Running into the gender post

For all our advances, we still judge women and men differently

When my first-born daughter was an infant, I learned a valuable lesson about the depth of gender bias in society. Watching the coverage of Hillary Clinton's run for U.S. president during the past few weeks, I have been reminded of that lesson.

During the first winter of her life, my daughter wore a red snowsuit -- a political statement, another mother suggested, because I had foregone the more popular pink or pastel in favour of a strong colour. In truth, it was just a snowsuit -- probably chosen because it was on sale. But it led to some interesting social encounters.

Because people couldn't immediately identify her gender, they sometimes mistook my cute little bald bundle for a boy. I even encouraged the misunderstandings -- hey, wheeling around a sleeping baby can get pretty dull -- because I wanted to see what people would say. And their comments were striking.

Those who recognized her as a girl proclaimed her pretty and sweet and delicate. Those who saw her as a boy described her as strapping and strong and active. And each of those people probably imagined completely different possibilities for my daughter based on their biases.

What was going on?

The gender divide -- the very one that young women and men often laugh off and that many will argue has not existed for decades. Without even realizing it, we judge men and women by their gender.

It is so ingrained, in fact, that we don't even see it anymore. And that is particularly dangerous. Because of that, most of us fail to recognize the limitations it places on women and men.

But, you may ask, don't we live in an age when women have, notably, begun to dominate higher education and many professions? When girls really can do anything (except, perhaps, ski jump in the Olympics)?

I was wondering the same thing until primary season swung into gear south of the border.

After watching the coverage of Hillary Clinton in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, I am convinced there is plenty stopping women from reaching for the top, despite appearances to the contrary.

The race to be the Democratic candidate for president has turned into a fascinating yardstick of American views toward race and gender. It has been called remarkable that a black man and a white woman are in a contest that favours the Democrats to end up in the White House.

Equally remarkable is the fact that -- despite being dubbed the "Comeback Kid" after her unexpected win in New Hampshire -- Clinton seems to have a larger barrier to overcome than does her chief rival, Barack Obama. While some pundits are calling the charismatic Obama the first post-racial candidate for the White House, no one is suggesting Clinton's run is post-gender. That barrier may often be invisible, but that makes it that much tougher to penetrate.

Which is why feminist icons such as Gloria Steinem have taken up Clinton's cause. In a New York Times opinion piece titled "Women Are Never Front-Runners," Steinem called gender "the most restrictive force in American life, whether the question of who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House." But while Steinem concludes by encouraging people to support Clinton because she'll "be a great president and because she's a woman," I long for the day when voters can feel free to not support candidates because they are a woman or a man but on their merits.

Until then, we will be left with our biases which, as current and former politicians can tell you, make an already tough political life tougher on women than men.

Clinton's near-tears, for example, became a focus of the New Hampshire primary. Their import and effect have been scrutinized and analysed to death, as has everything to do with the run for the White House, of course. They may well have helped win her the female vote in New Hampshire -- perhaps by women who identified with her age, the humiliation of eating the dust of a younger, more charismatic man, and the fact that women seem to be criticized no matter what they do. If they cry, they are seen as weak ("We are at war. Is this how she'll talk to Kim Jong-Il?" a security reporter asked when he watched the clip of Clinton's rare emotional moment). If they don't cry, they are seen as icy.

And emotions are not the only hot button for female candidates. Their clothes, even more so than for male candidates, are judged and parsed, as are their voices and speech patterns ("shrill" is a favourite adjective for female politicians who speak above a whisper).

All of which makes life as unpleasant as possible for female politicians and helps convince many that the barriers are too great to overcome and the pain of the effort is just not worth it.

Things are not much better in the business world, judging by a recent study of female business executives.The recently released Rosenzweig Report on Women at the Top Levels of Corporate Canada found that the number of women holding top executive positions in our biggest publicly traded companies fell to 31 last year from 37 the year before. That compares to 507 men in similar jobs. Report author Jay Rosenzweig wondered whether anything is going to change in the country's top corporate offices over the next 10 years. "Is the glass ceiling impenetrable in Canada?" he asked.

Meanwhile, American tween pop superstar Miley Cyrus, a.k.a. Hannah Montana, is selling out concerts across North America. Her repertoire includes these lyrics: "Who said, who said I won't be president/I say, I say you ain't seen nothin' yet."

It will be interesting to see if Hillary Clinton's campaign convinces more people that women belong in top jobs or whether, as has sometimes been the case with high-profile female politicians (Belinda Stronach comes to mind), it has the opposite effect.

If nothing else, it has reminded me, as did my experience with my infant daughter and the snowsuit, that, baby, we still have a long way to go.

Elizabeth Payne is the Citizen's editor of senior writers.