Harris opts for a risk-free evening, but she was no doubt screaming inside

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If elected on Nov. 3, Kamala Harris is literally a step away from the president’s job. Her boss is already 77 years old and has mused about serving one term. Maybe that is why she is always smiling.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on October 12, 2020.

OTTAWA—The vice-presidential debate reinforced every element of exclusion that women in politics and business have experienced for years.

It was almost like riding a time capsule back into the 20th century, when men were in charge and women were supposed to smile and look pretty.

Notwithstanding a clear set of rules negotiated by the Commission on Presidential Debates, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence cavalierly walked all over his opponent, ignoring moderator questions and talking over Kamala Harris. The Democratic nominee kept smiling and weakly demanding that her two-minute speaking slot be uninterrupted.

The moderator made the situation worse by constantly apologizing to the vice-president for his failure to respect the rules. Susan Page from USA Today is a print journalist, so she might not have much experience in cutting off overbearing debate participants. Her timid, apologetic treatment of Pence allowed the man to run roughshod over the rules and his opponent.

Harris kept a grin on her face, but you just know she was screaming inside. Her lack of forcefulness was also grating because it reminded so many women, including me, of the double standard that still applies to women and men in public life.

Harris was too nice. She should have demanded the vice-president respect the rules. Even the moderator should have had her knuckles rapped. Instead, Harris played nice, constantly smiling at the vice-president whilst she was trying to shut him down.

The Democratic vice-presidential nominee was trying to balance the twin objectives of protecting her ticket’s lead and remaining collected and composed.

Her appearance was designed to make people believe that she was vice-presidential material. In that effort, she succeeded.

But the exit polling showed that her opponent, Pence, scored even higher than Harris as a potential vice-president.

There is already a huge gender gap in the support for Biden and Trump. The vast majority of women don’t like Trump and will be voting for Biden. The debate reinforced that schism.

The vice-president’s propensity to answer the questions he wanted, instead of those posed by the moderator, should have been aborted.

Instead, Page’s performance was nothing short of appalling.

The constant apologies to the vice-president, while he simply ignored the rules and kept talking were a stark contrast to her more aggressive demands when Harris ran overtime, usually cutting her off within 15 seconds.

Maybe Harris could have simply followed the lead of Pence, ignoring the moderator and barrelling ahead with minutes of airtime stolen from the opponent.

But had she done that; Harris would have been characterized as a hectoring woman who disrespected the vice-president and was not ready for prime time.

Harris faced the dilemma that has been experienced by every woman trying to make it in a man’s world.

While her opponent ignored the time limits and even the questions posed by the moderator, Harris kept a permanent smile on her face. Even when frustrated, she simply repeated “Mr. Vice-president, I am speaking, I am speaking.” She remained demure and ladylike. That too, reminded me of a gender identity throwback to the last century.

As a woman in a man’s world, I know what it’s like to be boiling inside and demure on the outside. Sometimes, too much demure is not a good thing. If the Twittersphere were any indication, the uneven treatment of Harris and Pence was painfully obvious.

In particular, women weighed in to say things like: “He interrupted me, and I’d like to just finish please, is a line every woman who has ever attended a meeting with men can relate to.” One tweeted: “The gendered dynamics of interruption and the power to interrupt is always so in your face in these settings.” Another tweeted: “Just as women get paid 20 cents on the dollar less than men, Harris appears to get 20 seconds less on the minute than Pence.”

I was hoping Harris would speak out more forcefully, to demand that the moderator start applying the principle of equal treatment.

But she opted for a risk-free evening, so as not to reduce the 10-point lead that her ticket with Biden is currently enjoying.

Harris achieved that risk-free evening. But she reinforced a frustrating perspective that women need to “play nice” if they are going to be accepted in a man’s world.

If elected on Nov. 3, Harris is literally a step away from the president’s job. Her boss is already 77 years old and has mused about serving one term.

Maybe that is why she is always smiling.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.