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The ‘likability’ problem faced by female politicians

Hillary Clinton won a huge victory this week. But she faces a problem that all female leaders share

Jacqueline Maley is a political columnist with The Sydney Morning Herald

During my pregnancy, a dear friend of mine, who happens to be a late-middle-aged white male, asked me what kind I was having. A girl, I said.

“Good,” he told me. “This is going to be the women’s century.”

His words came back to me as my daughter, now 13 months, sat on my lap while we watched footage of Hillary Clinton claim the Democratic party nomination for the United States presidency.

It was a breach of the no-screen-time-before-two rule, but I figured the historic weight of the moment cancelled out any possible infant synapses damage.

I got a bit teary. I quoted Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and I said to her: Look, darling, girls can do anything!

She squawked in appreciation and flapped her limbs.

I hope that one day my baby will think it laughably quaint that we ever found it noteworthy for a woman to achieve high office.

(Credit: Getty)

And yet, it was hard to escape the feeling last week, as Clinton punched a big hole in one of the great glass ceilings, that she should have been more broadly celebrated for it.

The sad fact is that instead of lauding her tenacity and obvious intellectual brilliance, not to mention her considerable experience, much of the conversation about Clinton is focused on the fact that people just don’t seem to like her. Even, whisper it, Democrat-voting women, just don’t seem to warm to her.

It is amazing that someone as qualified, hard-working and bountifully gifted as Clinton should have to worry about being liked, as though she were the presenter of a morning television show, or a new girlfriend being brought home to meet the parents.

It is often said of (male) politicians that the public doesn’t have to like a leader, only respect him. In Clinton’s case the opposite seems true. Everyone respects her, how could you not? Her record speaks for itself. But people don’t like her, and that, apparently, is a big problem.

It tells us everything we need to know about the archetypes we fall back on to define “good leadership” and how rigidly masculine they are.

History is scattered with strong charismatic male leaders. JFK. Charles de Gaulle. Gough Whitlam. President Barack Obama is ridiculously charming in a way that would be impossible for anyone to emulate. Even Donald Trump, to his supporters, fits this mould. He is a strong personality, magnetic to his voting public, however insane that seems to the rest of us.

History is scattered with strong, charismatic male leaders.

Then, you have your grandfatherly grumps – your Winston Churchills and your John Howards. They are men voters didn’t necessarily like, but whom they respected and admired for their decisive leadership.

But there are really no equivalents when it comes to female political leaders.

There are few role models here or overseas. The women who have been most successful on the political stage – Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Helen Clark – lack charisma but are seen as highly conscientious, the girly-swots of the public arena.

In Australia, the girly-swot leader makes for a strong deputy. All three major political parties – the Liberals, the Nationals and the ALP – currently have a female deputy. Julie Bishop, Fiona Nash and Tanya Plibersek are all trusted, disciplined and hard-working second-in-commands; safe-hands.

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was popular and well-liked as deputy. As was later reported, she was the only one who managed to actually get anything done under the increasingly chaotic leadership of her Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

But just look what happened when she moved up a rank. Voters didn’t just not like Gillard, they openly reviled her, at least in some quarters. The ability to work hard mattered little in the face of her personal approval ratings.

If this is to be the woman’s century, as my friend boldly predicted, we will have to find new models of female leadership – in Australia and abroad – that focus less on the likability of the leader, and more on her competence.

Jacqueline Maley is a political columnist with The Sydney Morning Herald

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