Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Theresa May & Hillary Clinton: Do we watch their words or wardrobes?

UK Home Secretary Theresa May
Of all the things I said about women and public speaking in my keynote at the spring conference of the European Speechwriters Network, I should have known the wardrobe issue would spark the most comment. My overall theme, "The Lady Vanishes," covered the many ways we make women speakers invisible, from keeping them off conference programs to failing to publish their speeches.

But it's the outsize attention we pay to the appearance of women speakers, particularly their wardrobes, that does the most to obscure their voices. Former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers says, on television, "a bad hair day is a virtual mute button" and that goes double for the wardrobes of women speakers. Here's what I said in that keynote:
Today, we reduce the woman speaker to her wardrobe, particularly when female politicians are running for office. This is more subtle than banning women speakers, but it's nearly as effective. In fact, a recent study showed that women political candidates whose wardrobes were the subject of media coverage were more likely to lose than to win their campaigns.
Hillary Clinton famously tired of coverage that only remarked on what she was wearing. When she ran for the U.S. Senate, she wore the same thing every day--a black pantsuit--to get reporters to stop the commentary. But she tired of that uniform. When she ran for President--the only woman in that race--her wardrobe often was the lead of news stories about the presidential debates, merely because she was the only person on stage not wearing a black suit. And so the lady vanishes again.
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Afterward, colleagues pointed out that the wardrobe of UK Home Secretary Theresa May also has been frequently covered and discussed. May holds of one of the UK's four great offices of state, making her the most powerful woman there, after the queen. She's only one of four women ever to rise that high in the UK government. A cursory look made me think that coverage of her wardrobe was unusually intense.

With able research assistance from UK-based rhetoric scholar Layla Claridge, I decided to compare Google search results for "Theresa May fashion" and "Theresa May policies" with search results for "Hillary Clinton fashion" and "Hillary Clinton policies." May assumed her post as Home Secretary midway through 2010, so we compared those searches from 2010 to 2012; during that time, Clinton was well into her term as U.S. Secretary of State, a comparably powerful role. In addition, to see whether May's fashion has long been a subject of attention, we looked at similar search results from 2002 and 2003 as a comparison. I'll share the findings in charts, below, and you can see a PDF summary of the data analysis in full. You'll see in the analysis that we looked at and discovered some differences between results from versus The results in the charts below come from We don't know who did the searches, nor their attitudes in pursuing the search, just the volume of attention that the search results indicate.

Theresa May: Do we see her fashion or her policy first?

First, we compared search results for "Theresa May policies" versus "Theresa May fashion." The chart below shows that searches about her policies far outstripped those about her fashion back in 2002 and 2003, when she served as chairman of the UK Conservative Party. But searches about her policies fell dramatically in 2010 and 2011, the initial years of her role as Home Secretary, a more powerful and prominent post. At the same time, searches about her fashion rose dramatically, as shown below. (May, a seasoned politician, also has served as a Member of Parliament since 1997, a role she continues to hold.) We searched, but did not find, any other 2010 events involving May that attracted higher levels of attention than her appointment as Home Secretary.

That trend began to reverse itself in 2012, with fashion searches about Theresa May dropping far below searches about her policies, suggesting that the novelty of a woman in such a senior position has worn off to some degree...with one exception.

Using her shoes against her?

Never have I see the word "kitten heel" so frequently mentioned as after Theresa May wore a pair of leopard-print kitten heel shoes at a Conservative Party conference in 2002. They've been hanging over her head publicly ever since.

That may well be due to a speech she gave at the conference, in which she said that British politics was in a rut and repeated what was being said about her party: "You know what some people call us -- the nasty party." Despite the fact that she goes on to describe that as an unfair description, her frank assessment of what the party needed to do may have been just too much power-wielding by a woman. The attention then paid to her shoes could be seen a political backlash, an effort to diminish her image without having to argue in earnest about the policy issues she put on the table.

The kitten heel coverage and attention intensified as she later gained more power. Even on her first day as Home Secretary, the headline was "Kitten heeled Theresa May opts for flats on first day as Home Secretary." In her 2013 article Do you even know what Theresa May said at Conservative Party conference? Bet you know what shoes she was wearing, Josephine Fairley writes in The Telegraph about the attention paid to May's shoes, concluding, "It does, then, seem a strange world in which interest in footwear takes precedence over policy. If you’re a woman, shoes, it seems, still speak louder than words – and I’m personally not quite sure how we stamp that out." 

And while searches about her policies are now ahead of those about her fashion overall, May's shoes remain a persistent focus in Google searches. We looked at searches for "Theresa May shoes" and found that, unlike those about her fashion, they're even higher in 2010-2012, compared to searches in 2002 and 2003.

Theresa May: She's a diabetes sufferer, not a plotter in kitten heels shares the revelation that May has diabetes, made public after a male Member of Parliament tweeted about her weight loss. "They seemed to think the only reason a woman her age might lose weight would be because she wanted to become prime minister," wrote Christina Patterson after May's interview about her health. It's a signal of the power she holds and, to some extent, the threat her power poses. The woman some think could be the next Prime Minister apparently must be kept out of the spotlight for her power and into it for her shoes.

Hillary Clinton also has been singled out for a particular fashion item, her signature pantsuits. We did look at searches for "Hillary Clinton pantsuit" and "Hillary Clinton trouser suit" (the latter is the British term) and you can see in the data analysis that those results were far lower--only in the hundreds of thousands, rather than the multimillions--for this time period. Apparently, after watching her wear them for a few decades, we've gotten used to Clinton in pants.

Comparing Clinton and May
Hillary Clinton and Theresa May have had very different paths to power as women politicians. May began her political career in Parliament and Clinton was First Lady, an unofficial role, when her husband was President of the United States, serving only later in the U.S. Senate and then as U.S. Secretary of State. Clinton, too, has been covered for her fashion first and her policies afterward, if then. And like May, who responded to early strong coverage of her fashion choices by refusing to discuss the topic in most interviews, Clinton also at times has sought to ensure that her fashion choices don't become the story because of anything she did--hence, the long string of days in a black pantsuit during her Senate campaign.

Both women, however, were in office at the same time in the years 2010 through 2012. That let us test my initial sense that the coverage of May's fashion looked and felt stronger in recent years than even Clinton's fashion, about which much has been made for decades now. Turns out I was right--for 2010 and 2011, searches about May's fashion far and away outstripped those for Clinton's fashion. Remember, in 2010 she began her role as Home Secretary in the month of May, not a full year of service, yet there was a strong surge in search results. In 2011, search results about Theresa May's fashion were triple those for Clinton's fashion. 

Now that May is the second-longest-serving woman in one of the great offices of state, you can see that trend reversing itself in 2012, as she is now more familiar and less of a novelty. That in turn allows her policies to be more prominent. That's a phenomenon faced by women leaders the world over, as New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof notes in this column. He describes research by an MIT economist who studied resistance to women elected to village councils in India:
Professor Duflo and her colleagues found that by objective standards, the women ran the villages better than men. For example, women constructed and maintained wells better, and took fewer bribes. Yet ordinary villagers themselves judged the women as having done a worse job, and so most women were not re-elected. That seemed to result from simple prejudice. Professor Duflo asked villagers to listen to a speech, identical except that it was given by a man in some cases and by a woman in others. Villagers gave the speech much lower marks when it was given by a woman. Such prejudices can be overridden after voters actually see female leaders in action. While the first ones received dismal evaluations, the second round of female leaders in the villages were rated the same as men. “Exposure reduces prejudice,” Professor Duflo suggested.
It's useful to remember that when women are viewed negatively in a variety of settings, they are viewed that way by both men and women, so strong are our cultural beliefs about the role of women in society. When a woman's asking for a raise or speaking up in a meeting, or even giving a speech, she's more likely to be viewed negatively by both men and women. Research also shows that, at some level, women know this. The point here is that, like May and Clinton, they should persist, and expect that over time, exposure will reduce (not necessarily eliminate) prejudice. It doesn't mean women shouldn't get out in front and speak up, but that they should be aware of what they face when they do.

Today, talk has intensified about Clinton's potential run for the presidency in 2016, prompted by her decision to step down as Secretary of State at the end of 2012. While Clinton is now a familiar figure in U.S. politics, the idea of her becoming the first female president of the United States is enough of a novelty that I suspect we'll be seeing a surge in discussion, coverage and searches of her fashion versus her policies should she choose to campaign.

(Photo of UK Home Secretary Theresa May speaking at Policy Exchange from the UK Home Office Flickrstream)

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