Gender stereotypes pose challenges for Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency

To be or not to be a lady

Whether or not Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination for president, the question of how much being a woman helped or hurt her campaign will linger for a long time.

“People don’t like to have their expectations violated, and that is the challenge Hillary faces,” says Judi McLean Parks, Ph.D., professor of organizational behavior at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. “The character traits we associate with people in leadership positions are stereotypically masculine, such as being assertive or competitive.”

However, the characteristics we tend to association with women — such as being facilitative or caring — are not at all what we think of as leadership traits. McLean Parks has studied the differences in perceptions of male and female leaders, and says that Clinton faces an uphill battle trying to overcome people’s expectations.

“If you (as a woman) behave in a masculine manner, then in some way or another, I’m going to think less of you, find you less likeable, and be less likely to hire you — all because you have violated the expectations of what a woman is supposed to be like,” McLean Parks says.

The theory that Clinton is more likely to attract women than men doesn’t necessarily hold up, she says. Both men and women tend to apply the same standards to female leaders. The good news for Clinton is that over the past 15 to 20 years research has found that women’s attitudes toward female leaders are changing much faster than men’s attitudes.

Still, the evidence of the expectations people have for women is prevalent. McLean Parks notes that pundits and commentators on news programs are much more likely to criticize Clinton for being angry or strident than they would the male candidates.

“We even see Clinton apologizing for being a naughty girl,” McLean Parks says. “In politics, people get angry. They yell at each other. She’s not allowed to do that because she is under a microscope for everything she does. As a result, she has to backpedal and soften what was a legitimate display of anger.”

“In order to be seen as capable she’s going to have to violate some expectations that go along with her gender. I think it’s so telling when the pundits say that they like Hillary when she’s vulnerable. But then think of the idea of commander in chief. Do you want your commander in chief to be vulnerable? No.”

Editor’s note: Professor McLean Parks is available at or (314) 935-7451 for live or taped interviews using Washington University’s free VYVX or ISDN lines. Please contact Shula Neuman at (314) 935-5202 for assistance.