Overcoming Our Hillary Bias

I was one of two girls in a room of fifty. It was my first day of college almost twenty years ago. A puff of curly hair and floral in a sea of buzz cuts and Hanes. Within the first few seconds of class it was clear that everyone saw me as different, and over the next few days it was clear that no one thought I would last. When I offered an idea it was ignored or handled delicately, dismissed — not maliciously — just effortlessly. When I didn’t understand something, people noticed, eager for evidence that I wasn’t good enough, then explaining things childishly or not at all.

Over the next four years of computer engineering, and many more since, I learned the effects of unconscious bias and tactics to overcome it. In order to not be treated differently, I became less different. I transformed into the people around me. I wore grey t-shirts and drank Miller Lite. I hung out at the mechanic shop on campus. I spoke like the others, with irony, indifference, and authority. Soon the guys accepted me, and I needed them to, they were everywhere: my teachers, my supervisors, my classmates, and my friends. Surviving for me, relied on my ability to navigate, and fit into, their world.

We all know what the word “bias” means, and most of us have, on some level or another, have felt its effects. In the best cases you can remove yourself from these situations, choose to ignore other people’s ignorance and push forward on your own terms. But sometimes it’s inescapable. Your progress depends on the approval of people who, often unconsciously, think less of you because you’re different, and in order to move, even an inch forward, you need to adjust.

I have heard countless times, from people whose opinions I respect enormously, from people who I consider some of the smartest I know, that there is something “unlikeable” about Hillary Clinton. Some people have fundamental policy issues with Clinton, I get that. But many say there’s “just something about her.” Some blame a lack of authenticity; others call her calculated and cold. Some “just don’t trust her.”

This latent dislike, this “rubbing the wrong way” needs to be acknowledged for what it is: a systemic, often unconscious, bias against women in power.

When I look at Hillary I don’t see someone cold or inauthentic. I see a passionate and smart liberal who did what she had to in order to be respected as a woman in American politics.

We’re increasingly recognizing the importance of diversity and authenticity in leadership, a dialogue that didn’t exist twenty, even ten, years ago. And because of that many think women can now easily lead on their own terms. But the acceptance of female authenticity and respect for diversity are still hugely aspirational concepts. In the day to day, the battle for acceptance is delicate, and the people fighting it do not lack authenticity, they are deprived of it. In order to succeed in the long term our culture demands that minorities minimize their difference — quiet their authentic self — in the short term.

To judge Hillary fairly we must do so through the gendered power structure through which she emerged.

It is unfair for us to judge her demeanor and delivery without acknowledging her challenges as a woman. I understand that to some she comes off as calculated and rehearsed, but there are reasons why she’s had to. Speaking authentically while being both respected and likeable as a female leader is like trying to climb Mt. Everest without getting your shoes dirty; possible, maybe, but highly unlikely.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is perceived as nothing if not authentic. But to me that’s his privilege as much as it is his personality. His detours from political norms — his furious delivery and utopian views — and their subsequent acceptance, are facilitated by the fact that he is firstly male and secondly white. His phenotype, being that upon which America’s political perspective was built, qualifies his voice to the public such that his voice itself is what’s heard. Clinton, though privileged through her race, is of a gender that lacks trust and credibility from the American public.

As the first female Senator of New York and the only First Lady to ever run for elected office, Clinton would never have survived in politics if she had Bernie’s volatile affect and extremist stance back in 2000. Combined with the onslaught of scrutiny that women already face for their appearance and likeability, that kind of behavior would have been demonized. It’s a paradox to think that any woman could have risen to her position without carefully adjusting their approach to satisfy the public in an environment of foundational male power.

The difference between what Bernie can get away with in the public eye and what Hillary can, is enormous. This year she’s thankfully making gender a central theme in her campaign in a way that was absent in 2008. But of course now there are people who say she’s “overplaying her gender card”, a claim that is as funny as it is unfortunate. For most women gender acts more like a weight than a card, adding a drag that constantly has to be compensated for with over-preparation and persistence. On the other hand men’s gender actually does act like a card, a free pass to inner circles and preferential treatment.

I can fill pages with anecdotes about how people perceive men and women in positions of power differently, but there are actual studies that are far more convincing. The famous Heidi / Howard study by Harvard Business School demonstrates that people view an outgoing and successful man positively, while they view a women with the exact same characteristics as “selfish” and “not the person you’d want to work for”. Strong women are notoriously labeled as “bitchy” or “bossy” compared to their male counterparts who are praised for the same qualities.

The balance of authority and likability is such a complex dance for women that their only surefire shot at achieving it is with intense preparation and thoughtfulness, which then of course, comes off as scripted. Because it is! Because it has to be.

Basic leadership qualities that are celebrated in men are criticized in women. Instead women need to craft the perfect cocktail of likeability and trust, accentuating their humanity, without being too vulnerable, overplaying their humility, without being too timid.

In the Atlantic article, The Confidence Gap, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explain “women feel confident only when they are perfect.” I’ve worked with many men who’ve mocked this kind of perfectionism in women, chalking it up to low self-esteem or neurosis. But the reality is it’s a learned and justified behavior. Studies show that women are penalized more often than men under the same circumstances. The fact that the only female candidate also happens to be the most experienced is no coincidence. To have any shot at a real win, she has to be.

So on top of knowing more about the issues and having more experience in the White House than any other candidate, Hillary has had to cultivate her likeability, first silencing her authentic self and now retraining it to our precise standards. All of this takes herculean-like dedication, which hasn’t gone unnoticed. Kate McKinnon famously and hilariously plays a power hungry, work obsessed Hilary on SNL. We laugh at her dedication and desire — yes, it’s crazy! — but, the thing is, it’s also incredibly admirable. Any person who can endure paving the very thorny path to the White House for women has to be a little crazy. For us to now hold that against her, rejecting the dedication that we demand from a woman, is simply absurd.

We cannot underestimate the importance of a female President. In a recent article, the great Rebecca Traister asks if any of the ardent Bernie supporters are “troubled enough by the fact that women make up only 20 percent of Congress to consider what to do about that? How do the men who confidently disqualify Hillary as a meaningful history-maker on account of how she’s a wealthy white woman explain that we’ve never had a female president of any race or class?” Bernie supporters claim to want something “fresh” but how on earth is a seventy-five year old white man who’s been in Washington for over 20 years more fresh than the first female president in American history?

The implications of Hillary’s gender cannot be lost in this campaign. It is critical to acknowledge that Hillary’s challenge as a woman is far more significant than her opponents, and this is exactly why her Presidency will be, too.