A Tale of Two Candidates: Debate Prep and Gender Bias

By | September 21, 2016

hervoiceIn just one week, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will square off head to head in the first Presidential debate.  For political junkies, this is the equivalent of Oscar night or the Super Bowl, and pundits offering their views of the behind the scenes debate prep will soon be hitting the airwaves.  We will hear all about things like clothing choices, diction, and anticipating the tough questions.  We know in debates past, candidates literally got up on their soap boxes in an effort to eliminate the proverbial height bias in Presidential politics.  But this year there will also be a new dynamic at play.  One as dramatic and long-lasting as the first televised debates between Nixon and Kennedy.  For the first time we will see a man square off against a woman.

For those in the Hillary Camp, this debate preparation takes on a whole new layer of complexity.  Finding the balance between assertive and shrill; authoritative and bossy; knowledgeable and “know it all.”  These gender biases in communications and leadership are nothing new to women in corporate America.  Ask an accomplished woman if she’s ever been called a -itch, felt like her ideas went unheard or un-noticed.  Or struggled to navigate the double standards of leadership behavior and effective communications between men and women.  (Do you even need to ask?)

One thing we do know – women may be held to very high standards, but there is huge interest in the stories about and from women in leadership.  In fact, a recent MWW study of media coverage of female leaders revealed that female CEOs receive twice as much media coverage as their male counterparts.   Last week, Fortune released its latest Most Powerful Women list, and no surprise that among the women in the top tier are some of the great communicators of our time – Mary Barra, Indra Nooyi, Sheryl Sandberg and another one-time candidate, Meg Whitman.  How closely connected are effective leadership and effective communications?  And how can women level the playing field?

The solutions are complex, and there is no silver bullet.  The risk here is that women can lose their authentic voice in their efforts to navigate these kinds of communications challenges.  Like most unconscious biases, it starts with acknowledging the problem exists, and offering support and solutions for women, like MWW’s HerVoice practice – a suite of PR services designed by women, for women in leadership positions, or who strive to get there.  I particularly liked this piece about how women in the White House amplify each other (good advice for managers and leaders of all genders).  What a simple, but effective concept.

Somewhere in a conference room, a Donald Trump impersonator and a team of experts are helping Hillary Clinton prepare for the upcoming debates.  Will she find her authentic voice, and be able to tell her story?  Or will gender bias live on – not just in the media coverage of these debates, but in living rooms across America? Time will tell.

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