Photo: Kim Mulkey, Louisiana State Basketball Coach | Credit: Kristen Young, LSU Athletics

Jill Biden’s White House Invite Misstep: Unconscious Bias At Play?

Jill Biden sparks controversy after suggesting the Iowa Hawkeyes should be invited to the White House along with LSU’s NCAA Women’s Division 1 champions.

It took less than 24 hours for Jill Biden’s press secretary to walk back the First Lady’s comments suggesting a White House invite to the Iowa women’s basketball team following the Hawkeyes’ loss in the national championship game.

Photo: Cindy Watson | Courtesy Photo

Biden sparked controversy when she suggested the Iowa Hawkeyes should be invited to the White House along with LSU’s NCAA Women’s Division 1 champions.

“I know we’ll have the champions come to the White House, we always do,” Jill Biden said. “So, we hope LSU will come. But, you know, I’m going to tell Joe I think Iowa should come too because they played such a good game,” she commented after watching LSU’s 102-85 victory over Iowa from the stands on Sunday night.

Many people, including sports columnist Nancy Armour, complain that the move was blatantly sexist; it suggests women are too fragile and delicate to accept defeat, unlike their male counterparts.

I’m a big advocate of calling out unconscious gender bias, given its insidious damage. But I’m not sure that’s what’s at play here—and focusing on this slant may do a disservice to women.


Equality and Equity Aren’t the Same

This perspective fuels the ongoing problem of confusing equality with equity. They’re not the same thing. Being treated exactly like men doesn’t necessarily achieve equity.

I’ve seen women turn down opportunities to create equity—declining board or executive positions “slotted” for women—based on the misguided notion that they don’t want special consideration. But this ignores the negative impact unconscious gender bias has on women’s abilities to even secure these positions. Likewise, we can’t ignore its impact on women’s sports.


An Opportunity to Celebrate Women

Historically, it’s true that only victors have been invited to the White House. Yet it’s worth considering that Biden’s suggestion was an attempt to redress longstanding unconscious gender bias in sports. Let’s face it: For too long, we’ve been conditioned to see women’s sports as “less than.”

During the soccer gender-pay-discrepancy debate, Don Lemon found himself in hot water when he said women athletes make less because “people are more interested in men.” Given longstanding biases against women’s sporting events in the entertainment industry, perhaps celebrating and raising the profile of women’s sports and female athletes is a step toward addressing this gender discrepancy. The press and visibility of appearing at the White House—and being celebrated and recognized as exceptional athletes—can’t hurt in this regard.

“LSU vs. Iowa averaged 9.9 million viewers. The most watched women’s college basketball game ever.” Bleacher Report

In fact, this game was the most-viewed NCAA Division 1 Women’s basketball game on record, with an average of 9.9 million viewers and a peak of 12.6 viewers. That’s cause for celebration.

It’s also worth noting that the furor around Biden’s supposed blunder has kept the issue in news cycles for days. That’s also a good thing for women’s sports.


Unconscious Bias at Play

If any unconscious bias was at play here, I’d have said unconscious racial bias was the more-likely culprit, but that’s a discussion for another day. To the extent that unconscious gender bias was at play, I’d point to the critical reaction to Angel Reese’s “You can’t see me” and ring finger hand gestures.

From a young age, girls are encouraged to play nice, not rock the boat, and avoid standing out. Are boys (or men) told the same? Not so much.

Male athletes taunt each other regularly. It’s come to be expected. It boosts their profile and audience ratings. Leaving aside whether this is the behavior we ought to be endorsing or not, the negative reaction to Reese’s taunts clearly reflects differential treatment.

Whether this is the result of gender bias or racial bias is uncertain, given that there was no such backlash when competitor Caitlin Clark gave the same gesture earlier in the tournament.


Kickstarting an Important Discussion

Turning back to Jill Biden’s motivations, she says she made the proposal about the White House invite because she wanted to make the celebration less about winning and losing. This is an interesting and worthwhile discussion to kickstart. I often bemoan that we’ve been conditioned to define success based on competitive, masculine-based models in life, which cause both men and women to stifle their so-called feminine skills and traits, seeing them as liabilities and a hindrance to success.


What if, instead of focusing on winning and losing, we celebrated the art of the game, the skill, and the spirit of the sport? Sometimes winning or losing can be arbitrary, swayed by luck, refereeing, injuries, illness, weather, or other factors unrelated to skill.

Wouldn’t it be fabulous to celebrate and honor the craft for its own sake? What if we got intentional about reframing success?

At the very least, imagine the inherent power of engaging in this discussion. After all, that would have been the sole focus if it had been a men’s championship and both teams were predominantly white or predominantly black (thereby stripping away the unconscious bias arguments).

Whatever the intentions of Jill Biden, conscious or otherwise, she’s succeeded in elevating the profile of both teams and extending the celebration of women’s sports. Her invitation has opened a and paved a path for discussing how we define and celebrate success.


Cindy Watson is the founder of Women on Purpose, a TEDx international speaker, and the award-winning author of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller The Art of Feminine Negotiation: How to Get What You Want from the Boardroom to the Bedroom. Learn more at ArtOfFeminineNegotiation.com.


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