Why Nominating the Bad Girl Feels So Good

Hillary Clinton, Presidential candidate and Jennifer Gilhool, Gender Economics Lab

by Jennifer Gilhool - Gender Economics Lab —

For every girl and woman in the United States, Thursday night is a big night regardless of whether or not you are a Hillary Clinton supporter. Why? Because on Thursday night, a “bad” girl will accept the nomination for President of the United States as a candidate of major political party.

Yes. It’s historic. No other woman has ever been nominated for president by a major American political party. Yes. It’s a sign that American society is (finally) ready to accept a woman in a powerful – arguably the most powerful – leadership position. Yes. It’s a milestone. One of many milestones on the way to achieving gender equity – like securing the right to vote, gaining access to safe and reliable birth control, and serving in any and all combat positions in the military.

But, the really big deal is that the American public doesn’t really like the nominee. Hillary Clinton is a polarizing figure for many Americans. Indeed, according to Politico, Clinton’s approval rating is only 45% compared to 48% for Donald Trump (who appears to be riding a post-convention boon). According to a CBS poll, the two nominees are in a disapproval dead heat at 42%. For me this is the real story. Americans aren’t simply nominating a woman for President of the United States; Americans are nominating an unlikable woman for President of the United States.

Sure, there has been a lot discussion about the rise of Donald Trump and his own disapproval ratings. But, Americans have long been comfortable with unlikeable men. The standards for male and female behavior continue to be different in America and around the world. The headlines are full of unlikeable men from Bill Cosby to Roger Ailes to Donald Trump. These aren’t just any men. These are standard bearers: a celebrity icon, a CEO, and a presidential nominee. We look the other way at poor, inappropriate and even illegal behavior of men until the noise surrounding that behavior drowns all other potentially acceptable explanations.

For myself and many other women who have been told to soften their sharp elbows, watch their tone, wait their turn, or keep their opinions to themselves, Hillary Clinton’s nomination is redemption. The fact is that men don’t have to be likable. At least, men don’t have to choose between likeable and being competent because men enjoy a much broader range of acceptable behavior than women enjoy.

As a man, you can swipe at people with your sharp elbows, pick your vocal tone, interrupt, and shout your opinions from virtually any podium and rise to CEO, become a celebrity icon, or even President of the United States. Indeed, if you are a man, you can be wholly unlikable and incompetent and find yourself on the top of the presidential ticket. But until this very moment in history, not even a competent and likable woman had a realistic shot at a major U.S. political party presidential nomination.

The research on unconscious bias makes clear that men are more likely to be promoted on the basis of promise or potential compared to women, who must repeatedly prove their performance to even be considered for performance. Even when a woman is a proven performer, she is likely to lose out to a less qualified man if she is perceived to be unlikable. Further, for a competent and likeable woman, a single misstep can be a career-ender. We don’t give women second chances in the same way that we give them to men because we don’t give women the presumption of competence in the way that we give it to men.

So, while Clinton is arguably the most qualified candidate to seek the office of the presidency in a generation (if not ever), her nomination was anything but a lock. First, she is a woman. Second, she is perceived to be cold and unlikable. Third, she previously sought the Democratic nomination and lost. And fourth, Bernie Sanders.

The success of the Sanders campaign was a surprise to many, including Sanders’ Senate colleagues. Bernie Sanders is not as qualified as Hillary Clinton to be president but that didn’t hurt is candidacy or his likeability. Bernie Sanders is a self-proclaimed socialist who became a Democrat for the purpose of mounting a presidential bid. While some might see such a transformation as rudely opportunistic, it hasn’t hurt Sanders’ standing as a candidate. Indeed, some have argued that the Sanders' campaign was made possible because of the gender of his opponent.

In other words, because the nominating race featured a female candidate, an alternative male candidate was able to mount a campaign because his gender allowed him to do everything his female opponent his is not allowed to do. Bernie Sanders’ campaign was possible because he isn’t required or expected to be nice, smile, speak in hushed tones, know his place, or soften his sharp elbows. Bernie Sanders is permitted to speak his mind in whatever manner he chooses, in the location he chooses, and cloaked in the mantle of the political party he chooses without regret or remorse.

And, while the Sanders campaign sparked a national movement in its own right, the nomination and election of a “bad girl” to the most powerful political office in the world will [further] free women and girls across the globe from the real and perceived shackles on their ambitions and purpose. And by bad girl, I mean that as a woman you can earn millions of dollars and not apologize for it. You can make mistakes along the way and still get back up, fight again and win. You don’t have to smile to make others feel comfortable or tamp down your tone. You can embrace every nuance of yourself, every aspect of your personality, display your intelligence and even your own brand of confidence and achieve your ambitions.

Not every girl wants to grow up to be President of the United States or CEO or a celebrity icon. Nor does every boy. The point is that before Thursday night the opportunities for girls and boys were not the same no matter what we told ourselves. Before Thursday night, boys could choose who and what they wanted to be when they grow up. Girls, however, were still choosing between who and what – either being liked or being competent.

For impolite, unlikable, out-spoken, sharp-elbowed bad girls like me, the nomination of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate for President of the United States is about much more than making history. It’s about creating a future where girls and women – like boys and men – don’t have to choose between being liked and being competent. You can be both. You can be either. You can also be neither. The possibilities are endless.

Jennifer Gilhool is a self-described recovering anxiety-ridden workaholic. She is also the Founder of the Gender Economics Lab, an attorney, former Fortune 50 executive, author, and speaker.

Jennifer GilhoolJennifer Gilhool is the founder of Gender Economics Lab, a professional, focused thought leading coaching and consulting practice that cuts through popular myths about gender in the workplace. GEL distinguishes its solutions by assuring both male and female workers that smart gender literacy rewards participants with career growth and rewards companies with higher margins. GEL goes far beyond compliance issues to deliver business value for all stakeholders. Learn more at www.gendereconomicslab.com


1 comment

  • This is a SUPERB article. It made me think of myself and other women like me who have been told throughout our careers that we’re scary, people were scared etc. What we were- was GOOD and COMPETENT. Often those comments made me doubt myself and sometimes I asked myself – WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? This key phrase in this article for me is ‘The fact is that men don’t have to be likeable. At least, men don’t have to choose between likeable and being competent because men enjoy a much broader range of acceptable behaviour than women enjoy’. Well done. I will re-tweet. Natasha, founder Genderbuzz.com

    Natasha Stromberg

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