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Leni Robredo’s Gendered Fight for the Philippine Presidency

04 May 2022
By Dr Andrea Chloe Wong
Leni Robredo speaks at a UN Women event in  March 2020.
Source: UN Women/Alan Motus, Flickr, https://bit.ly/3s9QLkT

Like other women leaders across the world, Robredo does not only compete for votes. She must also contend with patriarchal norms of leadership.

“The best man for the job is a woman,” says Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo, the lone female presidential candidate in the May elections. Yet despite her notable credentials in public service, Robredo faces an uphill battle to win over voters. As with other women in politics, she is confronted with the perennial gender stereotypes and biases that have plagued her campaign and throughout her term.

Despite more women assuming powerful roles, they continue to suffer from sexism in many democratic societies as gender stereotypes tend to favour men as leaders. One Philippine senator metaphorically referred to men’s testicles as a requirement for would-be presidents, as leadership is commonly associated with masculine behaviour – being assertive, decisive, and competitive. These characteristics explain the popularity of strongman leaders, as voters feel assured of their promise of certainty in uncertain times. As long as male anatomy and hypermasculinity are expected of state leadership, women’s credibility as leaders will always be suspect.

Such patriarchal norms reinforce gender biases that promote hostility toward women in power. The most pernicious trend is the semiotic violence they face, using language or visuals to slut-shame, ridicule, or “mansplain.” Since becoming president of Taiwan in 2016, Tsai Ing-wen has been portrayed as “extremist,” “erratic,” and unfit for the job for being a childless, single woman. Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, also endured sexist attacks during her term (2010-2013), which prompted her to deliver her famous misogyny speech that shed light on the nation’s toxic blokey political culture.

Less obvious is the unconscious gender bias among young male voters, according to the  Reykjavík Index for Leadership. A study on women’s political representation explains that since they see more female leaders in schools and offices, they tend to overestimate the presence of women in power. If people think that gender balance already exists, they are less likely to elect female leaders. Moreover, men who do not consider themselves as sexist believe that because the world is sexist, women are likely to be weaker and men will tend to have more authority. “Though it is wrong,” according to a man interviewed in an article, “we have to work within the system.”

Women leaders therefore find themselves in a double bind. Such dilemma presents a “damn if you, doomed if you don’t” situation for female politicians: “Too soft. Too tough. Never just right.” During the 2020 New Zealand elections, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and rival Judith Collins represented opposing expectations of gendered leadership, highlighting the double bind women face. If they project traditionally feminine behaviours of kindness and compassion the way Ardern does, they risk being seen as a good woman but not an effective leader. If they display masculine behaviours like the overtly combative Collins, they risk being seen as a competent leader but not a likeable person.

It is within this context that Robredo’s presidential campaign operates. She is viewed as a caring “mother” willing to fight for her children  – the Philippine nation – which fits into Philippine conceptions of what a woman should be. Robredo is also held to a higher standard of competency than her male competitors, forcing her to deal with more pressure and expectations, yet getting less respect and recognition. Worse, she is constantly attacked with misogynistic slurs, disinformation, and fake news. Her eldest daughter has even been targeted with a fabricated sex video meant to humiliate their family and derail their campaign.

This harassment is nothing new to Robredo, especially under President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. Since Duterte and Robredo came from different political parties because the Philippines allows split-ticket voting for president and vice president, both have pursued conflicting policy stances. Duterte has shunned Robredo from his administration for opposing and criticising his policies, particularly the human rights violations in his “war on drugs.” Known for his misogyny and patriarchal authoritarianism, Duterte often uses sexist rhetoric to publicly embarrass Robredo. Duterte has teased her about her “love life,” ogled at her legs, and accused her of being a “weak” leader on account of her gender.

Yet Robredo regards as her strengths what opponents say are weaknesses. During the pandemic, her empathy enabled her to swiftly respond to the public’s needs, effectively addressing the gaps in the Duterte administration’s COVID-19 response and claiming that “women provide leadership when it is absent.” Robredo also called out unfair criticisms of her “weak” leadership, noting how most male officials kept silent on Duterte’s contentious policies. “Even if I know the trolls will criticise me, I still call it out… I wasn’t afraid of the President getting mad… For me, that’s a sign of strength,” says Robredo.

To combat these gender stereotypes and biases requires constantly challenging traditional stereotypes of leadership that default to masculine behaviour. It is not enough that countries elect female heads of state and then become complacent about gender equality, as this reinforces the reality that women in power are the exception and not the norm. It will take generations and many more elections to transform perceptions on leadership and the political environments to be more accommodating to women. But as female politicians like Robredo step up to lead, nations will have to warmly embrace the idea that the best man for the job CAN BE a woman.

Andrea Chloe Wong holds a PhD in Political Science at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. She formerly served as a Senior Foreign Affairs Research Specialist at the Foreign Service Institute of the Philippines and taught as Senior Lecturer at Miriam College, Philippines. Email: andreachloewj@gmail.com

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.