Are you surprised that America elected a black president before a female president? Given the history of servitude, institutional racism and implicit bias that blacks have experienced, you might think that the odds tilt heavily in favor of women when it comes to electing a president.
But you’d be wrong.
Black men were granted the right to vote decades before women. In 1870, the 15th Amendment granted citizens the right to vote regardless of their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In 1920, the 19th Amendment finally granted voting rights not just to men but to all citizens. Black citizens had 50 years to figure out our political system before women could even vote.
But time alone doesn’t completely explain the advantage blacks have over women on Election Day. Social science tells us that the traits of a strong leader like assertiveness, dominance and confidence are more likely to be masculine traits than feminine traits. In fact, our research has found that the stereotype of blacks is more masculine than feminine. These findings suggest an important point: a black man, more than a woman, is perceived as having the necessary traits to be an effective president.
Finally, let’s not forget American culture. In movies and on TV, black men have more often served as president than women:
From 1988 to 2008, TV and movies portrayed six black male presidents vs. four white female presidents. Interestingly, the black presidents all were legitimately elected, from Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact to Dennis Haysbert in 24.
In contrast, three of the female presidents came to power as unelected replacements – Glenn Close in Air Force One, Geena Davis in Commander in Chief and Patricia Wettig in Prison Break – and all were sworn into office after the elected president was incapacitated.
Even recently, Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Veep became the president only after the elected POTUS resigned. Not only did she later lose her election, but the new female president on Veepwasn’t popularly elected either! Andrea Savage’s character was selected by the Senate and not by the will of the people; thus, neither female president on Veep was elected.
And, as we grapple with issues of sexism and racism in entertainment, let’s not overlook black women. Hollywood has all but forgotten black women. In fact, only one black female president–Oprah Winfrey–was ever mentioned in a movie or on television, and she never even appeared on screen.
Now, our analysis is not the complete story. Clearly, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton cannot be reduced to their race or gender. Their individual characteristics, from their oratorical style to their political histories, have played major roles in their respective outcomes. Yet, when it comes to modern presidential politics, it appears that sexism trumps racism.
So when will a woman be elected president? We can’t say exactly, but we do see two key steps that need to take place to pave the way for a female president. First, it is important to recognize a broader set of traits that define what a successful president is – traits that extend beyond ones traditionally associated as masculine. Second, American audiences need to see legitimately elected and successful female presidents portrayed in our media.
The most basic right of a citizen in a democracy is the right to vote. But before we cast a single vote, voters should reassess their conceptions about the Office of the President. If we succeed in reconsidering stereotypes and broaden the depiction of the presidency in popular culture, we may be saying “Madam President” much sooner than later.
Adam Galinsky is the Chair of Management Division and the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business at Columbia Business School.
Kathy Phillips is the Senior Vice Dean and the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School.