Hillary Clinton's Woman Problem Explained

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a "Women for Hillary" campaign rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on September 5. Brian Snyder/Reuters

This week, Hillary Clinton sat down for her third nationally televised interview since launching her presidential primary campaign. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reminded her that people find her to be less “authentic” than candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

“Does it hurt you when people say you are too lawyerly, you parse your words, you are not authentic, you’re not connecting?” Mitchell asked.

The latest Quinnipiac poll finds a growing majority of Americans think of words like “untrustworthy,” “crooked” and “liar” when asked about Clinton. Nobody needs Quinnipiac to know Clinton has a credibility problem. Walk up to any man or woman on the street this summer and bring up her name, and chances are good some people will say they don’t trust her. Many of them could turn the sound down on their TVs and still be sure she was lying.

Part of the reason for this is the predictable effect of the steady drip of the email attack line. Despite the fact that no reputable journalist, including our own Kurt Eichenwald, nor any official government investigator has yet found any substance to the “criminality” charge Republicans level daily, in the hall of mirrors of American politics, she is now a perceived liar.

And she is not, as Mitchell noted, seen as “authentic”—an amorphous but deadly problem far more likely to afflict women in the public eye than men. Of all the lines of attack that could work against Clinton—and there are many—lack of authenticity will be the most difficult to shake.

It is a common female problem: Women in the public eye are much more likely to be asked to protect and project authenticity than men in comparable positions. Watching her performance with Andrea Mitchell, I was reminded of another televised spectacle in which media and armchair psychoanalysts the world over subjected a woman to an authenticity test. Before her acquittal this year, Amanda Knox, female—younger, less famous and certainly less practiced in the art of facing TV cameras—was found to be inauthentic in her public persona.

Clinton confronts the same sort of challenge every day. Some of that has to do with her personality, the long history in the protective crouch she assumed as the controversial first working-wife first lady being lied to by an unfaithful husband.

But no one knows how a woman with real power is supposed to speak or look to be “authentic,” for the simple reason that women haven’t held much power. As arguably the most powerful political female in the United States, Clinton is sui generis. There’s never been another woman—an avowed feminist, no less—this close to running the only global superpower. She treads uncharted ground every day, making it up along with her legion of advisers. And commentators and viewers apply their own meaning to every move she makes.

Is she real? Is she a fake? What did she really mean?

Already this year she’s been subjected to least two body language assessments—ludicrous analyses that, as far as I can tell, no one has yet applied to the male candidates.

After her April U.N. news conference—the first devoted to the issue of the emails—Business Insider found a body language expert to hunt for the nonverbal cues in her hand, facial tic and eye movement.

"I don't know if we have enough to say she is lying or telling the truth, but enough to show a high level of discomfort," said Christopher Hadnagy after watching the 45-minute presser.

He then analyzed six still shots, noting such things as that Clinton licked her lips and shrugged her shoulders when asked if it was a "mistake" for her to conduct her government work on a private email. He said this indicates "uncertainty." When she fidgeted with her notes. Hadnagy called the action one of a "manipulator," or an action "caused by nervousness, discomfort, habit, or a need to relax."

Read more here.

Last week, Reuters published the observations of Dan Hill (“a recognized authority on the role of emotions in consumer and employee behavior”) on Clinton’s Las Vegas mini-news conference performance.

“For relatively long stretches, given that she was holding a news conference,” Hill wrote, “Clinton repeatedly closed her eyes. By itself, that facial muscle activity is a sign of sadness. But add to this how often she also raised her eyebrows, in ways not necessarily emphasizing her comments. This was unusual for her. And it usually signifies both sadness and anxiety.”

Besides anxiety, Hill found a mix of anger and surprise. “Yes, Clinton’s been known to have a temper. But in Las Vegas any strong signs of anger—when the muscle below the lower lip bulges—were almost matched by the number of times Clinton’s mouth hung open in surprise. She seemed almost stunned at how long media focus has remained on the server issue.” He concluded: “Whatever she may have wanted to shield from public view by using her own email server, what Clinton’s can’t hide is that she’s now deeply discombobulated.”

We haven’t seen body language experts sicced on the men in these campaigns so far, to assess their unspoken anxiety and discombobulation. That’s maybe because when men speak, people listen to what they say, as opposed to studying how their bodies move when they say it.

Who cares what unconscious nonverbal cues Donald Trump sends when he brushes back his hair while he says Mexico sends us rapists, or when Bernie Sanders waves his arms while haranguing the Walton family.

We assume that when the default gender speaks, what they say is what they mean, and what they mean is what they say. Trump might be hiding things—he is certainly not transparent about his business deals—but he gets a pass on authenticity because he is what he is.

The bar for public female authenticity is much, much higher, maybe insurmountable. In a NYT op-ed titled “Speaking While Female,” Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote about how hard it is for women leaders—in business, or anywhere—to be heard over the white noise of judgmental, sexist filters.

“When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope,” they wrote. “Either she’s barely heard or she's judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.”

In other words, women who speak in public as they do among their friends risk being called “aggressive.” It stands to reason that women who try to temper that perception by restraining their speech and seeming more meek or agreeable then risk being called inauthentic.

Clinton has been heavily criticized for not opening up and talking to the media since she started her campaign. She tried to turn her caution into an asset, defending her lawyerly style as the more presidential when compared, say, to Trump's crowd-pleasing rants. “People say I’m careful about what I say,” Clinton said on MSNBC. “That’s because for 20 years I’ve seen the importance of the president of the United States, the leader not only of our nation but the world, having to send messages that will be received by all kinds of people. Loose talk, threats, insults have all kinds of consequences.”

But her relative silence might be the best solution to the problem women face in leadership as soon as they talk. Yale psychologist Victoria L. Brescoll has studied women’s communication styles in Washington and in the C-suites. She found powerful, veteran male senators spoke more on the Senate floor than their junior colleagues, but that powerful females were relatively silent. In another study, Brescoll asked professional men and women to evaluate the competence of chief executives who voiced their opinions more or less frequently. Respondents rated male executives who spoke more often 10 percent higher in terms of competence than their peers. But woe to the female executives who spoke more than their peers: Men and women both ranked them 14 percent lower.

Women’s leadership coaches have been grappling with the authenticity problem, but other than observing that it exists, they don’t have any solutions. Consultant Ida Abbott of Management Solutions, has written, “Most people think of authenticity as 'being yourself,’ but…this is not easy for women to do.... Many men also struggle with authenticity, but the path is narrower and more treacherous for women.”

Psychologist Nina Burrowes, author of The Little Book on Authenticity, pointed out that the root word of authenticity is related to author: To be authentic, one must not necessarily be honest, but be the author of one’s own story. For Hillary Clinton, authenticity might no longer be an option. Her story has been written and rewritten by others and is constantly being revised, updated hourly, rarely by her. Her relative silence in the early part of the campaign can be seen as an effort based in sound social science, to create a blank page where she gets to be the author.