GLASS TRAP­DOOR

Jane Caro on how women lead­ers are set up to fail

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - Jane Caro

The pop­u­lar chant at Don­ald Trump’s election ral­lies was, in­vari­ably, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” So pop­u­lar, in fact, it con­tin­ues at his post-election ral­lies, now that he is United States pres­i­dent. The woman they want to lock up, of course, is his de­feated Demo­crat op­po­nent, Hil­lary Clin­ton.

It has be­come com­mon­place for those who op­pose Clin­ton to claim she is cor­rupt and crim­i­nal. Ap­palling ru­mours have been spread about her for years, in­clud­ing that she was run­ning a pae­dophile ring in the base­ment of a pizza restau­rant. The cre­dence given to this star­tling al­le­ga­tion about a mother and grand­mother who wrote a book about the rights of chil­dren was bizarre. One poor de­luded soul, Edgar Mad­di­son Welch, turned up at the Comet pizza restau­rant in Wash­ing­ton, DC, armed with a semi-au­to­matic ri­fle and de­manded the be­wil­dered man­age­ment re­lease the non-ex­is­tent vic­tims from the base­ment. This man, ac­cord­ing to a video he made prior to his mis­guided res­cue mis­sion, be­lieved Clin­ton had “per­son­ally mur­dered chil­dren”.

We can shake our head pity­ingly at the delu­sions of some peo­ple, but there is solid ev­i­dence that this ten­dency to be­lieve the very worst about fe­male lead­ers is com­mon.

As I write, there are about 20 na­tions in the world led by women from a high of 22 in 2014. If New Zealand Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern con­tin­ues her re­mark­able rise in pop­u­lar­ity, the num­ber may soon again ap­proach the record.

This fig­ure – 20-odd lead­ers in a pool of 195 – is of­ten touted as ev­i­dence that anti-fe­male bias is a fig­ment of the fem­i­nist imag­i­na­tion. Ap­par­ently for some, a ra­tio of about 1:9 means equal­ity has been achieved.

Per­haps one rea­son there are so few fe­male lead­ers is that be­ing a woman who dares to lead is par­tic­u­larly risky.

In the past few years, al­most a quar­ter of the small num­ber of women who lead na­tions have ei­ther lost of­fice be­cause of charges of cor­rup­tion or other crim­i­nal be­hav­iour, or are fight­ing such ac­cu­sa­tions, or have mem­bers of their fam­i­lies who have been sim­i­larly ac­cused.

Could this be right? Could it pos­si­bly be true that so many fe­male lead­ers are guilty of abus­ing their pow­ers? Or is some­thing else go­ing on?

In Chile, Pres­i­dent Michelle Bachelet’s son, Se­bastián Dá­va­los, and daugh­ter-in-law, Natalia Com­pagnon, have been ac­cused of var­i­ous acts of cor­rup­tion, in­clud­ing in­flu­ence ped­dling. Dá­va­los has re­signed from an un­paid po­si­tion in his mother’s of­fice as a re­sult. Bachelet’s ap­proval, which had reached as high as 84 per cent in the past, has re­versed to a dis­ap­proval rat­ing of 61 per cent.

In March, for­mer South Korean pres­i­dent

Park Geun-hye lost the fi­nal ap­peal against her im­peach­ment for cor­rup­tion. She is both South Korea’s first fe­male leader and the first leader, ei­ther male or fe­male, to be re­moved from of­fice. Hav­ing also lost her im­mu­nity, she now faces pos­si­ble charges of bribery, ex­tor­tion and abuse of power. How­ever, the scan­dal sur­round­ing her, ac­cord­ing to Slate’s Joshua Keat­ing, also in­cludes “al­le­ga­tions over oc­cult rit­u­als, Raspu­ti­nesque mind con­trol, ex­tra­mar­i­tal sex and dres­sage”. The last point re­lates to an al­legedly dodgy schol­ar­ship for a friend’s horsey daugh­ter. Schol­ar­ships for daugh­ters ob­vi­ously be­ing a mark of high of­fice across gen­ders, pace Tony Ab­bott.

The first fe­male pres­i­dent of Brazil, Dilma Rouss­eff, was im­peached in 2016. The rea­sons why are not en­tirely clear, al­though they in­clude ac­cu­sa­tions that she tried to ob­struct an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into widespread cor­rup­tion that has en­gulfed many of her po­lit­i­cal col­leagues. Se­ri­ous ac­cu­sa­tions are swirling around many of Brazil’s politi­cians, in­clud­ing Rouss­eff ’s re­place­ment as pres­i­dent, Michel Te­mer. While Rouss­eff has never been ac­cused of tak­ing bribes her­self, many of the male politi­cians who led the charge against her have been. In­deed, Brazil’s pre­vi­ous two pres­i­dents, both men, faced sim­i­lar or more se­ri­ous charges with­out be­ing im­peached.

In neigh­bour­ing Ar­gentina, for­mer pres­i­dent Cristina Fernán­dez de Kirch­ner has been for­mally charged with money laun­der­ing and crim­i­nal as­so­ci­a­tion. Her two chil­dren have been charged as well. She also faces sep­a­rate charges for pay­ing bribes and cor­rup­tion. She has de­nied the charges and claims the cases are po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated.

Mean­while, in an in­creas­ingly tu­mul­tuous Thai­land, for­mer prime min­is­ter Yingluck Shi­nawa­tra has fled the coun­try af­ter fail­ing to ap­pear in court. Yingluck faces a pos­si­ble 10 years in prison if found guilty of mis­man­ag­ing a rice sub­sidy ini­tia­tive.

A few years ear­lier, the 10th and 13th prime min­is­ter of Ukraine, Yu­lia Ty­moshenko, served time in prison af­ter be­ing ac­cused of em­bez­zle­ment and abuse of power.

It’s not just women who lead coun­tries who have an ap­par­ent like­li­hood of be­ing ac­cused of cor­rup­tion or neg­li­gence. In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund chief Chris­tine La­garde was con­victed in 2016 for neg­li­gence over a govern­ment pay­out. She was given a sus­pended sen­tence.

Are all these women guilty as charged? I have no idea. If they are, of course they should suf­fer the con­se­quences. How­ever, it is hard not to won­der whether at least some of them have been held to a higher stan­dard than that re­quired of their male coun­ter­parts. In­deed, Ty­moshenko was even­tu­ally cleared of all charges by the Euro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights.

I can’t help won­der­ing whether a woman in power is au­to­mat­i­cally seen as illegitimate, so elec­torates, me­dia and op­po­nents are quick to ac­cept ru­mour and in­nu­endo as fact be­cause it con­firms their un­con­scious be­lief that she was not wor­thy of her post in the first place. Ju­lia Gil­lard, when she was prime min­is­ter, was dogged by ru­mours of a dodgy slush fund from her days as a young lawyer at Slater & Gor­don. No wrong­do­ing on her part was ever proved – de­spite a royal com­mis­sion and myr­iad other in­quiries and public in­ter­ro­ga­tions – but the dark mut­ter­ings con­tin­ued.

Hil­lary Clin­ton has been tainted by the White­wa­ter scan­dal for the whole of her pro­fes­sional life, al­though, once again, no wrong­do­ing has ever been proved. In­deed, she is with­out doubt the most in­ves­ti­gated can­di­date for pres­i­dent in the his­tory of the US. As with Gil­lard, none of the ac­cu­sa­tions stuck, but that did not seem to mat­ter to those who re­gard any pow­er­ful woman with sus­pi­cion. Given how many in­quiries Clin­ton has faced, in­clud­ing con­gres­sional, the only log­i­cal con­clu­sion is that Clin­ton is ei­ther a crim­i­nal master­mind or in­no­cent. Call me crazy or even bi­ased, but I’ll go with the lat­ter.

Such is the sense of il­le­git­i­macy that dogs women who seek power that sup­port­ers of Clin­ton’s can­di­dacy felt obliged to be­gin any pos­i­tive state­ment with an apol­ogy. “Clin­ton isn’t per­fect but…” was the al­most oblig­a­tory open­ing to any so­cial me­dia post in favour of the Demo­crat can­di­date. Well, I have news for you – no can­di­date for the US pres­i­dency, or any other po­lit­i­cal of­fice in any coun­try any­where, has been per­fect, so the need to ac­knowl­edge that fact when talk­ing about the only fe­male one is strik­ing.

The fa­mous Heidi/Howard ex­per­i­ment re­vealed our un­ac­knowl­edged bias against women of achieve­ment and abil­ity. The ex­per­i­ment gave male and fe­male stu­dents iden­ti­cal case stud­ies to as­sess. They were asked to rate them on skills and like­abil­ity. The only dif­fer­ence was some of the case stud­ies bore the name Howard and some Heidi. Both Howard and Heidi were ranked iden­ti­cally for skills – as they should be, given they are iden­ti­cal. How­ever, the higher the re­view­ers – both male and fe­male – marked Howard for skills, the higher they marked him for like­abil­ity. When it came to Heidi, the higher they marked her for skills, the lower they marked her for like­abil­ity. In other words, the more ac­com­plished a woman be­comes and the higher she rises in the world, the more likely we are to think she is a bitch. No won­der so many vot­ers ex­plain their lack of sup­port for Clin­ton by say­ing they find her “un­like­able”.

Could some­thing of the same vis­ceral and un­con­scious bias be op­er­at­ing against fe­male lead­ers? Is that part of the rea­son so many of them come crash­ing down?

Women are not only less likely to lead coun­tries in the first place – in the past 50 years only a third of coun­tries have been led by a woman – but they of­ten don’t last very long in the top job. In 31 of the 56 coun­tries that have had a fe­male leader, out of the 146 na­tions looked at by the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum, the fe­male leader sur­vived for five years or less. In 10 of those coun­tries, they lasted only a year. In 13 coun­tries, the fe­male leader lasted less than a year. The av­er­age ten­ure of male lead­ers is much longer.

There are ex­cep­tions, of course. An­gela Merkel and Mar­garet Thatcher spring to mind. How­ever, I can­not es­cape the con­clu­sion that it is very risky for women to as­pire to lead pre­cisely be­cause they must bat­tle our an­cient but un­ac­knowl­edged prej­u­dices about women who put them­selves for­ward. Their very am­bi­tion is seen as a crime.

If you doubt me, re­mem­ber that when Hil­lary Clin­ton was sec­re­tary of state un­der Barack Obama, her pre­vi­ous op­po­nent in the 2008 Demo­crat pri­maries, she had an ap­proval rat­ing of 69 per cent. Ap­par­ently we can cope with a smart and pow­er­ful woman as long as she re­mains sec­ond in com­mand to a bloke. When Clin­ton stood for pres­i­dent a sec­ond time, she went in record­break­ing time from the most pop­u­lar woman in Amer­ica to Crooked Hil­lary, Kil­lary and Hil­lary Rot­ten Clin­ton. Worse, the closer she got to a win­ning po­si­tion, the louder the chants of “Lock her up” be­came.

A chant, sadly, that seems to haunt too many of the

• women who dare to lead.

I CAN’T HELP WON­DER­ING WHETHER A WOMAN IN POWER IS AU­TO­MAT­I­CALLY SEEN AS ILLEGITIMATE, SO ELEC­TORATES, ME­DIA AND OP­PO­NENTS ARE QUICK TO AC­CEPT RU­MOUR AND IN­NU­ENDO AS FACT.

JANE CARO is a Syd­ney­based nov­el­ist, writer and doc­u­men­tary maker.

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