The Globe and Mail by Sarah Neville 13 October 2017
My disappointment at Hillary Clinton’s recent performance in Toronto is my problem, not hers.
Like many women, I had a lot invested in her run for the U.S. presidency. I’d waited a lifetime and no woman had even gotten close – until last year. Since her days as First Lady, she’d shown herself to be smart, empathetic and committed to public service. She’d built a killer résumé: lawyer, senator and Secretary of State. The woman was damn qualified.
When she was defeated almost a year ago, I was shocked by my own grief.
Heading to her book tour speech, I looked forward to some group commiseration. In her book, What Happened, Clinton adopts an intimate, confiding tone. She asserts that after years of having to “be careful in public, like I was on a wire without a net …” she’d finally be letting down her guard. I was eager to hear her unmasked and uncut.
Instead, I found her to be polished, packaged and solidly on-message. After delivering what could have been a campaign speech, she answered softball questions, clearly scripted in advance. I wondered how many publicists, strategists and staffers had vetted her answers. Sure, there were occasional moments of what seemed like impromptu reflection, sincerity and bursts of genuine passion. But I felt cheated; I wanted to see the real her.
But Hillary Clinton hasn’t had the luxury of revealing her “real” self for years. Criticism of her perceived lack of warmth and policy wonkiness has dogged her relentlessly. Regardless of the missteps that accompany an epic political résumé, as much attention has been paid to her perceived style crimes as to her substance. Shrill, cold and brittle are but a few of the kinder adjectives used to describe her delivery. Called out as canned, over-rehearsed and awkward, Clinton has been widely condemned as a lousy speaker.
But isn’t rhetorical skill essential for the modern politician? And if we criticize men for their performance on the podium, isn’t it fair game to criticize women? The answer is complicated
When it comes to assessing men’s and women’s communication style, the playing field is rarely level. Harvard research shows that men’s volubility is linked to power: High-powered men speak significantly longer than those with less influence, but powerful women face backlash for doing the same. The study examines speaking times of U.S. senators as example. For proof, witness the now infamous silencing of Elizabeth Warren reading Coretta King’s letter condemning Jeff Sessions – subsequently read aloud by four of her male colleagues the next day. No one, it seems, likes a mouthy woman.
The line women must walk to be perceived credible is a fine one. There’s little room for politicians to be eccentric, edgy or even quirky. Imagine a female Bernie Sanders: a rumpled, raspy-voiced socialist septuagenarian Jewish bubbe from Brooklyn. Would she have even gotten out of the gate?
I coach speakers professionally, and often speak on gender and cultural bias in the workplace. I’m familiar with the research showing that women are more likely to be hired or promoted in gender-blind application processes. That they more often receive critical, personality-based feedback in performance reviews, are less likely to be credited for their ideas, and after being sent to “assertiveness training” are deemed to be too pushy or brash. I’m mindful in coaching my clients of this delicate balance.
And yet, I sometimes catch myself feeling unsettled in meetings with unsmiling women. I, as we all do, expect warmth from women. I often check my own unconscious bias when I feel put off by a woman who is especially direct or forceful – behaviour that I’d likely find less off-putting in a man.
Clinton describes her own challenge in conveying “authenticity.” Her voice coach advised her to breathe deeply and resist shouting. The woman has spent years contorting herself to elusive standards of likability. She’s developed a protective veneer out of absolute necessity.
I wanted to see a warmer, more “genuine” Hillary Clinton on stage. But she doesn’t owe that to me. She’s earned the right to speak her mind, and in whatever voice she chooses.
Sarah Neville is a communications training consultant who specializes in diversity & inclusion and women’s leadership. She is director of Open Line.