To illuminate this seemingly contradictory set of facts, The Fix reached out to three experts to dissect the role that gender could play tonight. The Q&A that follows has been edited for clarity and length.
Deborah Borisoff is an New York University professor of media, culture and communication who has taught courses and published a dozen books on race, gender, culture and identity.
Jennifer Lawless is a political scientist, American University professor of government and director of the school's Women & Politics Institute.
Ruth Sherman is a political communications consultant and coach and former faculty member at the Yale University Women's Campaign School.
THE FIX: Many Americans will balk at the idea that because of her gender Clinton faces inherent challenges. What would you want these people to know?
BORISOFF: Some people may not acknowledge that their sense of events is influenced by the fact that Clinton is a woman. But in this debate, as in any televised presidential debate, we are in the realm of perceptions.
With women, there is a [cultural] expectation that they are supposed to be friendly, polite. So Clinton is supposed to be cooperative. She’s supposed to be pleasing. And we already know that, instead, she’s always accused of sounding shrill. In this debate, she and she alone has to navigate the space between being assertive and sufficiently woman-like or face all kinds of criticism. That's a very difficult position to be in, but the place she'll be when she walks out on that stage.
It’s really amazing how high the stakes seem to be when there is just no template for this moment. What makes it all the more complicated is that she’s the one with the legacy of experience. She is running against the first male candidate without any.
SHERMAN: Listen, if you are in public service, the last 25 years in the national public eye, as Clinton has been, you put yourself out there. It doesn't matter if you are a man or a woman, you are going to make mistakes. They are in the public record, and they are going to come back to haunt you. But Clinton is even more transgressive, and her faults and mistakes magnified, because she is a woman.
Look at [Carly] Fiorina, a woman who politically is very different from Clinton. After she was fired or forced out of her company, some people thought ill of her as a businessperson, forever. If she were a man, the odds are high she would have had another five CEO jobs by now. Men in leadership positions are the norm, so their errors are kept in proportion or minimized. This is why there is a saying 'Men fail up.'
THE FIX: How might gender bias play out in the way that voters and reporters view Clinton's debate performance?
BORISOFF: For him, the bar is set very low. Facts are almost irrelevant, and as long as he doesn’t crash, he wins. People can deny this, but he gets a pass on a lot of things — his tax returns, business practices, hiring immigrants and not paying much-smaller businesses for work done. She is constantly expected to do all things, know all things and look and sound amazing at the same time.
Double standards are common, they are part of the way the country works. Women almost always have to outperform or dominate in order to be taken seriously or be regarded as just as good. But for Clinton, the bar is even higher. She has to outperform while also smiling and giving people a sense of who she is as a human being.
LAWLESS: It is very hard to say. Hillary Clinton is not your typical female candidate, and, regardless of what happens, we should not assume anything about how male and female candidates debate each other more broadly out of this event. I would hate for her to have a bad debate performance and the narrative becomes this is something that women [candidates] need to worry about.
For one thing, people perceive Clinton as a hawk, as very strong and very confident. If anything, they are more worried about her empathy.
Also, she is never going to be seen as a winner by 75 percent of viewers, or get an overwhelming majority of people to say that was an ideal performance. Half the country simply hates her. That's why she should just be who she is. She needs to get out there, show herself to be presidential and hope that that swings some independents her way.
SHERMAN: There are certain behaviors that men get credited for but for which women get penalized. And for Clinton, one of those things is what people say when she increases the volume of her voice. In a man, he's being powerful. When women do it, we are shrews. When Clinton speaks loudly, she is called shrill or people say, 'She sounds like my mother.' The outcome is never good for her. So she will have to keep her tone moderated, she will have to keep her volume moderated. And, lately, I would say Clinton is pretty good at this.
I think she's gotten some coaching on her voice. I'm hearing much more vocal variability, changes in tone and pitch. A wider range of pitch with lots of highs and lows can make people seem more expressive. On a debate stage, the moderate speaking voice with a few 'quiet down, let the microphone do all the work' moments when she gets personal will do her a lot of good.
THE FIX: Last week, The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty wrote that in any debate, "the biggest pitfall" for all candidates "is a blunder that confirms the misgivings that voters may already be harboring." What is the biggest misgiving voters have about Clinton?
BORISOFF: I don’t know that there’s one, but I know that she has been criticized about coming across as too wonky and dishonest.
Clearly she knows this stuff, but how does she remove herself from her training as a lawyer, [and] the experience of being in the cross-hairs because of wearing a headband, being smart, baking cookies, standing by her man and in every situation where she’s been accused of wrongdoing, from Whitewater to Benghazi. The perception is already out there. Millions of dollars and years have gone into every one of these cases, and she has not been found guilty of anything. Bad judgment? Perhaps. A crime? No.
If we're not willing to live with the results of investigations that occupied great time and treasure, whose behavior do we need to critique, hers or ours?
LAWLESS: The challenge for Hillary Clinton, and this has been a challenge throughout the campaign, is to come across as authentic and transparent. That's something that Trump is perceived as being. People appreciate that he says whatever he thinks. People who like what he says tend to believe what he says.
But the media is going to be paying attention to any small missteps. So Clinton needs to come across, somehow, as authentic while also being very careful. That's going to be very hard.
She faces a double standard on honesty because she is Hillary Clinton and she's running against Donald Trump. But part of the reason is also that the 1993-2000 [President Bill] Clinton White House was not a transparent White House.
SHERMAN: If she doesn't have a satisfactory answer to bring a few more undecideds over to her camp on the emails, on Benghazi, on what she was paid to speak to Goldman Sachs, it will also feed the idea that 'Hillary lies, we can't trust her.'
She has to be able to answer these questions and put the issue to bed. For example, in a steady, moderate voice, she should say something like 'I have acknowledged my mistake with the emails and apologized for my mistake many times. The emails are, at this point, part of the public record. If you have any questions about them, I recommend that you check the public record. And that is all I am going to say about it tonight. Let's move on.' On Benghazi, she can do something similar by pointing out that she testified before Congress for 11 hours.
On the coziness with Goldman Sachs and what she got paid for her speeches, Hillary Clinton is a woman, so culturally we don't like that she's highly paid. That's supposed to be reserved for the boys. That's why Trump can boast about his wealth but her speaking fees are suspect. What Clinton can say is, 'I was a private citizen. Yes, I am paid well to come into a private organizations and give my opinion of world affairs and that's it.' Then, maybe say something like 'I know that I am a rare bird in that way, and that is why it is so important to me to...' If she does that, I think a lot of women watching would want to give her a high-five. She will sound like a leader without being dismissive.