This U.S. election season, if nothing else, has solidified Internet memes as our present-day protest art. One of my favourites began circulating after the first presidential debate and it shows a doctored image of Donald Trump, sporting a blonde wig and garish makeup, beneath the following observation:
"Imagine a woman who showed up [to a presidential debate] unprepared, sniffling like a coke addict and interrupting her opponent 70 times. Let's further imagine that she's had five kids by three men, was a repeated adulterer, had multiple bankruptcies, paid zero federal taxes and rooted for the housing crisis in which many thousands of families lost their homes. Wait … there's more: she has never held any elected office in her life."
The meme hit home largely because it highlighted the stubborn double standard that continues to exist for men and women in politics and in business. There's no denying the election season has heightened the focus on women's advancement – or lack thereof – in both arenas. And how we respond to that over the next few weeks and beyond will have ripple effects throughout the Western world.
In fact, this election season – specifically the debates – should come with trigger warnings, since they showcase male behaviour many women in the professional sphere have tried for years to ignore. Specific actions include looming too closely, constantly interrupting and using names that either diminish or dismiss the other's achievements.
" It [the debate] reminds us that we have made a series of concessions along the way, each one small and seemingly disparate, and yet now we understand more profoundly what it looks like, what it feels like, as we watch it play out on a global stage. How much 'locker room' talk have we let go or even joined in on to show we can be one of the boys?" asked Jaime Leverton, an executive in the financial industry in Toronto.
In other words, many of us are looking to U.S, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for clues about how to navigate the double bind that often undermines women's attempts to get ahead. Put simply, women in leadership roles are damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they act like women in the traditional sense, they come off as too soft; if they act like men, they break social norms and leave many feeling uncomfortable.
Shari Graydon, founder of Informed Opinions, an Ottawa-based non-profit organization that aims to increase the voices of women in the media, says most women understand Ms. Clinton's difficult position in relation to Mr. Trump and while many want her to push back and put him in his place, they realize that they can't necessarily follow through with that tactic in their own working lives.
"Unfortunately, her ability to get under his skin with well-timed asides doesn't really help women at work, because she's playing to an audience already disgusted by his behaviour. She also benefits from the scrutiny and analysis offered by the news media, which reliably criticize his outrageous behaviour after the fact," Ms. Graydon said, adding, "sadly, most women don't have such luxuries."
If there's a silver lining to the nastiness expressed in the campaign, Ms. Graydon says the widespread condemnation of Mr. Trump's bullying tactics feels both validating and empowering. Also, it's brought certain kinds of behaviour to the surface, so now both men and women are more likely to spot and call out sexist behaviour.
"I think women may now be able to judiciously play the 'Trump card,' stopping a colleague in his tracks by saying, 'Whoa, are you channelling Donald Trump?' Which will immediately trip a slew of associations that will be widely understood as negative," Ms. Graydon said.
Silver lining aside, there is much in the greater dialogue about women in leadership that leaves many of us feeling dejected.
"The misogyny we have seen and all the hateful names and very sexist remarks, it's sort of become okay in some ways, and that's been a surprise to people," said Jennifer Reynolds, chief executive officer of Women in Capital Markets, a networking group for professionals.
"There is a growing awareness that there is lot of sexism in the system. Unfortunately, it sends a bit of a negative message, too. Are we still only 'here' in terms of society?" she added.
So what will the future of women's advancement look like after Nov. 8?
It's probably not going to get better any time soon. A female president may unleash a "wave of misogyny," according to a recent article in the Atlantic.
In it, contributing editor Peter Beinart argues that the election of U.S. President Barack Obama may counterintuitively have led to a greater acceptance of racist comments, suggesting that a new era of sexism may be in the works.
Not everyone remains so pessimistic. Ms. Reynolds believes that a win for Ms. Clinton would redefine what a leader looks like, sending a positive message to women in business. Even if Mr. Trump is triumphant, women might not necessarily be forced back to the dark ages, when the United States was "great."
"I believe that his misogynist comments and the mounting allegations of sexual assault against him have actually helped to mobilize support for feminism among both men and women," Ms. Graydon said. "His very candidacy makes clear that the fight for women's right to be respected and treated equally is far from over."
Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) writes about workplace trends.