Hillary Clinton, Through a Lens Wrongly

By Deborah Tannen
Sunday, March 9, 2008

This isn't about Hillary. Well, okay, it is.

But it isn't only about her. It's also about every woman who has ever been underestimated, failed to get credit for work she did or been denied opportunities to do work at which she would have excelled.

With Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential primary victories in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island last week, Democratic voters continue to evaluate her abilities and her chances of winning in a general election -- and are confronting the double bind that women in authority, including Clinton, face: If they speak in ways expected of leaders, they're seen as too aggressive, but if they speak in ways expected of women, they're seen as less confident and competent than they really are.

Companies invite me to speak about my research on women and men at work because they want to make sure that they accurately assess everyone's abilities when deciding whom to promote. Just so, voters need to understand the double bind when deciding who deserves the ultimate promotion to presidential candidate.

On the morning after the Feb. 21 debate in Texas between Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, I was speaking to a group of women in managerial positions who were being groomed to advance beyond the levels where women tend to plateau. And I realized that everything I was saying about women in professional environments applies to Clinton.

At the end of the debate, Clinton said, "I am honored to be here with Barack Obama" and shook hands with her rival for the Democratic nomination. This struck me as the gracious inclusion of her fellow candidate in acknowledging the public trust and regard that had brought them both so far in the race. But her words were widely interpreted as something tantamount to surrender. That interpretation rang in my ears as I spoke of the many ways that women's expressions of connection are interpreted in the workplace as self-abasement: A manager invites her subordinates' input and they think she's asking them to make decisions for her. A woman says "I'm sorry," meaning "I'm sorry that happened" and is told, "Don't apologize, it's not your fault." She phrases instructions to a subordinate politely ("Would you do me a favor and type this?") and her own boss, overhearing, thinks that she lacks confidence.

In my remarks to the business group, I noted that it's common for women to use "we" to be inclusive and to avoid sounding self-promoting when they believe it's obvious that they're referring to work they did themselves. A woman in the audience spoke up: "That's exactly right," she said. "I presented my work using 'we' and was told: 'You're not being managerial. You have to own the work you've done.' " But her experience also illustrated the double bind. "So I started saying 'I,' " she went on, "and my colleagues started saying, 'She's not as great as she thinks she is.' "

We think we're judging people as individuals, but gender is like a contact lens permanently affixed to the eye. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, "One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing's nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it." Gender is a frame through which we look at people -- and what we see reflects that frame.

Women's status as wives is such a huge part of our image of them that it tends to obscure other roles, while a man's marital status is left in the background. This might explain why we hear so many references to Clinton's position as first lady rather than her eight years in the Senate, where, as political scientist Norman Ornstein put it to me, "she has been without question one of the most effective senators." For example, he noted, "on Armed Services, she dug in, developed relationships with all the best generals and other brass, and learned defense inside out." And why do we keep hearing about her efforts to ensure universal health care in 1993, rather than her many senatorial successes on the issue, such as a bill she introduced in 2003 to make sure that drugs marketed for children have been tested on children, or her success in securing health benefits for National Guard and Reserve members who served in Iraq?

Just looking at the women arrayed before me at that seminar made me think of Clinton. The majority were wearing black pantsuits. That reminded me of the controversial column by Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan about Clinton's wearing a blouse that revealed a hint of cleavage. Previously, Givhan wrote, Clinton "had found a desexualized uniform: a black pantsuit."

Now, every male senator wears a dark suit. Yet we wouldn't refer to this uniform as "desexualized," because no one expects men to dress in a way that displays their sexuality. Every woman faces a challenge when she gets dressed for work: Be sexy enough to be seen as feminine but not so sexy as to be unprofessional -- knowing all the while that any two people are likely to differ on where they draw the line between the two.

It's not just images. Language itself works against women in professional roles. In an editorial endorsing Clinton's candidacy, the editors of the New York Times referred to her as "brilliant if at times harsh-sounding." Lurking behind this choice of words is the expectation that women should sound soft -- a quality that would make them likable but not very leader-like.

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