Election 2008

David Duprey/AP
Hillary Clinton

Poll Says America Likes Female Leaders. So Where Are They?

August 26, 2008 05:22 PM
by Liz Colville
Women in power are more trusted than their male counterparts, according to a new Pew survey. But discrimination still factors in the perception of women in political and corporate spheres.

‘Better Than or Equal to Men’

A new poll by the Pew Research Center suggests that, when it comes to leaders, women are considered more honest and intelligent than men. A report on the survey by LiveScience notes, however, that it may be a different story for female political leaders. Of survey participants, “a mere 6 percent say that, overall, women make better political leaders than men.” The majority—69 percent—said that men and women make equally good political leaders.

And although this apparent instinctual trust of women bodes well for women in the workplace, women are still struggling to reach the top of corporate America. Fortune magazine’s annual feature on female CEOs reveals that in 2007 a mere 12 Fortune 500 companies were run by women (up from 10 in 2006).

The Pew study, “Men or Women: Who’s the Better Leader?”, asked 2,250 American adults why they thought women were not reaching higher positions. Many cited “gender discrimination, resistance to change, and a self-serving ‘old boys club’ as reasons for the relative scarcity of women at the top.” A small number also cited family responsibilities and a “shortage of experience.” Importantly, a belief that women were somehow inferior was absent from the responses. In fact, “on seven of eight leadership traits measured in this survey, the public rates women either better than or equal to men.”

In the political arena, little changes, according to the survey respondents. Due to discrimination, being held back by men and a belief that the country is not ready to elect women to higher office, participants in the survey said women still remain largely out of this sphere, just as they are in the corporate world.

Opinion & Analysis: What role did gender play in Clinton’s campaign?

During N.Y. Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the issues of readiness and discrimination were addressed by journalists like Katie Couric and Judith Warner, and by organizations like the Women’s Media Center, which released a montage of television news clips featuring anchors discussing Sen. Clinton’s physical appearance. Warner did not speak to the relative success or failure of Clinton’s campaign, but rather the “climate in which her campaign was conducted. The zeitgeist in which Hillary floundered and [the movie 'Sex and the City'] is now flourishing.”

Others, like MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, argue that the “baggage” of the Bill Clinton era obscured Hillary’s bid for the presidency. Furthermore, negative campaigning may have had a divisive effect on the Democratic Party and altered public perception of Clinton as a potential leader. The Associated Press noted August 26 that a quote in which Clinton described Republican presidential candidate Ariz. Sen. John McCain as more experienced than her Democratic opponent Sen. Obama is now being used by the McCain campaign in a television ad. NBC notes that a preceding TV spot from the McCain campaign lifted different Clinton quotes from the primary season and praised her for “speaking the truth” about Obama. The ads are well timed to a Washington Post–ABC News poll from August 24 indicating that about 20 percent of Clinton supporters have defected to McCain.

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