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Hillary Clinton and our culture of ‘bitch’ bias

Ottawa Sun by Meredith Dault 23 July 2016

When I was in my late-teens, I acquired a T-shirt that raised a few eyebrows. It sported a black and white image of two women, with a speech bubble hovering over one of their heads as if she was speaking. Its contents? “Life’s a bitch and so am I.”

As a teenage girl, I got a little thrill from wearing it. After all, young women learn at an early age that the key to getting ahead is in being friendly, accommodating and, most importantly, nice. My T-shirt let the world know that might not be the case with me: that I had my own opinions and I wasn’t afraid to use them. In a sense, wearing the shirt was a way to positively reclaim a term I could predictably anticipate might be hurled my way as a result.

I’ve been thinking about that shirt in the context of a slogan that’s being slapped on everything from clothing and coffee mugs to buttons and bumper stickers by Hillary Clinton’s detractors: “Life’s a bitch, don’t vote for one.”

Like all female politicians, Clinton has had to endure a different kind of criticism than her male competitors — most of it beyond her control — with everything from her voice and hair, to her clothing and makeup regularly coming under attack. Most significantly, however, she is also criticized for the hard-to-nail-down problem of not being “likeable” enough, a charge that is simply not levelled against men in the same way.

And it’s not just in politics. My female friends in academia frequently deal with complaints they aren’t ‘nice’ enough, which often simply means they give hard tests, have high standards or that they don’t spend enough time coddling their students.

“The number of times someone has called me a bitch because I wrote a challenging exam is high,” one recently told me, “even if the same questions were used by a male professor without complaint.”

Indeed, a recent study looking at the teaching evaluations students use to grade their professors confirms the existence of a bias against women. In one experiment, students were asked to evaluate an online course where they had not met their teachers face-to-face. Unbeknownst to them, half of the male instructors had agreed to use female names, and vice versa. The result? Students gave the instructors with the female names lower marks — even if everything else about the course was the same.

One of the things we acknowledge when we’re training smart women to voice their opinions in the media is that they will be, generally speaking, held to a higher standard of authority than their male counterparts, especially if they hold non-traditional roles (like, say, the leader of a significant political party). Research supports the fact that just as women are battling glass ceilings, they are more likely to slip off “glass cliffs” when they reach the top. That’s because women in non-traditional roles take more flak for making mistakes and are judged more harshly than men who make the same blunders (many of the Republicans’ recent charges against Clinton fall into this category).

There’s clearly a reason Clinton has made it this far: She’s smart, she’s experienced and she’s got the courage to put herself in the spotlight knowing that, as a woman (to quote Ottawa’s first female mayor, Charlotte Whitton), she has to work “twice as hard to be thought of half as good.”

Her rivals may hurl insults, but Clinton’s already proven she has a thick skin. Let’s stop fretting about her “likeability” and let her focus on the business of making history.

Meredith Dault managed ExpertWomen.ca, a database of expert Canadian women, which is a project of Informed Opinions aimed at increasing women’s voices in the news media.