12/07/2015 11:31 am ET Updated Dec 07, 2016

Carly, Hillary and the 'B*tch' Factor

The 2016 presidential campaign has been good theater, particularly for those of us who are students of gender and group dynamics. It just doesn't get better. With a woman seeking the nomination in both parties, it's fascinating to observe how these candidates project themselves and are perceived and treated by the media -- especially as it highlights the problematic balance faced by women in power, or seeking a position of power.

We all know the dynamic. While men are applauded for being assertive, driving, independent and self-confident, women demonstrating those same leadership qualities are labeled "pushy," "brusque" and "overbearing." Put bluntly, they are considered b*tches. This is the famous "double bind" that women in leadership face. A woman needs these traits to be leader-like -- but if she has them, she drives away potential followers.

Women and men communicate loudly through both their words and their body language. The messages sent by tone and volume of voice, facial expression and posture all contribute to the perception we walk away with after watching a candidate at the podium, on stage or in an interview. And even when Carly or Hillary displays the same exact non-verbal behavior as, for instance, Marco or Bernie, you'd better believe our perceptions of the female candidates will be different from those of their male counterparts.

With women, there is a heightened focus on whether the candidate is smiling and how she is smiling. The smile cues us to think that this is a likable person, an approachable person, a caring person. And we want and expect women to be likable, approachable and caring -- much more so than men. If her mouth is smiling, while her eyes are not, we see it as artificial and somewhat unnerving, signaling to us that she is untrustworthy. Even more damning is the lack of a smile. This tells us that she is stern, wooden, uncaring, withholding. If she isn't smiling at us through the TV, we can feel rejected, seeing the candidate as haughty, superior, a "b*tch." If a man doesn't smile, we believe he is serious and means business -- just what we want in a president...

Mrs. Clinton is smiling more these days than she did during her trip down the campaign trail in 2008. She has a twinkle in her eyes that can give us the perception of a proud and happy grandma. She has embraced a more feminine, relaxed posture, and she shares more stories of her personal life. Even as she was interrogated for 11 hours during the Benghazi hearing, the majority of her facial expressions appeared open and thoughtful, a stark contrast to those of Trey Gawdy, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi, with his finger-pointing and fierce, perspiration-glazed expressions. The effect was that Mr. Gawdy made Mrs. Clinton look calm, cooperative and approachable, while Clinton made Gawdy look temperamental and out of control. Yet, take away the Gawdy effect and Clinton's thoughtful expression and mastery of her subject might be seen as smug and above-it-all -- and thus the b*tch factor kicks in.

The Clinton/Gawdy dynamic demonstrates how the actions of each player on the field (or presidential candidate on a stage) accentuate or diminish our perceptions of each player. A bombastic, larger-than-life male candidate like Donald Trump can dilute the impact of another animated, in-your-face candidate like Governor Christie. And in the second GOP debate, when Mrs. Fiorina stood sternly and offered a fierce retort to Mr. Trump's comments about her looks -- "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Donald Trump said" -- people applauded her for standing up to the schoolyard bully. As with David and Goliath, the underdog, the scrappy unlikely hero, got the better of the more powerful one. But when the Donald factor goes away, and Carly puts on that same stern, steely look, the "b*tch" factor can emerge in a heartbeat.

Mind you, some may have seen Carly as harsh and abrasive even in the face-off with Trump, a stern school principal correcting the infantile but ultimately harmless behavior of a feisty -- aww gosh, he's such a rambunctious lad -- student. That interpretation imposes a power differential, where Carly is the powerful one; as such, she is seen as acting with superiority, and yes, once again, that can mean she is acting like a "b*tch."

Carly and Hillary have to walk a fine line between acting how we expect women to act and being "leader-like." That tightrope is tricky. Too "feminine" and she isn't tough enough to deal with the demands of the presidency; too commanding and masterful and she is overly independent-minded, too uncaring to relate to her staff and the American people. Throw into that equation that the antics and tactics of the others in the field also affect how these women are perceived, and you have a formidable challenge to overcome: the b*tch factor.

Carol Vallone Mitchell, Ph.D., is the author of the new book Breaking Through "Bitch": How Women Can Shatter Stereotypes and Lead Fearlessly and cofounder of Talent Strategy Partners.

Image attribution: Presidential Candidates Carly Fiorina (L), Getty Images, and Hillary Clinton (R), Getty Images.

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