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Sexism in Politics in Spain and the United States: Is There a Difference?

Mayor Ada Colau of Barcelona, Spain.

I love Spain and have spent a lot of time there for work and leisure travel. I was, therefore, particularly interested in an article by Raphael Minder in the New York Times reporting that women in Spain have achieved greater parity in their national parliament, the Cortes Generales, than we have made in the US Congress. Women make up 40 percent of the Spanish Cortes while, according to the Rutgers Center for Women in Politics, women hold only 19.4 percent of all seats in the US Congress.

Nonetheless, female politicians in Spain complain of having to counteract entrenched sexism. I understand that Spain has a deeply embedded culture of machismo, so I wondered whether female politicians in Spain have different experiences than their US counterparts. Minder interviewed a number of female politicians in Spain who reported

  • Sexual harassment is common, which includes inappropriate touching, leering, and sexualized comments.
  • The women receive insults for daring to express opinions that differ from those of male colleagues. Last year a group of female colleagues held an open meeting under the banner “We Haven’t Come to Look Good” and read aloud insults they have received on the job. These remarks tend to mix political criticism with personal insults. Legislator Anna Gabriel explained, “What we hear has to do with our political stance, but the comments almost always include something about our bodies, sexuality, sex lives, and whether we’re beautiful or not.”
  • Ada Colau, the woman mayor of Barcelona, reports that she has been told she should sell fish or scrub floors instead of being mayor.

Minder notes that sexism and sexual harassment are not limited to Spain, and I agree. In fact, I don’t detect any difference between these reports from female politicians in Spain and my previous article about the double standards women face in US politics. We see these same sexist dynamics in Donald J. Trump’s many demeaning comments during the 2016 presidential election about the appearance, attractiveness, and body parts of his female opponents and of other women who dared to challenge him.

A recent article by Amber Phillips of The Washington Post about Hillary Clinton’s loss cites research from the nonpartisan Barbara Lee Foundation, which studies women in politics. Phillips includes the Lee Foundation’s suggestions for candidates:

  • Voters (both male and female) care whether their female politicians are likable, an attribute that is not something they need from their male political leaders.
  • Women candidates should not pose for a head shot. Instead, circulate more candid, informal photos of the candidate engaging with her community—say hanging out with children on a playground. “To show likability, a woman doing her job among constituents is effective,” the study’s authors say.
  • Women candidates should not take credit all the time for their accomplishments, which men are expected to do.
  • Women candidates need to recognize that their hair, makeup and clothes will be scrutinized by voters much more than a man’s.
  • If the candidate is a mother, voters worry about the impact her public-office job will have on her children. They do not hold men to this same standard.
  • Voters recognize this is all a double standard, and yet they “actively participate in it and are conscious of doing so.”

“Time and again, we found that women candidates still bump up against the gendered expectations voters have (for politicians),” said Barbara Lee, citing research her foundation and the nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University will release this spring. As for a woman running for president, Lee comments, “After all, for 228 years, the presidency has looked decidedly male.” Not enough American voters were able to accept a woman in that role.

The misogyny displayed during the 2016 election has energized a record number of women to run for office in the United States in 2018 and 2020. Let’s work together to support our women candidates by pushing through this culture’s entrenched misogyny.

Photo courtesy of Barcelona en Comú. CC by-nd 2.0

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