Why Are We So Hard on Hillary?

The 2016 presidential election one of the most blatant (and consequential) examples of the double standards applied in the evaluation of women and men—a phenomenon that has been well-documented by social psychologists after decades of research.

Gage Skidmore> / Creative Commons
Gage Skidmore / Creative Commons

Women who try to take leadership roles are more subject to harsh judgements, disapproval and dislike than their male counterparts. Women who are viewed as ambitious, assertive and self-promoting make people uncomfortable in ways that ambitious, assertive, self-promoting men do not. That discomfort often plays out in negative judgements of and reactions to the woman in question.

Those reactions have defined this election.

At a wedding reception on the sprawling campus of a large Baptist church in North Carolina recently, a young African American woman I had just met proclaimed, to the smiles and nods of the other women at her table, that hers was “an ABC table—Anybody But Clinton.” A colleague told me recently of a painful conversation with a friend—traditionally a Democrat—who said he did not know if he could bring himself to vote for Clinton because he did not trust her. Almost daily, we are treated to a new round of statistics showing that Clinton is not liked or trusted by a large percentage of Americans, and we are reminded that this is an election in which the two main candidates are historically unpopular. Meanwhile, well-meaning commentators (mostly men) offer Hillary Clinton urgent advice on how to be perceived as more open, more trustable, more likable.

Despite the fact that Clinton and Trump are apparently in the same ball park when it comes to public perception of their likability and trustworthiness, there remains a distinct possibility that the choice made by voters come November may be shaped more by a caricature of Clinton than by any consideration of what she and her opponent stand for or have previously accomplished.

Many years ago, social psychologists Doré Butler and Lindy Geis set up a lab experiment in which they brought a series of four-person groups of strangers together to discuss and solve a problem. Unbeknownst to other group members, two members of each group—one female and one male—had been trained in a script in which one or both of them would try to take over leadership of the group. Sometimes the would-be leader was female, sometimes male—and reactions to their leadership attempts differed significantly according to their gender.

Across all groups, observers hidden behind two-way mirrors noted that the nonverbal reactions directed toward female leaders and male leaders were different. Women trying to assert leadership received more frowns and fewer smiles and nods to their initiatives than men did—even though both women and men were using the very same leadership scripts. Furthermore, the more the would-be male leaders talked, the more positive reactions they received, but this was not true for female leaders. Group members rated female leaders as more bossy and dominating than male leaders exhibiting the same behaviors and male leaders as having more ability, skill and intelligence than female leaders making the very same scripted statements. All this despite the fact that group members disavowed any gender-based bias and were unaware that they were projecting negative reactions toward the female leaders.

Over the past two decades, a slew of studies by university researchers such as Madeline Heilman, Alice Eagly, Laurie Rudman and Peter Glick have shown that women are judged harshly when they are seen as self-promoting, as exerting assertive leadership or as succeeding in situations deemed masculine. In these studies, women described as independent, assertive, successful and oriented toward taking charge are labeled negatively by respondents—high in interpersonal hostility, low in likeability, low in social skills and viewed as undesirable supervisors.

Laurie Rudman found that special risks attend any efforts women make to promote their own abilities or qualifications. Women are supposed to be modest, so when they make reasonable efforts to let interviewers know that they have excellent skills or qualifications they are viewed as both more competent and less likeable and hireable. This reaction wasn’t just consistent among male interviewers—in fact, Rudman found that women more consistently disliked the interviewees. So well-socialized are women to be cooperative and modest and avoid putting themselves forward that they apparently get queasy when they see another woman doing just that.

Hillary Clinton’s popularity was at its highest when she was not running for office. Now that she has to convince Americans that she is eminently qualified to be President, she is fighting an uphill battle against our almost automatic—and largely unacknowledged—dislike and suspicion of assertive, ambitious women. Her every failure to be completely transparent thus mushrooms into something that the public easily and uncritically interprets as a serious blot on her trustworthiness.

Donald Trump’s allegations about a rigged system notwithstanding, the real “rigging” lies in our well-learned biases about women and leadership.




Hilary Lips is Emerita Professor of psychology and former director of the Center for Gender Studies at Radford University in Virginia.