Barack Obama: A Girlie President?

Is President Obama's leadership style more feminine than the traditional style exhibited by most male politicians? Kathleen Parker thinks so.

In her Washington Post piece this week, Parker asserted that Obama is our "first female president" in much the same way that Toni Morrison described Bill Clinton as our "first black president." That is, President Obama displays many qualities typically associated with female leadership.

So what's the problem?


Parker contends that, empirically speaking, there is no problem. She writes, "I don't think that doing things a woman's way is evidence of deficiency but, rather, suggests an evolutionary achievement." In other words, despite her attention-grabbing opening, she's paying the president a compliment.

Of course, she realizes that not everyone will see it that way. "Women, inarguably, still are punished for failing to adhere to gender norms," and when a man doesn't lead in accordance with "cultural expectations," it raises suspicion and provokes derision.

This negative reaction to a non-traditional male leadership style isn't limited to the Alpha males either. Parker may commend President Obama's style, but Maureen Dowd doesn't.

Which really isn't surprising; Maureen Dowd could find a reason to criticize Gandhi.

In her usual soft-spoken manner, Dowd counters that Obama's style is neither masculine nor feminine, but "a problem." She has a point; in some situations, there's no time for consensus-building and decisive leadership is essential. But she clouds her argument by quipping that Obama favors consensus-building because he "did not grow up with a 'rich daddy' to provide him with the confidence to make bold decisions."

Perhaps the BP oil spill called for a harsher and more immediate response from the president, if only to convey his understanding of the gravity of the situation. But to criticize Obama's leadership style based on his handling of a still-evolving event -- in fact, a situation in which a measured approach has been appropriate -- is just as unfair as branding Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin a "bitch" for shooting from the hip.

Gender norms do exist, as Parker points out. But until we stop attaching "masculine" and "feminine" labels to leadership styles exhibited by both genders, even when it's done in a complimentary manner, we're perpetuating those norms -- to the detriment of both sexes.


Image via Flickr/Horia Varlan

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