image003It is often difficult to point to concrete, real world examples of a woman who has been disadvantaged in her career specifically because of gender stereotypes. For the most part, people who control women’s career advancement are generally unaware that they rely on gender stereotypes when making hiring, promotion, and compensation decisions. And when those decisions have discriminatory consequences, multiple explanations are frequently available to explain the outcome. Even though an organization’s employment practices strongly suggest gender bias, its leaders typically believe – quite sincerely – that they and their organization are totally bias-free.

There are, of course, egregious instances of overt sexism. The Marines’ firing of Lt. Col. Kate Germano for her “abusive leadership style” in seeking to improve the performance of female recruits under her command is one obvious example. Another example is the male attorney who was recently sanctioned for telling his opposing counsel it wasn’t “becoming of a woman” to raise her voice. Nothing in contemporary American society, however, compares to the hostile, stereotype-driven criticisms of Hillary Clinton.

Clinton is obviously a highly successful woman. She has achieved being a top-flight lawyer, a first lady who played a major policy role in her husband’s administration, a twice-elected United States Senator, a former Secretary of State, and now the presumed Democratic Party’s nominee for President of the United States. It is hard to point to anyone – woman or man – who has had a more visible, successful, or varied public service career than Clinton. Yet, it is also hard to point to anyone who has been subject to the degree of public vilification that she has – vilification not because of the substance for her policy positions but for her supposed personal characteristics.

Clinton is routinely called unlikable, bitchy, cold, robotic, calculating, out of touch, pandering, pathologically ambitious, ruthless, selfish, distant, paranoid, untrustworthy, a nasty and mean enabler, a congenital liar, corrupt, unethical, dishonest, programmed, and inauthentic.

What these characterizations of her have in common is that all of them are frequently used to disparage strong, forceful, assertive women. A warm, modest, and caring woman is viewed as pleasant and likable – but not suited for a serious leadership role. A strong, forceful, and independent woman, on the other hand, might be viewed as competent, but decidedly not pleasant, nice, or likable. Every one of the derogatory characterizations of Hillary Clinton reflect what we have called agentic bias; that is, the bias that is displayed towards women who behave in confident, competitive, and assertive ways and, therefore, who are not conforming to traditional female stereotypes such as modesty and deference.

As men become more successful, it is well established that they become better liked, but as women become more successful they become less liked. In Clinton’s case, that discontinuity has played itself out in spades. By achieving extraordinary success, she has become extraordinarily disliked – she is simply too aggressive, too difficult, and too cold.

Clinton, of course, is not the only highly successful woman to be characterized as having unattractive personal characteristics. A recent analysis looked at the social media mentions of Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department. While all three of these women were consistently characterized as highly competent, Mayer was described as annoying and a terrible bully, Sandberg as crazy and bizarre, and Slaughter as destructive and not a good wife.

Nevertheless, Clinton is sui generis when it comes to open, aggressive criticism driven by gender bias. Bernie Sanders shouts, and he is viewed as forceful; Clinton shouts and she is viewed as shrill, out of control, and overly emotional. When President Obama speaks in clear, logical, detached terms, he is being thoughtful and articulate; when Clinton does, she is cold, calculating, and programmed.

When Clinton was revealed to have used her personal email account to conduct some State Department business, it was loudly proclaimed she should go to jail; when it was revealed that Colin Powell did exactly the same thing, it was a big yawn. If she competes hard, she is ruthless; but if she wins she is lucky or the system is rigged. It’s hard to see a course of conduct open to Clinton that will not provoke further criticism – except, of course, retiring from public life entirely and baking those chocolate chip cookies.

There may be other reasons that Hillary Clinton is so regularly attacked for being untrustworthy and unlikable. But if she were a man and had done precisely the same thing, can there be any doubt that the criticism would be more civil, less personal, and more substantively grounded? As the most successful woman in public service of her generation, Clinton is the prime target of agentic bias; indeed, she embodies the sum of all gender stereotypes.

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  • Lauren Ignited

    Fantastic article!

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  • Donna Trapp

    Great read!

  • Teresa Beck

    I watched Hillary Clinton’s speech last night and I don’t know what came over me, but I wept. Maybe because her accomplishment signals a much-needed shift in the world to value women for their unique skills and talents. Maybe because I understand personally the extra work and the grief and hardship she dealt with (and will continue to deal with) because of negative gender stereotypes and how that made her success many times more difficult than it would be for a man. Maybe because of gratitude that she persisted even in the face of all that painfulness (and it is incredibly painful) as I know from personal experience how difficult it can be to get back up and go on.

    I also know how women can be deeply misunderstood and I believe that much of the hatred toward Hillary Clinton is unnatural and can only be explained by implicit bias and by Hillary Clinton’s defiance of traditional stereotypes. Some of us are uncomfortable with a female leader. Women are expected to be docile, helpful, nice followers – not leaders. I have personally experienced how these expectations of women can affect people’s’ beliefs about our character, skills, and talent. Bias can literally and figuratively blind us.

    Hillary Clinton’s success is bittersweet because it came at a high price which she will continue to struggle with, but it is progress nonetheless and as a professional woman who has shared many of her struggles, I am profoundly grateful to her.

    • Chris Haigh

      Response from Andie and Al:

      We agree with all of the points you have made and find them insightful and right on the money. We would only add one additional point. Apart from her outstanding resilience and persistence, Hillary has shown a remarkable ability to effectively play multiple roles: deference (as first lady), gracious defeat (in endorsing Barak Obama), savvy dealmaker and compromiser (as U.S. Senator), decisive leader (as Secretary of State), and remarkable restraint (in not attacking Sanders, despite his aggressive criticism of her). You are surely right: we should all be profoundly grateful to her.

    • Chris Haigh

      Response from Andie and Al:

      We agree with all of the points you have made and find them insightful and right on the money. We would only add one additional point. Apart from her outstanding resilience and persistence, Hillary has shown a remarkable ability to effectively play multiple roles: deference (as first lady), gracious defeat (in endorsing Barak Obama), savvy dealmaker and compromiser (as U.S. Senator), decisive leader (as Secretary of State), and remarkable restraint (in not attacking Sanders, despite his aggressive criticism of her). You are surely right: we should all be profoundly grateful to her.

  • Indiana Coté

    Love this.

  • Larry Berg

    You make some great points regarding women in general and Hillary specifically. I absolutely have no problem with a woman president but I feel you cannot ignore many things about her performance in public office. now we have two of the worst candidates in history

    • Chris Haigh

      Response from Andie and Al:

      Your views of Hillary certainly seem to be shared by a great many people, and we have spent a good deal of time trying to figure out why. Apart from the stereotypes on which we focused in this post, we think there are three things at work causing the extreme negative reaction to Hillary. First, Hillary suffers hostility for many of the same reasons President Obama does: she is “different,” liberal, and supports changes that are destroying true American values. Second, she is married to Bill Clinton, and people who hate Bill Clinton hate her. And third, because of Benghazi, Whitewater, and many foreign policy decisions, she is viewed as a liar. There are, undoubtedly, other reasons, but for us these are the principal reasons for the naked hatred of her. As we look at her record and experience, however, we reach the same conclusion as President Obama: “I don’t think there’s ever been someone so qualified to hold this office.” And as for her honesty, we agree with Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times who said, “Hillary Clinton if fundamentally honest.”

    • Chris Haigh

      Response from Andie and Al:

      Your views of Hillary certainly seem to be shared by a great many people, and we have spent a good deal of time trying to figure out why. Apart from the stereotypes on which we focused in this post, we think there are three things at work causing the extreme negative reaction to Hillary. First, Hillary suffers hostility for many of the same reasons President Obama does: she is “different,” liberal, and supports changes that are destroying true American values. Second, she is married to Bill Clinton, and people who hate Bill Clinton hate her. And third, because of Benghazi, Whitewater, and many foreign policy decisions, she is viewed as a liar. There are, undoubtedly, other reasons, but for us these are the principal reasons for the naked hatred of her. As we look at her record and experience, however, we reach the same conclusion as President Obama: “I don’t think there’s ever been someone so qualified to hold this office.” And as for her honesty, we agree with Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times who said, “Hillary Clinton if fundamentally honest.”

      • Larry Berg

        It has nothing to do with naked hatred. Pres. Obama had zero experience. So what is he saying. She will be better than him because he had no experience. I am an independent moderate but do some research on the Clinton foundation.. Look into who supports her. People who don’t like Pres. Obama are accused of being racist. Are you telling me that I’m sexist.

        • Andie & Al

          Larry:

          The last thing we want to do is label anyone as an “ist”, whether racist, sexist, or otherwise. We appreciate your point of view and were simply trying to answer the questions we thought your comment raised, either directly or indirectly. Whatever experience President Obama had when he entered office, now after almost 8 years on the job, it is hard to argue that he doesn’t have enormous experience. As for the Clinton Foundation, we would be interested in learning more about what your research reveals about Hillary Clinton’s likely performance as President. We look forward to hearing more from you.

  • Topazthecat

    This is a very good important article thank you for it. In 1988 when Michael Dukakis was running for president he got emotional in a speech and cried and many people said it showed that he was a kind caring person and he would be a very good president.When congresswoman Patricia Schroeder cried in a speech many people said it proves she was too emotional and wouldn’t be a good president! Often when girls and boys,and women and men do the same behaviors they are judged and treated very differently.