If the United States empowers American women, where are the women Presidents in America? When Carly Fiorina was questioned about her elect-ability, I couldn’t help but wonder, while Americans believe in female empowerment, where are the empowered women in politics?

The invisible hand of culture may be driving America’s inconsistent attitudes toward women when you consider that 63 of 142 nations studied by the World Economic Forum have regularly elected women as head of state. Electing a woman president may have less to do with America’s sincere wish for a woman president than our hidden cultural tendencies and expectations. Invisible dimensions such as our beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions that account for how we make decisions; how we communicate and behave.

 Culture is why people do what they do, based on where they live. Edward Hall said culture hides more than it reveals and strangely enough, what it hides, is most effectively hidden from its owners. While intercultural understanding, a branch of anthropology, has gone from the the field to the boardroom, I’m putting it in the living room for everyone, because knowing what makes you tick is a birthright. 

American politics presents a “president’s paradox.” It’s not that we won’t elect a woman president, we can’t because we are a highly “competitive” culture. American is unlike France, Denmark, Britain, India, or the Philippines that have greater “feminine” or “quality of life” tendencies, especially in the context of leadership. Political (and religious) choices are not exactly personal preferences. They are more the result of cultural values, not the cause of them. You may think you are solely responsible for your political (or religious) choices, but in fact those decisions have already been made for you, by the invisible hand of culture.

Culture is the result of a series of historical events that have occurred in a particular geography. For Americans, the events of our past have driven us to be the best, often at the cost of what’s best. To be competitive means striving for the best we can be, or the best there is. This invisible dimension of culture is a key driver in our decision-making process and partly accounts for why we have yet to elect a woman for president. We may say we support the idea (in theory), but we can’t close the deal because somewhere, way in the back of our collective cultural unconsciousness, the expectations for a Commander in Chief are of someone perceived to be “tough, assertive, and competitive,” so through no fault of our own, women don’t fit that description. These are just some of culture’s consequences.

When it comes to the invisible forces determining the distribution of emotional roles between the genders, the United States (along with Japan and Mexico) falls on the Masculine side of the spectrum where emotional gender roles are clearly distinct. Men are supposed to be assertive, tough, and focused on material success which is the hallmark of competition. We live to work, unlike other cultures. This hidden driver determines how one should feel as a boy or a girl, by the majority of the population so that gender bias may not necessarily be a choice, but an unconscious one we have begun to overcome.

The Masculinity/Femininity cultural indicators explain assertive or modest interactive styles. Women and societies that embody feminine-like qualities are characterized as Feminine when emotional and gender roles overlap: both men and women are supposed to be modest, tender, and concerned with the quality of life. For example, France and Nordic countries tend to fall on the nurturing side of the spectrum; caring for others and providing a social safety net. For them, maintaining a healthy work-life balance and liking what you do (Feminine) is how they measure success compared to the American definition of what it means to be a “winner” or the “best” (Masculine).

Consensus is also a characteristic. For example, France is a dialogue culture in contrast to the United States because decisions are made through involvement which explains their historical role in diplomacy. The French language also contained the necessary components for reaching diplomatic consensus, most notably with the use of the third person singular “on.” If there was a crisis, blame was placed on neither you nor me, but on “on” (someone). They strive for consensus and resolve conflict by compromise and negotiation. Likewise, the Dutch are known for their long discussions until consensus has been reached.

These cultures embed social safety nets into society and sympathize with the weak, unlike the USA where weakness is viewed with disdain. Americans can seem heartless when it comes to the marginalized, but the invisible hand of culture drives our behavior which accounts for acquiescing to inadequate social policies. Americans expect people to care for themselves and be self-reliant, so they have a relatively low level of social welfare, healthcare, and public services.

Culture is how people solve problems. When the American citizen steps into the voting booth, an instantaneous compatibility switch flips on to scan for a the “Competition” match. Whether it’s Carly Fiorina, Hillary Clinton, or Geraldine Ferraro, it doesn’t compute culturally because we cannot suspend disbelief that she’s capable of it despite her fighting stance, or her rhetoric. We have an inherent, implicit cultural expectation for a higher than average degree of Masculinity from leaders or authority figures.

This cultural expectation is not strictly limited by gender. For example, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders shared similar Feminine perception by voters because “socialists” essentially represent similar values: nurturing, dialoging, consensus, and quality of life. Nowhere could the American voter detect the desired Masculine code in the eminently competent women or Sanders of “winner take all.” We may be a long way off until the high Masculine expectation is lowered. 

As a card-carrying feminist, I’ve been waiting for a woman in the oval office since Geraldine Ferraro lost the race for vice president in 1984. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I hope (very American) that a woman (or a socialist) will be elected, but I know culture is to blame. I also know culture is a learned behavior, so it can be unlearned, but this takes time. The first step toward solving women’s persistent and pervasive inequality is to recognize our existing explanations are inadequate and consider alternatives. In all likelihood, electing a woman has less to do with with gender politics, than it does with the invisible hand of culture that drives our behavior in ways you never imagined.

Featured image courtesy of Library of Congress.