University of Richmond

Study sheds light on reaction to Hillary Clinton's emotional moment

January 15, 2008

When Hillary Clinton showed emotion during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, she was caught in a "double bind" that women leaders often find themselves in, says Crystal Hoyt, assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.

"This double bind results from the need for women to demonstrate masculine, leader-like characteristics to be perceived as effective, but they can't be too masculine or people won't like them."

Thus, female leaders "need to show a certain level of femininity to be liked, but if they show too much, they will be perceived as an ineffective leader."

Hoyt says Clinton's expression of emotion might have fed into some people's perception of her as overly-feminine and not leader-like. "However, it seems that Clinton doesn't have a problem with being perceived as too feminine, thus her showing emotion might just serve to soften her image somewhat and increase her likability," says Hoyt.

A new study by Hoyt finds that during times of war or terror, people of both genders are more likely to support leaders with masculine traits though it also points out that female leaders who don't mix masculine traits with a display of feminine attributes are not particularly well received.

The study, "Choosing the Best (Wo)Man for the Job: The Effects of Mortality Salience, Sex, and Gender Stereotypes on Leader Evaluations," is forthcoming in Leadership Quarterly, and was co-authored by Hoyt and two of her students at the time, Stefanie Simon and Lindsey Reid.

Its findings suggest that Hillary Clinton walks a treacherous metaphorical tightrope in her presidential campaign, and perhaps, provide at least a partial explanation for the love-hate reaction Clinton elicits from at least part of the electorate, Hoyt says.

"In times of peril, people prefer a leader with masculine traits more often found in men," she says. "These traits include assertiveness, aggressiveness and dominance versus caring concern and care for others¿empathy."

Deconstructing Hillary's campaign and persona against the backdrop of her findings, Hoyt says her research suggests that during times of terrorism or war, while people want strong, tough, leaders with masculine traits, at the same time "people don't like women who are very dominant in a leadership role if that's not tempered with some femininity."

"Hillary appears to be walking a very thin line," Hoyt says. "She needs to be masculine in the sense of displaying confidence that she can lead through war but at the same time, show that she's also a woman."

Hoyt taught a course last semester called Women and Leadership, where discussion, frequently turned to Clinton's campaign and other examples of women in leadership positions.

"It's actually a very specialized course," Hoyt says. "There are a number of courses out there about women and leadership but they are generally quite broad in their approach. Mine focuses on stigma¿or how stereotype, prejudice, and discrimination impact women in leadership positions."

Female politicians, Hoyt observes, often intuitively grasp the dual roles they must project. For example, Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, has carefully nurtured a role as a no-nonsense legislator, while at the same time welcoming her grandchildren into her office for image-softening photo opportunities.

"She displays a great mesh of masculine and feminine attributes," Hoyt says. "Men don't need to project this, but women do."

Hillary's stance on a number issues, from talking tougher on Iran than other Democratic candidates to appearing on daytime television shows that are targeted primarily towards women, may reflect her intuitive understanding for the necessity to project both masculine and feminine traits, Hoyt says. Still, those traits don't appeal to everyone, which may account for the love-hate reaction.

"Some people love her because she's a pioneering woman," Hoyt says. "There also are those who hate her because she's not properly feminine and wants to lead the country, which doesn't fit into the idea of what a woman is or a top leader is."

Contact: Crystal L. Hoyt, Assistant Professor, Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond; (804) 287-6825 or choyt@richmond.edu.