The XX Factor

We Expect Women to Have Impostor Syndrome. That’s Why We Can’t Handle Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton, here on Tuesday in West Palm Beach, Florida, is a confident woman asking for power.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Since impostor syndrome became the workplace anxiety du jour a few years back, women have tried all manner of tricks to boost feelings of self-worth and convince themselves that they deserve every granule of success they achieve. New York Times editor Jazmine Hughes dressed like Cookie from Empire to help her feel like a boss at her new gig. A Harvard Business School professor prescribed “power poses” that boost testosterone. Writer Sarah Hagi has beseeched the heavens to grant her “the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

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But wait! Once you’ve got a healthy self-image and are aware of all the strengths that landed you in a well-deserved job, you’re bound to fall into an equally damaging trap at the other end of the confidence spectrum. Women who achieve leadership positions in male-dominated industries are viewed with suspicion, especially when they ask to be compensated in money, power, or autonomy for their accomplishments. In the Huffington Post, Anna Kegler writes that Hillary Clinton and Melissa Harris-Perry demonstrate the pitfalls of competence bias, which holds women to higher standards than men:

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While boys are raised to exaggerate their skills, take risks, fall down and pick themselves back up, girls are taught to think things through and second-guess, avoid risk and failure, and not raise their hand unless they’re sure they have the right answer. Lastly, girls absorb from the media that their real value [lies] in their appearance, at the same time that boys absorb the message that girls are not to be trusted.

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That last bit is particularly relevant in Clinton’s case. The concept of trust has taken on gendered import in the current presidential campaign. Pegging Clinton as an inauthentic, conniving phony with little concrete evidence to support that characterization is, essentially, calling her an impostor. In a Guardian editorial on Monday, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson pointed out that Clinton has the best truth-telling record of any candidate in the race, yet even 40 percent of Democrats think she can’t be trusted.

Kegler writes that voters and pundits are excruciatingly hard on Clinton and other women seeking political office because they shed the impostor syndrome impulse to cower in self-doubt and toil away in obscurity while risk-taking, self-promoting men get all the credit. By exhibiting confidence and publicly extolling their own virtues, female politicians running for office break the rules of the game and subvert existing power structures. As a politician, Clinton makes repeated asks for money and votes. Implied at the end of every ask is “because I deserve it,” and often, “more than that white man I’m running against.”

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A political campaign is almost like one complex, extended job interview—and in job interviews, women who ask to be rewarded for their relevant achievements face gendered discrimination. Studies have shown that women who negotiate their salaries are seen as greedy and less likable, while men who negotiate are also deemed less nice, but they don’t suffer the ensuing social cost that women do. Another way to look at a campaign, Kegler says, is as a “huge, public performance review.” In performance reviews, women get far more critical feedback than men, and they’re often critiqued for their personalities while men receive feedback on their work-related skills. Clinton and Bernie Sanders are a perfect duo to represent that trend. When professor and MSNBC host Harris-Perry demanded continued editorial control over her show after four years on the network, MSNBC responded by condemning her “challenging and unpredictable personality.” Kegler argues that she was punished for having the confidence and audacity to advocate for her own ambitions.

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Competence bias breeds impostor syndrome by encouraging women to attribute their successes to elements outside their control, while attributing their failures to personal flaws. It also breeds entitlement syndrome, which causes men to chalk their failures up to external forces and credit their own skills and pluck for any successes. Seeing a woman like Clinton buck those expectations and buoy enough self-confidence to consider herself right for the presidency is an affront to the status quo. It’s a threatening prospect for those accustomed to watching women credit others for their accomplishments and cede power to men. For young women grappling with feelings of inadequacy in positions they fully deserve, Clinton and Harris-Perry offer a vision of what happens when women take the opposite route.

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