The coverage of female Democratic 2020 presidential candidates seemingly reveals both sexism and racism. A recent poll says both Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are stifled by sexist opinions of voters. Yet there is an additional difference.
While both were included in the recent New York Times “Meet The Candidates” video feature, the disconnect between the depth and frequency of media reporting on Harris and Warren is evident in frequency of cable TV coverage. For example, during the week of June 9, Warren got 782 mentions on cable TV, while Harris received 333. Perhaps that is the reason Harris launched her own monthly op-ed column in Essencemagazine this month.
Ongoing attention to the announcements and movements of the candidates seems imbalanced. For instance, both candidates had plans to address the high maternal death rate among women of color.
Harris introduced a maternal health bill in 2018 aimed at improving health care for women of color. The bill would create $150 million in grants to medical schools and states to address implicit racial bias in health care for women. Such a strategy acknowledges the root causes of sexism and racism that are embedded in U.S. society, and that are particularly onerous to women of color.
In April of this year at the “She the People” forum in Houston, Warren outlined a plan to lower the maternal death rate. Warren proposed financially penalizing hospitals for higher morbidity rates among women of color giving birth — without addressing the underlying causes of the higher rates.
While the Warren plan was labeled weak by Mother Jones, CNNhighlighted Warren as a trailblazer in the fight to improve maternal health care for women of color, even though she introduced her plan later than Harris’s proposed bill and it was not as comprehensive.
According to recent political science research, women candidates for elected office are in a “double bind” as voters express a preference for women who can hold down the jobs of politician and also wife and mother, while male candidates do not have to carry the burden of family work. The research also shows voters often prefer candidates who are married with children. Yet in many “feeder” careers for political office such as the legal field, women are less likely to be married than men.
In my review of the experiences of women of color in the political sphere and the work sphere, I see clear parallels. This is not surprising, as work organizations are microcosms of the larger society.
We found in a 2004 study that African-American women suffer from barriers stemming from many areas of discrimination including negative, race-based stereotypes; more frequent questioning of their credibility and authority; and a lack of institutional support. They were often shut out of influential networks, and were less likely to have a mentor or sponsor as compared with white women. African-American women also reported exclusion from informal networks, and conflicted relationships with white women.
We also found in a 2011 study that women of color experienced less robust relationships with mentors as compared with white women. They also had less candid relationships with white male managers compared to their white women counterparts. These findings point out the complications in forging those “connections that count” that will propel a professional to a senior position — or a political candidate to winning an election.
Research has also illuminated the experiences of African-American women regarding the analysis of the quality of their work, and its recognition by others in the workplace. One study found that Black women leaders suffered double jeopardy, as they were evaluated more negatively than Black men and White women under conditions of organizational failure.
In other words, Black women did not get the same “breaks” as their male and white women counterparts when they made mistakes or failed at tasks. Results suggest that Black women leaders carry a burden of being disproportionately sanctioned for making mistakes on the job.
Another study found evidence of “invisibility” experienced by Black women relative to White women and to Black and White men. The study found that Black women are more likely to go “unnoticed” and “unheard,” by examining memory for Black women’s faces and speech contributions. Among academic researchers, “Invisibility” is being examined as a yet another form of discrimination.
What does it take for women of color candidates to win office?
The organization Higher Heights is a national organization working to elect greater numbers of Black women to powerful offices. Along with its sister organization, Higher Heights Leadership Fund, both are working to build the political power and leadership of Black women across the spectrum, so that Black women can mount effective campaigns, get elected, and make change.
One recent success story is Lucy McBath, an African-American gun control and racial justice activist, whose son was killed in a 2012 shooting, and who won a congressional seat in Georgia in 2018—in a predominantly white district. Despite counsel from experts, McBath told the story of her son’s murder in order to be authentic about her life and experiences. This story suggests that the conventional wisdom of what it takes to win as a majority candidate is not the same for a Black woman candidate.
Of course, Georgia is also where Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House Democratic minority leader lost her bid for governor, and who is reportedly considering a run for the presidency, and she is also listed as a vice presidential possibility for Joe Biden.
A new study shows a 75 percent increase in women of color political candidates from 2012 to 2018, according to the Reflective Democracy Campaign. That is encouraging. And that Harris, the first woman of color considered a serious candidate in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, indicates that our country has come a long way. But, as in the workplace, more progress is needed in coverage, balance, and fairness.
It is crucial for political leaders, the electorate, and the media to be aware of biases against Black women running for office, so that these women can have a fair chance to compete for votes. Black women candidates are typically skilled and versatile leaders who will work to support their constituents and will combat the racism and sexism that is becoming endemic in the United States.
Millions of Americans will hopefully tune into the debates and judge the performance of the candidates. If you are watching, it is critical to note whose opinion you value more, and why.
The answers may surprise you. Our democracy, and the future of our country, depends on it.
Katherine Giscombe is the founder of Giscombe and Associates consulting firm, which focuses on diversity and inclusion. Follow her on Twitter: @KGiscombe
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