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Hillary Clinton and the Danger of Defying Gender Stereotypes

New research suggests our reactions to breaches of trust are influenced by our preconceived notions about men and women.

By Tom Jacobs


Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A frustrating pattern has emerged in the current presidential campaign: Hillary Clinton’s transgressions seem to inspire more outrage than those of Donald Trump. Trump refuses to release his tax returns, and the criticism is oddly muted. Clinton fails to disclose an illness, and all hell breaks loose.

What’s going on? Timely new research suggests at least part of the answer lies in the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes.

It proposes that we hold women to a higher standard when it comes to issues of integrity, because we instinctively think of females as other-oriented. When women take actions that seem self-serving, they violate this understanding, making their misbehavior seem even more troubling.

Men, on the other hand, are expected to be assertive and competitive. Taking into account that pressure to perform, we tend to cut them more ethical slack.

Shayna Frawley of York University in Toronto and Jennifer Harrison of NEOMA Business School in France present this thesis in a paper published Monday in the Journal of Management Development. It’s not quite a study, but rather an analysis that merges two lines of research to reveal an important dynamic.

Specifically, they combine the notion of “trust repair” — how people re-earn the trust of others after some sort of violation — with “social role theory,” which asserts people perceive assertiveness and confidence as masculine and concern for the welfare of others as feminine.

We hold women to a higher standard when it comes to issues of integrity, because we instinctively think of females as other-oriented.

They note that, according to previous research, “trust repair is more likely when people apologize for ability-related violations, and deny responsibility for integrity-related violations.”

While “skilled people will sometimes perform poorly,” we feel good people “should always demonstrate integrity,” they write. So when caught doing something less than ethical, one’s best strategy is “assigning blame to outside factors” — i.e., blaming a staffer for an inappropriate Tweet.

Frawley and Harrison’s insight is the way that dynamic is impacted by gender stereotypes. Men are expected to be assertive, and thus to sometimes cut corners. When women do that as a way to bolster their own prospects, it goes against our deep-seated belief that they are oriented toward helping others.

As a result, “women will have a more difficult time repairing trust” after an “integrity- or benevolence-related violation.”

While describing the study, Frawley cited Clinton’s email issues as an example of this dynamic. “Her critics were claiming she put national security at risk for her own convenience, putting her own needs ahead of her responsibility as a public official,” he says. “This is a clear example of breaking trust and gender expectations.”

And there’s yet another layer to her problems. The researchers add that, if their thesis is correct, “integrity and benevolence-based violations will be more damaging for women in male-dominated professions.” Needless to say, there is no more male-dominated profession than president of the United States.

On the flip side of the equation, Frawley and Harrison assert that “men will have a more difficult time repairing trust” following an “ability-related violation.” (Think George W. Bush and Hurricane Katrina.) We expect them to perform, and give them latitude to do so; when they fall short, we are not in a forgiving mood.

So Trump is being savvy in not releasing his tax returns. Evidence that he isn’t as successful in business as he claims could be very harmful to his reputation.

It all suggests Clinton would do well to continually emphasize that she is running for office not for personal power or glory, but to help the lives of others. That’s a message that is congruent with gender expectations, and one that — if this theory is correct — the public will be inclined to believe.

Smashing stereotypes is satisfying, but sometimes the savvy move is to use them to your own advantage.