16/11/2016 11:35 GMT | Updated 17/11/2017 05:12 GMT

Why Hillary Clinton's Loss Is Still A Gain For Women In Leadership


That shattering sound wasn't the "highest and hardest" glass ceiling, after all. For female supporters of the Democratic Party, it was their hopes of having a female president in 2017.

Some of them feel as if a layer of concrete just replaced the glass. As 71-year-old Avis Miller, who broke new ground herself by becoming a rabbi, put it: "If she can't do it, what woman can?"

It's a fair question. What does it say about our attitudes to women leaders when an inexperienced man who has been ostracised by his own party defeats a woman with over 30 years of experience and her party's support?

It's not exactly a ringing endorsement of diversity. But, then, little about the campaign was. I'm not sure we can learn much about leadership from what has been described as the nastiest presidential campaign of the modern era. Neither side was covered in glory. If politics is by its nature divisive, this campaign was especially so - and as such, it may not be the best benchmark for aspiring women who want to follow in Clinton's footsteps.

Was it gender?

It has brought a few big issues to the surface. First, how much gender still influences how we assess our political leaders - at least in the US.

Her gender didn't lose her the election, but the campaign exposed how commonly sexism is used to chip away at women in leadership.

Forget the 'iron my shirt' placards or the complaints that she looked angry all the time. Detractors accused her of fuelling global sexism and, offensively, of 'enabling' Bill Clinton's infidelities and letting the sisterhood down by staying with him.

To her credit, Clinton often subverted sillier sexist remarks - 'deal me in' was her response when accused of playing the 'woman card' (as if she had a choice); 'nasty woman' became a badge of honour among her supporters. But more violent remarks (against women in the Labour party, and more recently in Canadian politics) point to a more disturbing trend, and one we'd do well not to get used to.

...Or just her?

Such backlash is often the unintended consequence of "making the list", according to fund manager Sallie Krawcheck. Because women in leadership are not yet commonplace, they attract attention, scrutiny and, sometimes, resentment.

Clinton seems to polarize opinion more than most. Her feminism - forged in age before many of the freedoms we now take for granted - is viewed by critics as old-fashioned. Among some Millennial women (but not as many as the media implied), she struck an 'inauthentic' chord. She was mistrusted and deemed too much of an urbanite and a member of the political elite.

If Trump was 'Teflon Donald', Clinton was the opposite - every bad judgement call or misstep stuck to her. Even after her defeat, detractors kept up with the name-calling - 'crooked Hillary', the 'Hoary Hag of Benghazi'.

She built coalitions around her values, and her support of, and by, the likes of outgoing first lady Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Warren, demonstrate the sort of behaviour positively encouraged among leaders. It was a shame that she allowed herself to be dragged into name-calling in debates. Perhaps she could've heeded Michelle Obama's advice, to 'go high when they go low'. But I'm not sure that would've made a difference.

Antipathy towards her long pre-dated this, or the last, campaign, according to author Malcolm Gladwell.

Americans didn't warm to her open shows of ambition. She didn't fit the pre-existing idea of what a female candidate should look like. "She is being penalized for having a series of traits that people find unacceptable in a woman," he said.

In other words, she continued to face the classic 'double bind' that dogs women in positions of power. In 1994, she apparently described herself to the Wall Street Journal as a "transition figure" and a "Rorschach test" for Americans dealing with, say, a female boss they didn't like. She'd be the target for their hostility, she said. But I wonder if she still expected to be the face on the bullseye 22 years later.

That said, it has emerged that she won the 'popular vote' in the US. Clinton may not have been as charismatic a speaker as her rival, and her values (such as her pro-choice stance) may've cost her votes, but she stuck by her principles. That seems pretty authentic to me.

Rambo nation?

Her run for president has also raised again the question of what kind of leadership we genuinely value. While polls and research claim that we have turned away from the 'command-and-control' leader, the US decision suggests otherwise. The experience and networks that are valued in virtually every other walk of life were an Achilles heel for Clinton in her bid to become president. She was seen as too 'establishment', an insider to Trump's underdog (although he was hardly an outsider and even claimed to know and like the Clintons in an earlier incarnation.)

Whether there's a trend away from consensus-building and towards extremism is still in question, but I'd judge the US presidential race as the exception when it comes to leadership values. The US, according to one Oklahoma City woman, has no 'middle' at the moment. People are still protesting the election result.

But outside of the US, there are successful female leaders who've proven capable of holding onto their principles without trashing sectors of society or shutting out detractors in order to stay on top.

In the corporate world, women are still subject to unconscious biases and stereotypes, and we're not yet on an equal footing when it comes to pay. The CMI's Gender Salary Survey found that male managers are 40 per cent more likely than female managers to be promoted into [senior] management roles.

But I wouldn't throw in the towel just yet. I doubt as sophisticated a politician as Clinton would thank us for claiming that her gender was the cause of her defeat. In a way, there's no better demonstration of her leadership qualities than this. She fought a good fight against a tough opponent. She took the risk. She lost. The next woman may win.

(Photo: Pat Guiney, CC2.0)