Special Election Edition: Traits and Trust: The Role of Gender

Carrie Keating

The Psychology of Leadership

Hillary Clinton, two-term Senator from New York State and former Secretary of State under President Barack Obama, is schooled in the art of the deal, government-style. She studies each case to be negotiated like the attorney she is, she anticipates the give and take and she works hard at crafting the face-saving agreement that will be judged acceptable by all sides in order to close a deal. Her transactional style of leadership is neither exciting nor inspiring, but it is generally the way things get done in the halls of Congress and often on the world stage. For Clinton, deals are imperfect stepping-stones to future transactions, and the transactions after those. 

As a Former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State, Clinton is accustomed to moving about in the circles of elites, showing little of the independent, self-assured “with-it” contemporary coolness of the Obamas. (How the Obamas manage to master contemporary culture while living in the cloistered environment of the White House is a mystery.) Clinton is 69 years old, a moderate Midwesterner at heart (she believes in school uniforms), but she sports a stubborn, optimistic twist of the ‘60’s hippy through which she envisions a world at peace with itself, egalitarian and inclusive, sensibly construed with health care and education for all and Western in its values and tastes. Read her book It Takes a Village” and you will see. 

Perhaps for these reasons Clinton has developed a “tin ear” – she is bad at perceiving how she comes across to others (psychological translation: she is poor at self-monitoring, or assessing the impact she has on others). Exhibit #1 is typing 50 percent of Trump supporters as belonging to the “basket of deplorables.” Exhibit #2 is brushing off her private email problem. Exhibit #3 is answering the debate challenge regarding her penchant for privacy by referencing Abraham Lincoln. 

Nevertheless, as a total package candidate, Clinton’s experience and accomplishments are hard to beat. In terms of credentials, only former President Herbert Walker Bush is in her league. As a candidate for the U.S. Presidency, Hillary’s proven dedication to matters of government, public policy and public good are unparalleled.

But Secretary Clinton is a woman, which means she is in a tough spot as she vies for the highest office in the land. Imagine a circle on a Ven diagram labeled “leadership.” Now pack the characteristics of a prototypical leader into it: strong, ambitious, shrewd, self-promotional, assertive, determined, agentic, logical. By the way, include physical appearance, as these traits influence perceptions of leadership mightily on both conscious and unconscious levels. This means adding tall, broad-shouldered (as frequently mentioned by Trump’s VP running mate), square-jawed,

bushy-browed to the list of leadership traits.

Now imagine two more circles, one for masculinity packed with stereotypically masculine traits (strong, shrewd, broad-shouldered, etc.) and the other for femininity packed with stereotypically feminine traits (e.g., warm, gentle, appeasing, emotional, naïve, understanding, slender, oval-faced, thin-browed, etc.). You see the issue: the overlap between Western conventions of leadership and gender. Stereotypical ideas of leadership overlap neatly with stereotypically masculine traits but not with stereotypical ideals of femininity. No wonder Clinton and for that matter female leaders like Palin, Bachmann, Pelosi and others who went before them (Margarette Chase Smith and Shirley Chisholm come to mind) faced challenges. 

Because she is a woman, Secretary Clinton has learned to wear her hair in ways that soften her appearance and to smile from the podium as she declaims in masculine tones, in an attempt to appease critics who stumble over the image of a powerful, competent woman as a top leader. There are plenty of critics, and some of them must be responsible for the fact that the U.S. ranks at about the 50th percentile on the world stage of producing female leaders in government. Studies on U.S. citizens indicate that areas of the brain that record “ambivalence” are activated by images of Hillary Clinton; a strong leader and a woman? Would Clinton do better if she abandoned the masculine delivery style and enacted a more mindful, authentic and – dare I say, feminine – appeal for her candidacy? Perhaps. In today’s leadership world, “feminine” leadership styles and values are becoming more and more potent.

When she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was among the most popular political leaders in the country. Since then, her favorability ratings in the eyes of Americans have tumbled. This is not surprising, as numerous studies have shown that women who are perceived as ambitious, competent, and powerful are typically also perceived as unattractive and dislikeable. And can we trust her? Women who are suspected of being dishonest pay a greater price for the transgression than men do for the same transgression. Clinton would raise doubts about decades of psychological research studies if it were any other way. 

About that smiling – Clinton smiles when she is happy, when she is angry, when she is amused and when she is pretending to be amused but is actually upset by her rivals and derisive of them. Hers is a hard smile to read. This contributes to a sense of mistrust; how does she really feel? Does she like us, is she like us and will she do right by us?