The first female president on TV—Geena Davis in Commander in Chief (2005–06)—arrived before her time and flamed out quickly. Now we have a model of female power that better reflects the ambivalence of our age: In HBO’s Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, a crudely ambitious and largely incompetent second to a president who never calls her. In one scene, an aide rushes in to announce that the president has suffered a possibly fatal heart attack. The veep flashes a giant grin before assuming the appropriate mask of concern and grief, offering a rare glimpse of raw power lust in a female leader. But the crisis turns out to be a false alarm (heartburn). The joke delivers to American women the brutal truth about this cultural moment: The nation is not quite ready for your power grab.
But we’re close. By many measures, we live in a world in which women are not just catching up to men but surpassing them. More women than men graduate from college, at a time when a college degree is still a key to economic success. In 2009 women were the majority of the workforce, and they represent almost half the students at law and medical schools. A recent analysis of census data showed that in most of the U.S., young, childless women earn more than their male counterparts.
People talk about the scarcity of women at the very top, but in fact we are heading toward a tipping point, where the number of women in visible leadership positions, in politics and business, will be large enough that it will no longer seem unusual or anomalous to see them there. Already women make up 51 percent of management and professionals in the U.S., according to the Department of Labor. In the positions just below CEO—the top executives, or the highest paid—women make up about 15 percent, as well as 16 percent of the seats on Fortune 500 boards. The number of women with six-figure incomes is rising at a much faster pace than the number of equally successful men. Nationwide, about one in 18 women who work full-time earned $100,000 or more in 2009.
Women are now lead TV anchors, Ivy League college heads, bank presidents, corporate CEOs, movie directors, scatologically savvy comedians, presidential candidates—most unthinkable 30 years ago. The job of secretary of state has been virtually co-opted by women. And as we learned from Barack Obama, it takes only one person to make the picture look different.
Americans are by temperament a meritocracy, so seeing Hillary Clinton negotiate with foreign leaders or Nancy Pelosi quarterbacking House Democrats makes us believe they have earned their authority, which influences our collective subconscious. The same goes for images of Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, or Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund. War-torn countries such as Rwanda and Liberia have turned to women leaders to help them heal after years of savage warfare. In fact, the number of female heads of state, although still small, has doubled since 2005.
This is no accident. As we see more women on the public stage, our ideas about the qualities a leader should embody are evolving. The old model featured something like an army general, issuing orders to the ranks below. The new leader, called post-heroic or transformational by the historian and leadership expert James MacGregor Burns, is more like a charismatic coach who excels at motivating others to be hardworking and creative. Julie Gerberding, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and now head of Merck Vaccines, calls this style “horizontal leadership” and defines it as the ability to negotiate, collaborate and “walk in someone else’s shoes with emotional intelligence and empathy.” While both sexes have those skills, she continues, “I think that some of them are attributes that women are naturally inclined [toward] or [are] more socialized to excel in.”
In the past few years, the need for this feminine-oriented style has become more urgent. In 2001, Harvard University’s Quarterly Journal of Economics published a paper called “Boys Will Be Boys: Gender, Overconfidence and Common Stock Investment.” Two researchers at the University of California, Davis, compared the stock market trades of men and women over a six-year period. Men, especially single men, traded vastly more frequently than women, and they did so out of a false confidence in themselves and their own judgments. Their overconfidence resulted in many more bad decisions and lower net returns.
In May, when Wall Street was scratching its head over how JPMorgan Chase could have made the disastrous trades that resulted in losses now estimated at some $5.8 billion, the New York Times came up with a novel and very relatable explanation. The bank’s chief investment officer, Ina Drew, had been overseeing the team responsible for the bet. During 2008, Drew was credited with steering the bank away from such colossal errors. Using coach-like, “post-heroic” leadership skills, she kept the traders’ huge egos and fighting in check. But Drew developed Lyme disease and, the New York Times reported, was frequently out of the office during the period the trades were made. In her absence, the testosterone raged out of control and damaged the bank.
The traits that used to be considered hallmarks of leadership—the ability to act quickly, to remain in a state of pumped-up confidence—are being recast as liabilities. Testosterone has become the new estrogen, the hormone that makes you behave in irrational and reckless ways. At the same time, behaviors that for centuries were viewed as feminine and flawed—hesitating, waiting for feedback, creating consensus—now look like critical skills that can save an ailing economy. As Lagarde commented, “If Lehman Brothers had been a bit more Lehman Sisters, we would not have had the degree of tragedy that we had.”
Such a fundamental and momentous change in a culture’s views inevitably creates resistance, not just from the men in charge but from some women as well. (Researchers often attribute the lack of sisterly solidarity to women’s sense that they are still underdogs who have to fight for the few spots reserved for them at the top.) The resistance is natural, the last gasp of a dying age, of a culture afraid to accept the obvious and inevitable. There are plenty of signs that this lopsided hierarchy with men dominating the tippy-top is about to topple, given the number of women pushing against it. Take the 2012 election’s war on women, for example. The efforts of some conservatives to limit women’s access to birth control were an irrational, almost nostalgia-driven strategy. Ninety-nine percent of heterosexual women have used contraception; every family-values conservative knows that and knows too that this particular battle was lost long ago. But what drove the right to keep fighting was not the usual fear of female sexuality but fear of burgeoning female power. America’s families and their economic successes are now dependent on female advancement in the workforce, which is dependent on contraception, and that must be a scary fact for the nation to absorb into its consciousness.
A recent Pew Research Center study titled “Men or Women: Who’s the Better Leader?” perfectly captured our conflicted instincts at this moment. Researchers asked the survey participants to list the traits they thought most relevant to being a leader. The top choices were: honest, intelligent, hardworking, decisive, ambitious, compassionate, outgoing and creative. They then asked which gender better embodied each trait. Women tied or bested men on every trait except decisiveness. (On half the measures, the male and female respondents favored their own sex.) Nonetheless, when asked outright, only 6 percent said women are better political leaders than men. That doesn’t make any sense except psychologically, as the kind of confusion and cognitive dissonance that precedes a massive paradigm change. If women have more leadership traits, why aren’t there more women political leaders? A majority of the respondents (56 of the females, 46 of the males) said Americans simply “aren’t ready” to elect a woman to higher office. In other words, we aren’t ready for a woman because we aren’t ready.
In years past, respondents might have said that women were unqualified, or that they should stay home and take care of their children, or that they would break down crying if there was a national crisis. Now they are just saying that psychologically, the nation has not accepted a truth that is empirically obvious. But that’s like a man or woman standing on a diving board, closing his or her eyes and repeating, “I’m not ready! I’m not ready!” It’s a resistance that can last only a little bit longer—a decade, a generation—before we dive in.
Part 2: Vaginas Rule
Don’t miss out on MORE great articles like this one. Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter!