As a follow-up to my last post regarding Donald Trump as the quintessential Mean Man, I did some thinking about Hillary Clinton and her rise to leadership. In today’s political climate, Mean Men abound, but what about Mean Women? In all my years working with high-powered entrepreneurs, I have never encountered women behaving in some of the psychotic ways I’ve seen men behave. Now, thanks to the antics of the Republican front-runners, what should have been a historic campaign of ideas between would-be leaders has morphed into a blazing rocket of tabloid fodder and idiocy. I’d argue that Trump and Cruz embody the Mean Man, and it got me to wondering again—Are there Mean Women? Is Hillary allowed to be mean? Would we put up with such behavior from the candidate who aspires to become the first female president of the United States, or is she held to a different standard? Every time I’ve posted on the gender expectations around mean in the past, my comments section is flooded with stories from women about the egregious double standard that exists in terms of what is deemed acceptable behavior for men and women. Research validates these anecdotes, offering that women are punished rather than celebrated for being mean. Is there a biological difference, or does outsized ambition just not square with our idea of femininity? Given the context of the 2016 presidential election, let’s examine the perception of women in roles of power, as well as the roles of women adjacent to power, the wives and girlfriends. As the latest scandals from the Republicans demonstrate—be it the Twitter wars between Trump and Cruz, or the National Enquirer story regarding infidelity—we’ll obviously tolerate outrageous behavior from male candidates. The misogyny on display from this side of the aisle, from Trump’s comments to and about female journalists, to the Cruz camp’s attempts to shame Melania Trump, is stomach churning.
But how does this apparently low bar for “presidential behavior” apply to the female candidate who is the most likely nominee for the Democratic Party? What might we hypothesize are the larger cultural perceptions of a woman who seeks power?
Slate tackled this recently in a fascinating piece concerning Hillary’s “likability.” The writer noted that she had “come to believe that saying nice things about Hillary Clinton can be a subversive act.” And noted the disproportionate number of personal attacks on her personality when compared with her male peers. Likability is always an issue for candidates, but we’re well versed in men being able to display power and forcefulness while still finding them likable (think Obama, Reagan, the other Clinton). But women? It’s trickier.
Many female leaders likely find much to relate to in the double bind Hillary finds herself in when it comes to the public’s perception:
Hillary Clinton absolutely cannot express negative emotion in public. If she speaks loudly or gets angry or cries, she risks being seen as bitchy, crazy, dangerous. (When she raised her voice during the 2013 Benghazi Senate committee hearings, the cover of the New York Post blared “NO WONDER BILL’S AFRAID.”) But if Hillary avoids emotions—if she speaks strictly in calm, logical, detached terms—then she is cold, robotic, calculating.
Simply put, male politicians can get angry and they’re being passionate. Female politicians? They’re being bitches and harpies.
Why is this? And what are we asking of our leaders and ourselves? Is it contradictory to say that there really are no Mean Women? Or do our perceptions of female archetypes run so deep as to define Hillary primarily on personality attributes rather than her vision and goals for our country? Is Hillary really mean? Based on what’s trending in and driving our national discourse, it seems that leadership and femininity remain sadly incongruent. This despite study after study showing that qualities such as empathy (a trait more frequently associated with female leaders, and women in general) is one of the most crucial traits for a leader to possess.
As we examine gender roles in leadership, we must recognize the bias that guides our decisions. And now we must ask ourselves, as this campaign continues to spiral into the absurd, are we so myopic as to overlook behavior one wouldn’t tolerate from a nine-year-old in our leaders?