Gender and Political Leadership in a Time of COVID

Gender and Political Leadership in a Time of COVID

Carol Johnson, Blair Williams | Cambridge University Press

Gender and Political Leadership in a Time of COVID

Carol Johnson, University of Adelaide | Blair Williams, Australian National University | Cambridge University Press 

"The historic domination of politics and leadership positions by men has meant that the idea of what constitutes a politician or a political leader has been traditionally shaped by stereotypically masculine traits (Lovenduski 2005, 47–49) with a concomitant devaluing of the feminine (Childs 2004). Politicians who do not adhere to stereotypical gendered traits risk a backlash. Women are therefore ensnared in a “double bind,” between displaying appropriately masculine leadership traits such as aggression and toughness on the one hand and satisfying expectations of feminine traits such as empathy and caring on the other (Schneider and Bos 2016, 275 -6; Jamieson 1995). Voters generally prefer stereotypically male traits in political leaders, although when women leaders display these traits they are often devalued in comparison to their male counterparts (Dolan and Lynch 2016). Schneider and Bos (2014, 248) note a distinction between the feminine stereotypes faced by women inside and outside of politics, arguing that women leaders are often seen to lack stereotypically feminine strengths as well as the masculine qualities deemed necessary for leadership. However, we argue that the pandemic has opened up particular opportunities for perceived everyday feminine traits in the private sphere to be valued in women leaders, including by the media.

Feeling Protected (And Cared For)

Conforming to gendered stereotypes, male politicians commonly depict themselves as strong leaders who will protect their citizens from both internal and external threats while promising economic security. This depiction can be seen as a form of protective masculinity (C. Johnson 2020; C. Johnson 2015, 299-308) in which male leaders draw on traditional conceptions of the male head of household and breadwinner who protects and cares for their family to suggest that they have the necessary masculine characteristics to protect their nation. For example, Donald Trump depicts himself as the strong Alpha male who will defend Americans from threats such as undesirable immigrants and losing jobs overseas to “make America great again.” By contrast, protective femininity (C. Johnson 2020, 24-27) draws on forms of protectiveness, often incorporating caring and empathy and associated with women’s role in the family, in order to suggest that a woman politician has feminine traits that will facilitate safeguarding citizens. However, the coronavirus has impacted on political leaders’ attempts to evoke forms of protective masculinity or, more rarely, protective femininity in order to make citizens feel safe and secure."

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Gender and Political Leadership in a Time of COVID, Carol Johnson University of Adelaide, Blair Williams Australian National University, Cambridge University Press, 2020

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