Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hillary Clinton, Enemy of Women in the Workplace

When I listen to Hillary Clinton talk about the election these days, I am powerfully reminded of my own mother's career in a traditionally male profession, and how her career was ultimately derailed by what seemed to me fairly glaring gender discrimination. (As a legal caveat, I am asserting nothing about the facts of my mother's case, but only describing my personal impression of it: that is, my overwhelming and inescapable personal impression of it.)

My mother is about Hillary's age. I grew up watching her go to college, enter a profession that is overwhelmingly and traditionally male, and do brilliantly, despite the many, many knee-jerk objections she faced, from both women and men, to a woman daring to enter her field at all. Even entering the workplace late, she would (and should) have reached the apex of her profession before she turned forty years old, had she not been denied one final, moderately historic, promotion. Had her application been decided strictly on her professional qualifications, she would have been the only woman in her state to hold a top position in her field, and one of the first handful of women in the state to ever hold such a position. But her gender mattered more than her qualifications, more than any qualifications, and she was passed over for a palpably less qualified candidate. The men who passed her over got instead a disastrous incompetent, from what I could see, but at least they got a disastrous incompetent with a penis.

Hillary Clinton, trying to become the first women President, should remind me of Mom. But she does not.

When Clinton speaks about the election, she reminds me of the men who discriminated against my mother. I can't tell you how strange a feeling that is.

You see, the first sign of trouble in my mother's promotion case was when the people in charge of it began to change the rules in the middle of the process. There was an established job-search procedure, announced and agreed upon beforehand. But when my mother began to emerge as the top candidate, when all of the objective metrics and all of the third-party evaluations ranked her as the best candidate by a fairly large margin, the rules and procedures suddenly changed. Eventually, the men in charge of the decision passed Mom over for someone who, under the original procedure, would have been eliminated early in the hiring search.

When I hear Clinton and her surrogates talking about changing the rules: seating delegates whose disqualification Clinton herself originally agreed to, retroactively discounting certain states as irrelevant after Clinton has lost them, talking about the popular vote instead of the delegate count (and even inventing her own way of counting the popular vote), she reminds me overwhelmingly of that hiring board, changing the rules to make sure my mother's qualifications for the job would not actually win it for her. Those men never imagined, I'm sure, that a woman actually could emerge as the front-runner for the job in question; I suspect they were convinced, as good sexists, that my mother couldn't really be more qualified than any of the male candidates. But she was. That's when they showed their priorities: gender mattered more than qualifications. Hillary Clinton surely never imagined that she would be losing to Barack Obama. But she is. And suddenly delegates don't matter. Now we see Clinton's priorities. Becoming the nominee herself is more important to her than what the voters actually want.

I understand the urge to cheer for the first woman to ever have a real chance at the nomination. Believe me, I understand. But process matters, even more than gender, because it's by bending process that most gender discrimination actually happens. Discrimination in the workplace doesn't usually present itself as gender discrimination anymore; every sexist boss understands, or should understand, that he can be sued for saying that a woman can't do a job because she's a woman. What happens instead is that a woman with a masters degree is passed over for a man without one, or a woman with the required years of experience is passed over for a man with less experience than the job ad asks for, or a woman with a track record of success managing difficult projects loses out to a less accomplished man, on the basis of some nebulous or "holistic" evaluation standards. The process is changed or set aside, in order to favor a male (or white, or straight) candidate. That looseness and irregularity, the freedom to work the gray areas, will always work in favor of the already-privileged. If you can't have an explicit rule against women, or minorities, or gays, the next best thing is to be able to make up the rules as you go, and to change them when the results don't please you. Before anyone lobbies for the rules to change in Hillary's favor, they should ask how often such improvisatory favoritism has helped women get ahead in the workplace, and how often it has held them back.

1 comment:

felicia said...

insightful doc. kudos.