What Martha Coakley and Sarah Palin (and Ann Hopkins) teach us about gender, leadership, and the workplace

During the past 18 months, the stories of two prominent political figures — former Alaska governor and VP candidate Sarah Palin and Massachusetts attorney general and former Senate candidate Martha Coakley — have dovetailed to invite us to think about the challenges that women continue to face in seeking leadership opportunities.

Getting It Just Right

Do women who aspire to visible leadership positions still have to strike it just right when it comes to honing their public images — blending the charismatic sex appeal of a Sarah Palin with the non-threatening stoicism of a Martha Coakley?

Frankly, I don’t think either was ready for her prime time appearance.  Although Palin may attract crowds and adoring fans, media accounts about her conduct during the campaign reveal that she was in way over her head when it came to understanding major public policy issues.  As for Coakley, she appeared politically and substantively underprepared for a tough general election campaign with national implications.

That said, I ask myself if we are too hard on both because they are women.  After all, history shows us that countless men with similar or worse deficiencies have managed to get elected to high office.  (Dan Quayle or Rod Blagojevich, anyone?)  Furthermore, being elected attorney general (Coakley) or governor (Palin) of any state is no small achievement; both earned the right to be contenders even if, like so many male candidates, the voters found them wanting.

Back to the Future?

One of the oft-discussed Supreme Court cases in the realm of employment discrimination law is Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), which involved a claim by senior accountant Ann Hopkins against her employer for failing to promote her to partnership.

Hopkins had earned strong reviews for attracting business and working with clients but was criticized by some for having a harsh and abrasive style with co-workers.

Walk, Talk, and Dress Like a Girl

The superior who informed Hopkins that her application for partnership was being deferred suggested that her chances for promotion would improve if she acted, talked, and dressed more femininely.  There was other evidence that Hopkins was subjected to gender stereotyping in some of the evaluations submitted in connection with her partnership bid.  The Supreme Court held that she may have been discriminated against and returned the case to the lower court for further proceedings.

Price-Waterhouse v. Hopkins is still debated today because it remains so relevant.  By comparing the fates of Sarah Palin and Martha Coakley, we see continuing reverberations of the very issues put before the Justices over two decades ago.

***

Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins summary and link to full decision: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0490_0228_ZS.html

Law review essay (pdf) by Ann Hopkins describing her experience in the litigation: http://law.hofstra.edu/pdf/Academics/Journals/LaborAndEmploymentLawJournal/labor_Hopkins_vol22no2.pdf

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