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  • Debbie Dougherty

Powerful Women are Objects of Suspicion

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

“Hey Women, Be Strong. (But if you are, we will threaten to kill you)”

Where’s Nancy? Where’s ___ (insert name of any powerful woman here).

Debbie S. Dougherty
object of suspicion, Art by Freya Clark

On January 6, 2021, rioters broke into the United States Capital Building, many seeking to injure or kill Nancy Pelosi, calling out “where’s Nancy.” A few days ago, a man broke into Pelosi’s home, yelling “where’s Nancy” while beating her husband, Paul Pelosi with a hammer. I wish I could claim that this was an unusual occurrence. It is not. People tend to view powerful women as objects of suspicion.

It does not matter where women display their power. It does not matter how they display their power. It does not even matter what beliefs they display as powerful women. When they do, people become suspicious. When I became The Director of Graduate Studies in my academic department (a fairly minor leadership role) some years ago, a colleague’s spouse called both the department chair’s wife and my husband to inform them that the Chair and I were having an affair. Because, you know, the only way a woman can become a leader is by sleeping her way to the top. We were not having an affair. We were friends. We were good colleagues. He was my mentor. All of which are possible nonsexual relationships between men and women in the workplace. The fact that I feel the need to write this disclaimer is a case in point. Powerful women are objects of suspicion.

If the powerful woman is not actually doing anything suspect, people invent stuff to justify their suspicion. Case in point—I must have slept with the Department Chair. Nancy Pelosi must have stolen the election. Hillary Clinton must be a criminal (Lock Her Up!). The President of the Parent Teacher Organization at your kids’ school? She must have (stolen funds, slept with the school principal, rigged the election. I have heard all three). This suspicion is compounded by stereotypes when the powerful woman is from a marginalized group based on race, religion, ethnicity, or ability. Take for example congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who was accused of being a terrorist because she wears a hijab.

Society both needs and despises powerful women. We need these women to recognize and change organizational cultures that perpetuate problems such as sexual harassment. Yet the suspicion directed at powerful women makes it nearly impossible for them to make these changes. The situation is getting worse in our increasingly polarized culture.

What are our action steps? We need to start by turning our eye inward. We need to recognize that we are not exempt from these feelings of suspicion. We need to accept that women are imperfect, in the same way we expect men leaders to be imperfect. Finally, we need to support women leaders—not mindlessly, but thoughtfully. We need to give them our best advice and feedback. We need to carefully consider their ideas and help powerful women accomplish what needs to be done.

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