Hillary Clinton and the Goldilocks Syndrome

Why is it that when Hillary Clinton stepped down from being secretary of state in 2013, after four years in office, she was the most popular politician in the country? Her approval rating then stood at 69 percent. Yet while campaigning for president in 2016, two-thirds of the voting population said they did not trust her, though according to Nicolas Kristof of the New York Times, this distrust is not deserved. Sady Doyle, writing for Quartz, suggests that “public opinion of Clinton has followed a fixed pattern throughout her career. Her public approval plummets whenever she applies for a new position. Then it soars when she gets the job.” This pattern played out for Clinton when she ran for Senate and got that job, and the pattern is not specific to Clinton. Elizabeth Warren experienced the same dynamic when she ran for Senate in Massachusetts—women reported being “turned off by Warren’s know-it-all style,” but she became extremely popular once she made it to the Senate. Let’s be clear—this is a pattern that many women experience when they campaign for powerful positions, not only in politics but in organizations when women apply for promotions. Doyle states that what we are seeing is misogyny— a continual prejudice against women caught in the act of asking for power. She cites a Harvard study that found that “power-seeking men are seen as strong and competent. Power-seeking women are greeted by both sexes with ‘moral outrage.’” Clinton and other successful women are caught in double binds that are challenging and costly for them when they seek promotions.  

Double Binds for Successful Women

What are double binds? They are catch-22 situations that women often face in public and organizational life. In her book Executive Presence, Sylvia Ann Hewlett cites Carolyn Buck Lee as describing double binds as the Goldilocks syndrome: “You’re too this, you’re too that, and you always will be because what’s behind it is hidden bias.” My women clients and other women in the news have been told they smile too much or too little to be leaders or they talk too little or too much to make partner. Hillary Clinton, and other women leaders face a number of pernicious double binds when they apply for a promotion, which according to Hewlett include the following:
  • Walking a tightrope between being effective and being likable. Hewlett notes that successful women, unlike successful men, suffer social rejection and personal derogation when they are successful or dare to put themselves forward as being qualified for a promotion.
  • Walking a tightrope between being too feminine and not feminine enough. Women seeking promotions are often told they are either too female to be taken seriously or too aggressive to be appropriately feminine.
What’s to be done? We can work at recognizing our unconscious negative biases about women and power. What else do you think we can do to ensure that talented women are encouraged to pursue leadership positions? Let me know in the comments section.   The image in this post is courtesy of Tim Gouw (CC0 license)]]>

2 thoughts on “Hillary Clinton and the Goldilocks Syndrome”

  1. This is interesting, Anne, and I’ve asked myself if I fit that pattern. I think not. I am one of the people who says that I don’t trust Hillary (and don’t trust Bill either) but that because of some racist things they said in South Carolina when campaigning against Obama and the racist policies Bill Clinton passed when he was in office and because of Hillary’s willingness to adapt her position to whatever will gain her ground. At the same time, I always grant that Hillary is smart and will do a good job and I was astounded at how willing she was as a senator to seek counsel from those senior to her and to reach across the isle to seek common ground. If I thought Bernie could win, I’d vote for him because I like his policies and I trust him but I don’t think he can win and so I’m voting for Hillary and I know that she will do a good job if those damned Republicans will give her half a chance. As for Bill, I think he should keep his mouth out of things. There’s something about him when campaigning for his wife that is more hurtful than helpful. Maybe he needs to look at what’s behind his behavior. With regard to your more general question, I think that awareness is a powerful tool. I’ve been able to make people aware of when they are judging Hillary by a different measure and it always stops them for a moment of reflection.

    • Thanks, Lucia, for your thoughtful comments. I do respect your opinions and appreciate that you express them here.


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