It 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.