Speaking with Authority (2001)

Leadership Style

Not Too Tough, Not Too Soft

“If you’re too strong, you’re labeled a bad word. And if you’re not strong enough, then you get run over.”
– Candidate

Finding the “Tough, Yet Female” Style of Executive Leadership

When asked what personal qualities make a good governor, people cite toughness and executive ability. Neither men nor women voters are confident that women candidates are as tough as men.

Even when voters assume a woman is qualified for the job in terms of prior experience, they question whether she would be tough enough to be a good executive.

Demonstrating toughness can be problematic for female candidates. Voters want women who are as tough and decisive as men, but voters do not want to elect “manly” women.

As one man in a focus group said, “A female can’t show male toughness in doing things. That would turn a lot of people off.”

Female candidates walk a tightrope in attempting to present a persona that’s neither too strong and aggressive – too “male” – nor too soft. The challenge is to strike a balance and exhibit toughness when necessary, but in a way that makes the public feel comfortable. And voters are most comfortable when they see a woman candidate standing up on behalf of others.

Convey Strength Through Experience

Lack of toughness is the most difficult stereotype for women candidates to overcome, and one of the most difficult to define.

The women who impart toughness best are those who can point to accomplishments in carrying out executive responsibilities in positions such as an attorney general or a big city mayor.

Telling voters about your tough stance is less compelling than having them recall your actions. United States Senator Dianne Feinstein in 1990 launched her campaign for governor in California by reminding voters of her commanding takeover as San Francisco Mayor in the wake of City Hall assassinations. She narrowly lost the election, winning a Senate seat just two years later.

Focus group participants suggested that a woman candidate also benefits when she stresses issues traditionally thought of as “men’s issues” – dealing with a budget deficit or a state’s economic development.

What’s important for women candidates to demonstrate to voters is that they can make tough decisions and be mentally tough when the situation requires it, without being viewed as a “tough” person.

Convey Compassion

Focus groups also suggest that voters value the “compassionate” side of a female candidate’s agenda.

“I think there’s sort of another undercurrent that women have stronger values than men, that women care more about family, that they care more about education, that they care more about kids, that they have stronger characters than men, that they are the keepers of the morals. And I think women should play on that.”
– Candidate

As detailed in the chart on the opposite page, poll data also shows that women candidates, regardless of political party, are seen as better than men by double digit margins in dealing with social programs, improving education and putting people’s interests above special interests.

For instance, voters thought a Democratic woman would be better than a Republican man on improving education by a margin of 35 percentage points, and voters thought a Republican woman would be better on the issue than a Democratic man by a margin of 27 percentage points.

The key to winning voters over is to strike a balance between skillfully handling “men’s issues” and simultaneously capitalizing on the natural advantages of being viewed as more compassionate on family and social issues.

Freeways, Finance, Freedom of Choice.

In 1986, Nebraskans elected Kay Orr. The election attracted nation- wide attention not only because Orr was Nebraska’s first woman governor, but because she was the first Republican woman elected governor in the United States. Her status as a long-time party activist and state treasurer with a six year track record of managing fiscal issues helped her avoid the “soft” image that women candidates struggle against.

Female candidates in more recent years also have cultivated leadership in policy areas that are not traditional “women’s issues” in order to avoid the “tough/soft” dilemma.

One 1998 candidate noted that, “The road issue was a big issue with me and I think that’s usually considered a man’s issue. I mean, I spent an awful lot of time on roads and bridges. It was a good issue for me and it worked and it got me votes. And also, I would guess, probably the property rights issue was also not usually considered a woman’s issue.”

The same candidate discovered, however, that not focusing enough on the issues thought to be stereotypical women’s issues – abortion, health care, education, environment – was detrimental.

“That was where [my opponent] had it all over me as far as the public’s image… They did a good job stereotyping me as not caring about those things,” she said.

The key is to be flexible enough to discuss with equal knowledge both types of issues.

For Candidates

  1. Stand up to those who presume their power, whether it’s HMOs, government bureaucracies or the oil companies. Big interests habitually steamroll the public. When they do, take them on.
  2. Advocate for those who can’t fend for themselves.
    Whether it’s against the sitting governor, a power company or a bank, using your strength on behalf of others strikes the right balance.
  3. Fight for what you believe in. You do not need to win the argument to win the day. Strength of character is universally admired and as long as your position is authentic, the outcome will be less important than that you took on the fight.
  4. Balance your top issue priorities to include some “tough” issues, but don’t abandon the “soft” ones.
  5. Lead gently, hold firmly. Whether questioning witnesses at a committee hearing, answering press questions about fundraising practices or participating in a legislative conference committee, make a conscious decision about your manner and the way you want to be perceived. Be friendly. Be deliberate. Be aware of your power.