker (Lazaraus & Steigerwalt, 2018).  It seems counterintuitive that a decision to get the work done and let that be the main focus should turn into a detriment, but the simple truth is encapsulated by Lazarus & Steigerwalt (2018): “In ways both big and small, important and frivolous, female members of Congress simply do a better job than men of keeping their constituents in mind” (p. 178), but, even so, “women are generally not as senior as their male colleagues and not as likely to hold leadership, committee chair, or ranking member positions” (p. 183).  The reason behind taking this intentional “back seat” could be that “for many women, self-promotion feels not just uncomfortable, it feels garish.  Unseemly.  Unfeminine, even” (Raphael & Black, 2019, p. 79).  It’s nearly impossible to look back over the history of American politics and not attribute traditional gender expectations as a key player in the visibility of female power in elected positions.

Another important factor to keep in mind is that “men -- read: white men -- have been building their networks for centuries.  They have bought, sold, and passed on property.  They’ve helped each other build and secure wealth for their futures.  They’ve assumed leadership roles in companies, organizations, and governments.  In short, men have remained dominant by perpetuating modes and structures of power” ( Raphael & Black, 2019, p. 102).  The centuries’ old economic disadvantage women have cannot be ignored -- especially considering the financial burden of running any campaign at all, let alone a successful one.  Without the same access to inherited power or wealth -- two critical needs when seeking especially federal political office -- it will remain true that “even men who simply keep up the appearance of power and wealth could get elected more easily than women” (Raphael & Black, 2019, p. 102).  For campaign contributions to flow in, the candidate must be seen as viable, and white men are easily at the top of that pyramid.  

Still, the history of this issue is a living one and progress is made bit by bit and step by step.  Over time, the relevancy of compromise, bipartisanship, and care for constituency matters.  Some even argue that “women’s alternative approach to policy making may improve public perception of political actors” (Schneider et al., 2016, p. 526).  Ultimately, focusing on diplomacy could do wonders in changing the public perception of politians and political careers and attract civically-minded individuals across all gender and social spectrums to serve their community for the betterment of society (Schneider et al., 2016).

Research Findings

Perhaps unsurprisingly, what research reveals is that the reasons so few women run in the first place range from lack of desire for “power goals” (especially when compared to communal goals) and desiring peace over conflict (Schneider et al., 2016).  Studies show that only 41% of women have considered running for office versus 56% of men -- and perhaps even more interestingly, only 25% of women versus 40% of men see themselves as genuinely qualified to hold public office (Schneider et al., 2016).  The numbers look even sillier when considering that 55% of men would still consider running even though they did not think they were qualified at all (Raphael & Black, 2019).  The reasons for these disparities are undoubtedly linked to gendered social expectations.  As Conceição et al. (2019) reports, “Societies often tell girls they can be anything they want… but at the same time block their access to power” (p. 1).  The reality is that more men are prompted by friends, family, and community stakeholders to consider running for office (Schneider et al., 2016; Raphael & Black, 2019), which inflates their confidence in their ability to do the job. Schneider et al. (2016) report that “political elites often discount women’s ability to win elections” (p. 516), which shifts the power more squarely on male candidates.

Beyond the candidates themselves are the voters whose job it is to select their representatives.  Here is where it muddles even further.  The 2006 ANES Pilot Study, which explored gender stereotypes and politicians, revealed that the “vast majority of respondents (79%) believe that men and women are equally suited emotionally to work in government...it was more common to see men rather than women as better suited” (quoted in Sanbonmatsu & Dolan, 2012, p. 265).  More recent data also reveals that voters tend to vote for candidates of their same gender (Casa-Arce & Saiz, 2015) and since more women typically vote (Sanbonmatsu & Dolan, 2012), that would indicate a preference overall for female candidates.  Yet, still, globally, 50% of people believe men make better political leaders -- 40% believe men make better executives -- and, perhaps most shockingly, 30% believe it is justifiable for a man to beat his partner (Conceição et al., 2019).  What these findings suggest is that the patriarchy is not only alive and well, it puts women in their place -- under a man’s control.  How can the gender gap even begin to disappear with so many people across the globe blatantly approving of domestic violence?  It is no wonder women not only feel less qualified to serve in public office, they feel beholden to that lack of confidence while men so easily shrug off the same potential discomfort and stride towards significant power. 

Impact on Social Work

For social workers, the question goes beyond women running for public office and straight into the heart of the power of the female voice.  While the research reports that women are hesitant to run for office because they feel unqualified -- or unworthy -- a gentle pullback of the curtain can reveal more about why that is.  Of her decision to take the leap of running for office, Senator Kristen Gillibrand (2014) said, “I felt almost embarrassed to say ‘I want to run for Congress… I just felt, ‘Am I smart enough?  Am I tough enough? Can I do this job?’ A lot of us doubt ourselves and that’s something we have to overcome” (quoted in Lazarus & Steigerwalt, 2018, p. 173).  Certainly, there is an ethos of masculinity attributed to politics that feeds into women’s insecurities (Schneider et al., 2016), especially since men are never told they can’t hold positions of power.  As Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) put it, “I was ‘qualified’ to run mostly because I had the desire to serve and because my lived experience would make me an empathetic and effective leader” (quoted in Raphael & Black, p. 28).  For a woman -- especially a woman of color like Pressley -- it takes an enormous sense of self-confidence, drive, and care for the community to rise above the engendered insecurities that accompany women seeking positions of power.

In terms of being “qualified” to hold public office, Raphael & Black (2019) break down some of the resumes of the 115th US Congress (2017-2018): 101 members worked in education; 26 farmers/ranchers; 14 doctors, including 3 dentists and 3 vets; 10 military; 9 social workers; 8 ministers; 8 engineers; 7 radio talk show hosts; 6 car dealership owners; 5 police officers; 3 union reps; 2 Peace Corps workers; 2 nurses; 1 optometrist; 1 CIA agent; and 1 microbiologist, which debunks the myth that one must hold a law degree to become a legislator.  Truly, all one needs to pursue public office is the desire to serve.  What Raphael & Black also report is that “while men run as part of a logical career path, women usually run to solve problems in their communities” (p. 36), which shows women deflecting their own personal gains while men lean quite transparently into theirs.  As Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) put it, “People sometimes ask how I can run for Congress when I have four children.  I tell them, ‘I have four children -- how can I not??’” (quoted in Raphael & Black, 2019, p. 34).  Instilling these sense of empowerment and service into more women would elevate the playing field and introduce many new voices to the political process.

For social workers, then, the job becomes coaching women not only to pursue public office themselves but to support women candidates whenever possible.  Support can mean anything from encouraging women to run, donating money, time, or skills to a woman’s campaign, speaking up when sexist rhetoric comes up in conversations with others about women candidates, and, of course, voting for women (Raphael & Black, 2019).  When a difficult conversation may come up either as a candidate or as someone supporting a woman candidate, Raphael & Black (2019) offer some useful and easily digestible tips: ask clarifying questions, like “Can you tell me more?”; Speak from the “I”; use data to interrupt; offer to speak to them away from the group; and focus on impact, responding with phrases like, “I realize you may not have meant it to sound this way, but…”  Conversations can be productive when confidence and compassion are applied.

The bottom line for social workers is that working towards disrupting the “status quo” of gendered expectations can feel uncomfortable for both men and women, but that doesn’t discount the value of taking that step.  Raphael & Black (2019) report that “as more and more women run for office, they are changing voters’ minds about what a politician looks like” (p. 156).  Providing a safe space for women to know that their qualifications lie in the notion that their “experience is [their] expertise” (Raphael & Black, 2019, p. 29) will lead to more and more women building the confidence to run.  The benefits of doing so are easily knowable, as Lazarus & Steigerwalt (2018) state “Women who run also win; in fact, they win at equal rates to men” (p. 173).  Gaining the confidence to join the race starts from a strong base of support, something social workers and women’s groups, like NOW and EMILY’s List, can surely provide (Fox & Lawless, 2010).

Recommendations for Future Study

Looking once more at Senator Elizabeth Warren’s shuttered campaign for president, there is something to be learned from how unapologetically focused Warren was on her capacity to serve in her nation’s highest office.  Garber (2020) writes, “On the campaign trail, she has done what campaigns require candidates to do: she has sung her own praises.  She has sold her own story.  Such an absence of apology, however, is not something American politics -- or, indeed, American culture -- is fully accustomed to observing in women” (para. 9).  Bacon Jr. (2020) concurs, stating, “So Warren lost.  In fact, she didn’t really come particularly close to winning” (para. 17), though he notes that many of Warren’s campaign ideas may come to fruition, even if her own candidacy failed to advance.

What the case of Elizabeth Warren -- and the case of Hillary Clinton -- highlight is the summation of the findings herein: women so often sacrifice their individualized power for the so-called “greater good” by allowing their ideas to take precedence over everything else and women seeking power is counter-intuitive for the public-at-large. Conceição et al. (2019)  writes, “The backlash against changing gender roles in households, workplaces, and politics affects entire societies influenced by shifting power relations. The resistance to changes in gender expectations may lead to a perceived clash and reveal subconscious biases.  But remember, even gender norms can be shifted towards gender equality” (p. 15).  What that means is there is hope -- there is possibility for the future -- as long as pioneers like Warren and Clinton continue to brave the trail in an attempt to normalize a woman’s name on the top of the presidential ticket.

Certainly, there is a great deal more work to be done to help reverse the stigmatization of women in power in the United States and across the globe.  Perhaps those conversations can be fueled by increased studies that speak to why voters vote how they do, with special regard for women candidates, but also with consideration of what it means to be qualified to hold public office.  As the current administration demonstrates on a daily basis, not having political experience is very bad and not having strong minds around the president is even worse.  Asking voters to reflect on the importance of local, state, and federal leadership and suss out important values and adherences those professionals should possess may reveal how ideal female leadership would be both at home and abroad.


Bacon Jr., P. (2020, March 5). Why Warren couldn’t winFiveThirtyEight. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-warren-couldnt-win/

Casas-Arce, P., & Saiz, A. (2015). Women and power: unpopular, unwilling, or held back? Journal of political Economy, 123(3), 641-669.

Conceição, P., Hall, J., Hsu, Y., Jahic, A., Kovacevic, M., Mukhopadhyay, T., Ortubia, A., Rivera, C., and Tapia, H. (2019). Tackling social norms: a game changer for gender inequalities. The Human Development Report Office of the United Nations Development Programme. http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/hd_perspectives_gsni.pdf

Fox, R. L., & Lawless, J. L. (2010). If only they’d ask: Gender, recruitment, and political ambition. The Journal of Politics, 72(2), 310-326.

Garber, M. (2020, March 5). America punished Elizabeth Warren for her competence. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/03/america-punished-elizabeth-warren-her-competence/607531/

Lapinski, J., Levendusky, M., Winneg, K., & Jamieson, K. H. (2016). What do citizens want from their member of congress?. Political Research Quarterly, 69(3), 535-545.

Lazarus, J., & Steigerwalt, A. (2018). Nevertheless, she persisted: The story of women in elected office. Gendered vulnerability: How women work harder to stay in office. University of Michigan Press.

Raphael, J. D. and Black, K. (2019). Represent: The woman’s guide to running for office and changing the world. Workman Publishing Co.

Sanbonmatsu, K., Dolan, K., Aldrich, J. H., & McGraw, K. M. (2012). Gender stereotypes and gender preferences in American politics. Improving Public Opinion Surveys: Interdisciplinary Innovation and the American National Election Studies, 260-277.

Schneider, M. C., Holman, M. R., Diekman, A. B., & McAndrew, T. (2016). Power, conflict, and community: How gendered views of political power influence women's political ambition. Political Psychology, 37(4), 515-531.


Research paper written in pursuit of my MSSA (2020)

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