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6 moments from the 2020 presidential race that mirror what women face at work

These moments on the debate stage and campaign trail reflect how women of all stripes are often treated at work.

6 moments from the 2020 presidential race that mirror what women face at work
[Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

The narrative surrounding Hillary Clinton—during the lead-up to the 2016 election and in the soul-searching that followed—hinged on her likability, or lack thereof. Was she too shrill? Too ambitious? Surely she would have been more appealing if she smiled more often. Or perhaps it was the dowdy pantsuits and reported $600 haircut that did her in.

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But in the years since, not much has changed about how we perceive female candidates.

In polls conducted by the New York Times and Siena College in November, the concerns raised over Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy in the 2020 election were all too familiar. Of the Joe Biden supporters surveyed, 41% echoed the sentiment that most women who run for president “just aren’t that likable.”

Even in an election cycle with an unprecedented number of female candidates, the nebulous quality of “likability”—among other attributes—hangs over the women making a presidential bid. Reports surfaced this week that Bernie Sanders had told Warren in 2018 that a woman couldn’t win the presidency, an allegation he denies. (In a statement, Warren claimed they had discussed what would happen if the Democratic nominee was a woman. “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed,” she said.)

Over the last six months, we’ve seen moments on and off the debate stage that reflect the experiences many women face in the workplace and beyond. Here, we take a look at some of the moments from the presidential campaign that hit close to home for many:

The men interrupt, the women wait their turn

In 2016, Donald Trump famously interrupted Clinton frequently when the two candidates faced off during debates. The dynamic echoed what many women experience in the workplace. A 2012 study found that male senators with greater influence held court more often than their junior peers, but the same wasn’t true for women. And when women speak up at work, they are often interrupted or ignored. (This even holds true in the Supreme Court, according to Harvard Business Review.)

Back in June, a similar pattern emerged when 10 Democratic candidates took the stage for the first time. At first, the men seemed to have done the calculus: The presence of three female candidates on the debate stage was unusual, and cutting them off or shouting past them wouldn’t make for good optics.

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But soon enough, the male candidates couldn’t help but talk over each other. “It was likely a familiar scene for many women watching at home: the men in the room yelling over one another with abandon, and the women, for the most part, patiently waiting for their turn to speak,” Adrienne Greene wrote in the Atlantic.

The female candidates onstage—Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Tulsi Gabbard—largely spoke when the moderators addressed them. Their reluctance to interrupt, or push back when interrupted, seemed to reflect their experiences vying for airtime next to their male colleagues, and an understanding that they would be penalized for conducting themselves the same way. (Warren, in particular, may have been all too aware of criticisms that she comes off as a “schoolmarm.”)

It’s a double bind: Speak up, and risk being seen as aggressive, or stay quiet, and risk being characterized as invisible.

Gillibrand’s short-lived candidacy

Before she even announced her presidential run in March, Kirsten Gillibrand had weathered criticism for being the first Democrat to call for Al Franken to step down, after sexual misconduct allegations against him came to light. Many of his supporters have laid blame at Gillibrand’s feet, despite the fact that Franken made the decision to resign.

Gillibrand has long been vocal on women’s issues, leading many to see her as the “feminist” candidate, even in a pool of six women. According to an analysis by the Women and Politics Institute at American University, Gillibrand brought up issues like pay equity and reproductive rights more than any other candidate during the July debate.

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But with her call for Franken’s resignation came a characterization that Rebecca Traister called the “seventh dwarf of female political personalities.” Gillibrand was swiftly dubbed an opportunist, for whom denouncing Franken was politically expedient and self-serving—labels that were often lobbed at the likes of Clinton. The framing of Gillibrand as an opportunist then came up during the July debate, when she questioned an old op-ed Biden wrote that claimed that when women worked outside of the home, it led to “the deterioration of the family.” Biden retorted by saying Gillibrand had previously praised his efforts around gender equity, and that he could only think of one thing that had changed since. “I don’t know what’s happened except that you’re now running for president,” he said.

Of course, Gillibrand has since dropped out of the race, and many point to the fallout from the Franken incident as a key reason for why her campaign never quite took off. Gillibrand says the decision to end her campaign was sealed once she didn’t qualify for the September debate. “I think being able to have a voice on a debate stage, when other candidates have that, is really important,” she told the Times, “Without it, I just didn’t see our path.”

Warren’s pregnancy discrimination claim

On the campaign trail, Warren has repeatedly referenced a setback early in her career, when she claims to have been fired from her first teaching job because she was pregnant. Warren was six-months pregnant when the principal at her school said the job she had secured for the following year was going to someone else. In early October, right-leaning media outlets challenged Warren’s claims, citing her description of the experience in a 2007 interview and the contents of a transcript from a 1971 school board meeting, which indicated her teaching contract was extended.

Warren dismissed those questions, clarifying that the board decision preceded her termination, since she had hidden her pregnancy as long as she could. The skepticism of Warren’s claims could, in part, be chalked up to politics as usual. But it’s also a reflection of how allegations of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace are often received, despite data that supports an increasing number of claims in recent years.

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These cases aren’t always clear-cut, especially in the corporate world, where pregnancy discrimination may take the form of, say, being passed over for a promotion. When people do take legal action—as tens of thousands of women have at companies like Walmart, AT&T, Whole Foods, and 21st Century Fox—employers can often find a way to rationalize their decisions and spin the case in their favor. Whether in a court of law or the court of public opinion, women like Warren bear the burden of proving their credibility.

Warren and Biden spar over the CFPB

During the October debate, Warren was the target of attacks from many of the presidential candidates who shared the stage with her—a response to her rise in the polls. But one interaction stood out: Late in the debate, Biden asserted that he was “the only one on this stage that has gotten anything really big done.”

Warren responded by talking about one of her signature achievements, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she spearheaded after the 2008 financial crisis. In a move recognizable to many women, Biden cut in to claim credit for helping Warren establish the agency. “I agreed with the great job she did, and I went on the floor and got you votes,” he said. “I got votes for that bill. I convinced people to vote for it, so let’s get those things straight, too.”

This sort of an exchange isn’t uncommon. Men do tend to receive credit for women’s ideas, particularly in cases where they collaborate, and often their voices are heard more clearly. In this case, Warren didn’t take the bait, instead coolly praising President Obama. “I am deeply grateful to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law, and I am deeply grateful to every single person who fought for it and who helped pass it into law,” she said.

Biden’s response was to imply Warren simply did what was expected of her—nothing more, nothing less. “You did a hell of a job in your job,” he said. Warren took a beat—likely to bite her tongue—and offered Biden a terse “thank you.”

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The angry candidates

It’s little surprise that Warren held back when she faced off against Biden: In the weeks after that incident, Biden and Pete Buttigieg issued thinly veiled missives that painted Warren as angry—too angry. In a Medium post responding to Warren’s own criticism of Biden, Biden’s campaign said her “my way or the highway” approach reflects an “angry unyielding viewpoint that has crept into our politics.” (He also dubbed it condescending and “representative of an elitism that working and middle class people do not share.”) Meanwhile, Buttigieg accused Warren of being “so absorbed in the fighting that it is as though fighting were the purpose.” And that’s not the first time Buttigieg has suggested Warren cares more about the fight than she does outcomes.

Warren, for her part, tries to lean into this characterization. “I am angry and I own it,” she said in an email to supporters. But it’s a label that, when weaponized, can weigh down female candidates—and, more broadly, women in the workplace. “The casting of powerful women, especially those who open their mouth in rebuke or criticism, as worryingly angry or aggressive is of course all part of a very old playbook on how to discredit them by rendering them unappealing, unattractive, disruptive, and altogether unlikable,” Traister wrote recently.

During the November debate, Klobuchar and Kamala Harris seemed acutely aware of that double standard. (For Harris, it is compounded by the stereotype of the angry black woman.) Given the chance to address Buttigieg’s weaknesses on the debate stage, both candidates demurred—even Klobuchar, who has previously criticized his lack of experience. Instead, she segued into an observation thick with irony. “Women are held to a higher standard,” she said. “And I think any working woman out there, any woman that’s at home, knows exactly what I mean. We have to work harder, and that’s a fact.”

Klobuchar and Warren ask for forgiveness

By early December, Harris had dropped out of the race, which left just Warren and Klobuchar on the debate stage. (Gabbard, who has yet to suspend her campaign, didn’t qualify for the debate.) The last question posed by moderators was out of left field, but it unintentionally served a different purpose. Presented with the choice of whether they would ask for forgiveness or give a gift, the men onstage opted for the latter; Andrew Yang used the opportunity to promote his book, while the rest of the male candidates offered a variety of aphorisms.

Klobuchar and Warren, on the other hand, asked for forgiveness, alluding to characterizations that suggested they were too fiery. “I know that sometimes I get really worked up, and sometimes I get a little hot,” Warren said. “I don’t really mean to. What happens is, when you do 100,000 selfies with people, you hear enough stories about people who are really down to their last moments.”

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Klobuchar, who has faced scrutiny for her treatment of staffers, also seemingly apologized for, well, caring too much. “I would ask for forgiveness anytime any of you get mad at me,” she said. “I can be blunt. But I am doing this because I think it is so important to pick the right candidate here.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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