America seems to find Vice President Kamala Harris just not that likable.
Indeed, a recent USA Today-Suffolk University poll found her approval rating is at just 28 percent – ten points lower than President Joe Biden’s approval rating from the same poll, rendering her the least popular U.S. Vice President in modern times. Her likability is so low that she fares even lower than former Vice President Dick Cheney who bottomed out at 30 percent–towards the end of his term, not in the first ten months as with Harris.
So how do we account for this?
According to White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, criticism of Ms. Harris is attributed to those sexist and racist Americans, particularly from “some in the right wing who have gone after her because she is the first woman, the first woman of color” to serve as Vice President.
There they go again: blaming those pesky deplorables.
But even if a “vast, right-wing” group of conspirators existed, those numbers would still have to include Democrats and Independents. Let’s face it: 28 percent is pretty low in American politics.
As a Latina who has personally experienced gender politics in American politics and the corporate world, I agree that Vice President Harris has had to face backlash against her because of her background. Stereotypes of women leaders isn’t anything new. In fact, I just authored the first comprehensive examination of the “likability” penalty women leaders pay in the political and corporate world. My book, “Just Not that Likable: The Price All Women Pay for Gender Bias” exposes the pervasiveness of stereotypes that work against women in power and I also address some of the “ism’s” confronting Harris.
In my book I discussed a 1989, the Supreme Court ruling that employers could no longer evaluate employees based on stereotypes– yet over the successive decades, unequal pay for equal work has been outlawed and anti-discrimination laws have become common. Still, women in business, politics, and nearly every profession continue to struggle to achieve power and success equal to men, leading to vast disparities in the percentage of women who ascend to and occupy corporate and political leadership posts—and not just in the United States.
According to Catalyst, a leading nonprofit research organization working to advance women in business, despite gains in the number of Fortune 500 women CEOs in 2020, there are only thirty-seven—out of five hundred. There are still nearly thirteen companies run by a man for every company run by a woman. Ponder that women represent a third of MBA graduates, but only 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. There are more men named John running these companies than there are women of any name. Women of color fare even worse. In the coveted C-suite of executive leadership, 21 percent of its members are women, but only 4 percent are women of color.
The conclusion? It could take more than a century to achieve parity in executive suites. Other estimates are significantly more pessimistic, projecting it will take 400 years for women to reach just 50 percent of the CEO positions.
Closing these gaps is critical for women. While there are several factors to explain the underrepresentation, there is no getting around the perceived “mismatch” between the qualities associated with leadership and the qualities viewed as attractive in women. Most characteristics associated with leadership are masculine-oriented: dominance, authority, assertiveness, etc.
But for women? Not so nice. Think “dragon lady.” Or bossy. Or bitchy. Quite frankly, traditional gender stereotypes still leave women with a double standard and a double bind: She’s abrasive but he’s assertive. Women are expected to work in narrower emotional channels than men.
Women in positions of authority and power are widely but subtly penalized for being assertive, decisive, strong, forthright, abrasive, manly—in a word, “unlikable.”
We expect men to succeed. We expect men to lead. We expect men to be in charge, to command, even to demand. But for women? Not so much. Indeed, one of the most pernicious and persistent barriers to women’s advancement is the “mismatch” between qualities associated with leadership, as opposed to qualities associated with women.
And these are challenges that women leaders face in both the corporate and political world.
Let’s consider for a moment:
England’s Margaret Thatcher was called Attila the Hen;
Golda Meir, Israel’s first female prime minister was called the “only man” in the Cabinet;
Indira Gandhi, India’s first female prime minister was called the Old Witch;
Angela Merkel, German chancellor, is known as the Iron Frau.
When I served as the Majority Leader of the CA State Senate—the first woman to be elected to the post—I was labeled by the Sacramento Bee as “bombastic”. Had they ever met John Burton—the fiery, profanity-spewing President of the Senate? Seems like it was ok for him, but not so much for a gal from East L.A.
Virtually every woman who has run for the U.S. Presidency in recent years has been labeled “angry” and unlikable by multiple media sources, including Harris, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. On the other hand, U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, that affable white-haired socialist with three homes, was perceived as being affable, even though he seemed to always be shouting, he was perceived as being affable and more fondly embraced.
University research studies continue to find that even today, we hold double standards about how we judge and evaluate strong women contrasted with strong men.
So, when Jen Psaki claims that sexism and racism enter the equation, she is right. And we need to address the likability penalty paid by all women.
But she’s only right up to a point.
Once in a leadership position, women still need to deliver results, and the Vice President can’t be excused on this point. While she, like most other women leaders in positions not previously held by women, undoubtedly is the recipient of sexism—including the notorious charge that she “cackles,” a term that clearly is symbolic of a witch’s laugh—her ratings cannot be written off or dismissed solely due to sexism or racism.
Quite frankly, Harris seems surprised at her own failures, and rather than tackling them directly and correcting course, continues to believe that we just won’t notice.
After all, she is a “first.” She was the first to drop out of the 2020 presidential race before the first votes were cast. She was polling seventh in South Carolina, where most of the Democratic primary voters are black. In her home state of California, she was polling near the bottom of the pack of candidates. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard had already eviscerated her record in a presidential debate.
She was saved by a man, becoming Vice President because of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party’s tilt towards identity politics, saying he was going to choose a woman to be on his team. Following the horrendous murder of George Floyd, Joe Biden declared it would be a woman of color. If anyone believed that Senator Elizabeth Warren was Native American, she might have been considered, but her family ancestry has largely been discredited as a myth. Behind the scenes, Democratic operatives selected Harris, thinking she would inherit the mantle when senile Joe would leave office before his term was up. And Harris bought their spin hook, line and sinker.
But American democracy, thankfully, doesn’t work that way, and Harris is painfully learning that. Just like Hillary Clinton learned, we don’t anoint our leaders. Respect is earned.
Harris’ supporters have complained that she’s been given “tough jobs,” “unsolvable jobs.” Seriously? She ran to become President of the United States. Not once did she say “but I only want the easy jobs.” To borrow her guy’s line, “C’mon, man.” She understood—or should have understood—that a Vice President is a heartbeat away from the Presidency. She has bragged about being “the last voice in the room”— even when it turned into the disaster of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in order to, I believe, have a campaign photo-op for the 20th anniversary of 9/11. They bill themselves as the Biden-Harris administration. So sob stories about “tough jobs” don’t jive. Uncle Joe and all his men can’t—and shouldn’t be expected to–rescue her now. The back rooms are gone. She’s in full view now, and voters of all stripes aren’t liking what they see and hear—far beyond any racial or sexist attitudes.
Certainly, one thing I’ve learned in politics is that leadership matters. She blew her opportunity handed to her to behave like a border czar and not complain on national television that she hadn’t been to Europe. She went only after she was forced to go because former President Donald Trump announced he was going—in large part, to shame her into going. It worked, and we all saw it. But rather than asserting leadership, she made a pit stop in El Paso. Quite frankly, this Biden-Harris administration has exacerbated the border crisis, and her actions to get to the “root causes” of migration need not have flown her to Guatemala. There was no visit with border patrol agents, border communities, and a refusal to even address the kids in Biden-Harris cages. Border community voters have noticed, and recent elections clearly show that Latinos—taken for granted by Democrats—are voting Republican in greater numbers than ever before—especially in communities impacted by undocumented immigration in south Texas. Even Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar has called her out for her leadership failures and has urged the appointment of a real border czar. Ouch.
Her trip to find “the root causes of migration” was reminiscent of O.J. Simpson claiming he was going to search for the real murderers of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. It was right there in front of her face had she bothered to go to the border, meet with agents—including agents who use horses with reins (not whips!), meet with ranchers and families and mayors on the southern frontera, and actually see what is happening, she would have presented a picture of leadership. Leaders face tough problems daily. Just like there’s no crying in baseball, there’s certainly no crying in politics—especially for women politicians.
Issue after issue, she has failed to lead, surrounding herself with child actors and speaking to them as though they were five-year olds. The public didn’t buy it, but seemed to identify that it was, indeed, a sinking ship production.
So, what’s next? Well, she made her way to Europe, so I’d urge her to put on her Border Czar hat, stop complaining, and high tail it down to the border. No more giggling. No more stalling. My God, she was literally handed a most prestigious post that she did little to even earn in the first place.
She can’t expect to rely on the kindness of strangers to keep opening doors for her to waltz through, reminding us that she’s “a first.” To a large extent, this was Hillary Clinton’s problem—she felt entitled to the Presidency, and Harris is making the same mistake—but with a much weaker portfolio and record of service and accomplishments.
Quite frankly, I think it’s too late. The Emperor—or in this case, the Empress—doesn’t seem to have any clothes (though let’s see how Vogue dresses her up). I always applaud “firsts”, but I don’t accept excuses for failure.