The Covid-19 pandemic has pulled back the curtain on systemic flaws across the globe. Issues of racial inequities, climate change, and sexism have come to the fore as governments struggle to contain the virus and reassure citizens through growing uncertainty. Some, however, were privy to these systemic patterns and failures long before coronavirus hit.
Virginia García Beaudoux has been studying sexism in politics since the late 1990s, working with organisations including CONICET, the United Nations and Organisation of American States along the way. Her work as a consultant, author, psychologist and professor centres around political communication, and the insidious effects of unconscious bias on women in power.
She is a regular contributor to The Conversation, where she writes about gender stereotypes, media, and politics. Currently, García Beaudoux is a consultant with Communicatio, where she advises businesses and politicians on how to incorporate feminist practices into their organisations.
How did you become interested in politics and political communication?
I was trained as a psychologist and specialised in political psychology. Later, I became interested in the field of political communication, and dedicated myself to that in 1997. Shortly after, people began to contact me with issues specific to women in politics. That’s when I began to combine my knowledge of social psychology and social constructs with my knowledge of political communication.
Do you think there’s a difference between how sexism operates in Argentine politics versus US politics?
No, not really. Sexism affects all political women regardless of nationality. For example, when I was researching for my book, Dancing Backwards in High Heels, I went to Switzerland to find out how they had achieved such even parliaments and congresses without the need for quotas or parity laws. I thought the women I was interviewing were going to tell me about what a paradise of equality it was, but they said they still faced sexism, prejudices, and various other obstacles that women in politics are subject to.
Sexism implicates all countries, it’s an issue of gender, not nationality. Politics has traditionally been a boys club, so in order for women to be accepted into the field, men have to give up some of the power that they’ve held for so long.
There are three main groups of obstacles that exist everywhere. Firstly, people have a lot of prejudiced ideas about leadership. The United Nations 2020 report on human development showed that 50 percent of the population from 75 countries still think that men make better political leaders than women. The second type of obstacle has to do with gender stereotypes in general. This is primarily reflected in how the media treats women running for office – men receive a lot more in-depth media coverage than women, and they do a lot more interviews. Women are more likely to be scrutinised for things that are irrelevant to politics like their physical appearance, marital status, and age. Men are just treated as politicians, but women are often treated as private citizens who, in addition to their roles at home, have made politics a hobby. The third obstacle has to do with a false sense of accomplishment. For example, in the last US election many more women were elected to congress, which gave a lot of people this false notion that equality had been achieved. But if you look at the numbers women were still a minority. So when female politicians speak out about inequality, people have this illusion and think ‘What more do you want?’
How do you think sexism in Argentine politics has changed, or not, in the last 10 years with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in and around power for so long?
I think the public perception of women in politics has changed a lot, but not because of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. I think it’s because social organisations and feminist movements have brought attention to so many inequalities and issues that women face. Gender violence, domestic inequality and economic inequality have all been made visible by the feminist movements. I wouldn’t attribute the changes of the past decade to any singular public figure, but rather to the constant work that the feminist movements have been doing for so long.
Do you think Alberto Fernández’s new Women, Gender and Diversity Ministry will be effective in reducing inequality?
I think it’s a very important tool. Whether or not it’s effective will depend on the policies they put forward, but I do think it’s a meaningful step. It acknowledges the fact that women’s issues are separate from family issues, and that is really important because those things often get conflated. If you look at the issues facing women: gender violence, unequal domestic work, unequal pay, etc., you see that we really do need a ministry specifically dedicated to this agenda.
Do you think gender stereotypes harm men as well as women? If not in politics than in daily life?
Yes, absolutely. Stereotypes are not good for anyone. Men are affected because once they display some interest in participating in domestic life they are seen as less masculine or less ambitious. Of course, there’s also this idea at play that you have to choose between having professional ambition and being a presence in your family.
How does your research relate to trans women and their political struggles? Do you think trans and queer visibility plays a part in dismantling the political power dynamic your research focuses on?
Basically, I work with the idea that diversity is positive. I think there’s sometimes a gap between talking about diversity and implementing it, and my objective is to truly implement diversity. This includes all kinds of diversity: age, gender, race, religion, etc.
I think we are still at a very basic stage of learning that diversity is positive, to the point where even just getting cis women to the table is a task in itself. But of course we don’t just need cis women, we need everyone. Power needs to be representative, so we need all kinds of people to bring their stories to the table. So I don’t think that what I do is just for women, but for the true implementation of diversity.
We are in a moment where race and privilege are topics of global conversation. What do you think needs to be done in order for women of colour to be elevated to power?
It’s complicated because it has to do with intersectionality. It’s one thing to be a white woman, it’s another thing to be a woman who is a racial or ethnic minority, and it’s another thing to be a poor woman of colour. I think the difficulties are different. Not only is there a level of inequality between men and women but also amongst women themselves. This happens all over the world.
I think feminism makes diversity visible. Sometimes there are these notions that all women are the same or all feminists are the same, but there of course are variations. There are women and there are feminisms. There are many different versions of feminism, so I think the feminist movement highlights the diversity of the agenda. Of course there are things that have to be agreed upon, but the agendas are very different because the women are very different. That diversity is what makes the movements so rich and powerful.