How Clinton Can Use Gender Bias to Her Advantage

Two months to go and Clinton is still being told to turn that frown upside down. Caught in the paradox of implicit gender bias, the more she projects readiness and competence, the more she’s lashed for lacking feminine charm. It’s a trap faced by every woman leader: if you act like a leader, you’re not acting like a woman. If you act like a woman, you’re not acting like a leader.

But examining exactly how implicit gender bias works also reveals a loophole: Clinton can use gender bias to her advantage.

Implicit bias works like this: first, people in general overestimate male achievement and underestimate female achievement, so women must demonstrate more competence in order to be judged equally able. One study found that for women and men applying for medical fellowships, women had to be 2.5 times as productive to be judged equally competent.

Clinton must, therefore hyper-emphasize her qualifications. But research also shows that the more competent a woman is in a male-dominated domain, the less warm people perceive her to be. (The reverse is also true: as a woman’s warmth increases, her perceived competence drops.) In the famous Heidi/Howard experiment, students were given a case study describing actual entrepreneur Heidi Roizen. Half the students saw the case study with Heidi’s name, half with Howard. Students found both Heidi and Howard competent, but they reviled Heidi alone: didn’t want to hire her, didn’t want to work with her, and didn’t like her.

Why? Studies show that that people generally prefer women who behave in ways that are consistent with womanly stereotypes. Women who are caring, nurturing, warm, communal, helpful, modest, and nice get accolades. Women who aren’t get rejected. A recent analysis of tech companies’ performance reviews illustrates this: women workers were consistently docked for being “too aggressive” or “failing to let others shine.” In other words, they might be good at their jobs, but they are bad at being women.

To recap: as a woman, Clinton must demonstrate significantly more competence to be seen as capable. But because she’s a woman, being seen as competent means she’s seen as less warm. And women are generally rejected for lacking the feminine quality of warmth. Hence the bind.

But there’s a loophole. Liz Warren, for example, has managed to be seen as competent and liked by many. How? Remember that list of womanly stereotypes, the traits that people reward women for possessing? Warren has nailed a different feminine trait. She is an advocate, a warrior for the poor, a tireless defender of others — her baby, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is designed to safeguard consumers. Her life’s work, according to her website, is “the fight for middle class families.” She’s in it for others. Her feminine power trait? Communalism.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is the seventh most popular U.S. senator. Klobuchar projects nothing so much as being “a regular person.” In the state, she’s seen as humble and hardworking. Her memoir is called “The Senator Next Door.” She said she wrote it to “show that normal people should be able to run for office.” Nice, regular, cooperative — the feminine trait Klobuchar personifies? Modesty.

How about Angela Merkel? The thrice-elected chancellor with a doctorate in physical chemistry has managed to have mass appeal in a culture so male-dominated that BMW was forced to recall its voice navigation system because German men “refused to take directions from a woman.” How does Merkel do it? Her nickname offers an answer: “Mutter Merkel” is a powerful leader who takes the form of a caring yet stern mother. Her entire campaign leading up to her 2013 reelection was based on the idea that she would care for the German people and keep them secure — the slogan was “You’re safe with Mother Merkel.” By personifying maternal care, Merkel has found a loophole that allows her to lead in an uber-masculine culture.

Now is the time for Clinton to embody one or more feminine traits from the roster of sacred and sanctioned femininity. While keeping up the expertise and mastery, she could choose to demonstrate being collaborative and consensus-building. She could double down on the side of her that’s supportive or communal. Remember when Mom got up and made you breakfast even when she was sick? Clinton’s bout with pneumonia is an opportunity to be seen as the mother who cares so much about her flock, she works tirelessly even through her own sickness. Likability achievement unlocked. It’s not right, but — with mere weeks to go to defeat Mr. Horrible — it’s okay.

*Thanks to Scott Siegel of San Francisco State University for the crash course in Mutti Merkel.