Author’s note: I wrote this column on Monday, November 7th, thinking—as so many did—that Hillary Clinton would win the U.S. election. I wanted to document an unprecedented milestone in the tireless campaign for gender parity, and to also explain the long-term benefits to the business community that would come from a woman winning the top job in the world. That, of course, did not happen. But we’re choosing to publish this anyway, because we think that now, more than ever, it’s dangerous to forget what was at stake. —D.A.
The election of Hillary Clinton as President of the United States is a resounding victory for gender parity. Her win signals the symbolic destruction of what she herself has called the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” that has, until now, blocked a female candidate from taking the top office in the U.S. It marks the most significant advancement for working women since the invention of the birth control pill.
Does that sound like hyperbole? Good. This is a rare moment of actual historic significance. It warrants some effusiveness.
This campaign season in the United States has been so grotesque that what Clinton represents—the fact that a woman can successfully pursue and earn the most powerful job on Earth—was often lost in the shuffle. Comedian Samantha Bee articulated the on a November 7 episode of Full Frontal: “None of us have gotten to savour this historic election like we should. It’s been like running a marathon while a bear is chasing you. We might be really proud, but it kind of gets lost in all the mortal terror.” But that is over now. Americans have chosen a woman to be their Commander in Chief, the de facto leader of the free world. It couldn’t matter more.
Love her or hate her–and boy, do some people ever hate her—it’s hard to make a credible case that she isn’t prepared for the job. Hillary Clinton is basically Harry Potter heroine Hermione Grainger in a pantsuit: tough, smart, industrious and ambitious—and unwilling to apologize for any of it. These characteristics make for tremendous leaders. They’re also traits that women have, all too often, tamped down to avoid intimidating or irritating the men they work with.
The reasons for that are complex and maddening, but it generally stems from a classic double standard, that the same behaviours we applaud in men seem distasteful in women. Clinton has put up with this dynamic for her entire life. Her win is profoundly satisfying for scores of brainy go-getters who’ve been told their whole lives to tone it down.
Satisfying—but not revolutionary. The bittersweet reality is that centuries of deeply embedded sexism in the workplace will not disappear with the election of a woman president. The election of Barack Obama didn’t end racism. Things won’t change overnight.
But things will change. That’s the truly exciting aspect of this election result. Clinton herself seems well aware that she’s playing a long game. One of her campaign stump speeches centred around her desire to create “an America where a father can tell his daughter, ‘yes, you can be anything you want to be, even President of the United States.’” It’s saccharine, yes, but if you think it’s mere political posturing, you’ve never been in a situation in which your leadership looks nothing like you.
When a child looks at a list of 44 presidents and sees 44 men (and 43 white men, let’s not forget), she internalizes the idea that a “president” is a job meant for other people. The same is true of how young women see CEOs, managers, celebrities, or other powerful professions. A few years ago, researchers from Indiana University studied the television viewing habits of nearly 400 preteens for a year. Most of the programming featured white men as protagonists; women and black men were, by and large, secondary characters. Lo and behold, the data revealed a notable increase in the self-esteem of the white boys involved in the experiment. Girls and black boys, by contrast, saw their self-esteem plummet. If a girl lacks exposure to people like herself in positions of power, she’ll feel less confident and less ambitious. As noted child-education expert Laura Thomas has written, “Our children’s early experiences shape what they imagine to be possible for people who look like them, live where they live, or come from where they came from. Simply put, kids determine what they can be based on the examples around them.”
I have a daughter. She is nearly two years old. Thanks to Clinton’s win, she will have no memory of a time in which it wasn’t possible for women to hold the most powerful position in the world. The effects that will have on her—and on millions of her contemporaries—as she pursues her education and career will be subtle, but profound. There’s an entire generation of girls who will be less afraid to speak up and to strive for more, who will wrestle less with the subconscious notion that they don’t belong at the top.
Of equal import: I also have a son. He’s almost five. He will come of age with a vastly different understanding of who can be a leader than I had, growing up. Because the first U.S. president that he and his buddies will know about will be a woman, they will be less likely to parrot the antiquated notion that certain jobs just aren’t for girls. They will—I hope—truly know that women are their equals.
With any luck, in 30 years our children will view the homogeneity of our executive ranks with the befuddlement with which we watch Mad Men characters smoking and drinking on company time. Clinton, like Obama before her, has changed what power looks like in the biggest and most influential office in the world. It’s about time.