When Women Seek Power

by Julie Graber | on 18 Mar 2020

Explaining the trajectory of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential run will undoubtedly be a hot topic in the post-mortems of this election cycle. It was just last fall that Warren was reportedly leading the field of Democratic presidential candidates. Newsweek had reported in September 2019 that Warren was “fast becoming a favorite to win the Democratic nomination for president,” and Quinnipiac declared her to be a “co-frontrunner with Biden” based on their polling analysis.

Humans are such a fickle lot.

A recent article from The Guardian on Warren's departure from the race suggested that Warren faced a common challenge for any woman seeking a position of power. As Bonnie Morris, professor of history at UC-Berkeley stated in the article, “we still have a problem in the United States with female authority.”

Authority is one of six bases of power defined in a framework developed by French & Raven, which I've used in some of my research. The framework makes the distinction between bases of power that are derived from a person’s position (authority, reward, discipline) and those that are based on personal characteristics (goodwill, information, expertise). The framework has been modified over the years, but this is the gist of it.

Research (including my own) has shown that women have challenges using some of these bases of power effectively, specifically authority and expertise. Supporting women for an executive office - president, governor, secretary of state, etc. - requires us to cede to them the authority that goes with the position, something that many women have found to be an insurmountable barrier (at least here in the US). There’s plenty of evidence: there have never been more than 33 women serving as CEO of a Fortune 500 company at the same time and only 30 states have ever had a woman serving as governor.

Comments from Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, point out the problem women have playing the expertise card as well; in the article she notes that while both Bernie Sanders and Warren supported Medicare for All, Warren was the only one “hounded” for the details of her plan (expertise is the power that comes from being a recognized expert with no explanation needed - Sanders is assumed, Warren has to prove). Tanden blames the media for using a double standard when covering the candidates, a factor that has played out in a myriad of ways in past elections as well.

So far, the only female presidential candidates who have succeeded in the US have been on TV or in the movies. Gallop reports that 94% of Americans say they would vote for a woman for president, but past voting behavior would suggest otherwise. With the promise of a female vice presidential candidate as a possibility, it could be another interesting year to watch the impact of gender and power play out on the national stage. Only time will tell.

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