Yes, Millennials, We Have Gender Biases Against Hillary: The Evidence From Student Evaluations

10/22/2016 12:02 am ET Updated Oct 23, 2016

You might think she’d be squarely in Hillary’s target market. But Amanda, 27, a white single mother who lives in the suburbs, and voted for Obama in 2008, simply wasn’t buying it:

She’s the embodiment of fake to me. Even her smile, everything about her feels fake, and not genuine.

Amanda was one of the members of a small focus group recently convened in Philadelphia to gauge perceptions of Clinton among millennials; “bitch, liar, false,” Amanda added, for good measure. She was once an ardent supporter of Bernie Sanders; now, she’s planning to vote for Jill Stein in November.

Other young voters consulted described Clinton as a “robot,” an “automaton,” and needing to be “more human.” None of them appeared excited about her presidency. Many of them miss Sanders fiercely.

***

Clinton has a healthy lead over Trump in the polls at the moment. But millennials’ lack of enthusiasm remains a liability. Many former Sanders supporters are planning to stay home, or vote for a third party candidate. Like many Americans, they just don’t trust Hillary. In fact, young voters take her to be even less trustworthy than do members of the general population, despite the evidence that has emerged that this perception is inaccurate. Why does it linger?

Because so many millennials identify as progressives, and have enlightened views about LGBT issues, gender fluidity, and intersectionality, there’s been a reluctance to attribute these trends to gender biases against a plain old (or, perhaps more to the point, older) straight cis rich white woman. And some people in this demographic have explicitly denied as much, listing off their many reasons for deeming Hillary contemptible.

So it pains me to have to say this, especially as someone on the record as sympathetic to much of left-wing campus culture, and a millennial myself (albeit an elderly one): the evidence suggests that, when it comes to women in historically male-dominated positions, we’re no less biased than our predecessors.

***

One reason to think this is the evidence cited here (in my “When a Man Competes with a Woman”). It suggests that, when a woman competes with a man for male-dominated positions, men are reliably ranked over women, on the basis of the very same information. And the participants in each of these three studies included people (then, and now still) in the millennial age range. The second and third canvassed millennials primarily, if not exclusively. And this might have been anticipated, since both studies—like so many—recruited as participants undergraduate students taking introductory psychology courses. This ought to be Bernie’s key demographic, which commentators have widely assumed to be less biased than previous generations.

Not so much, as it happens—at least not when it comes to women who aspire to positions of historically masculine power and authority. The presidency being one such.

Here’s the briefest summary of the relevant results (which, again, I canvass in more detail in the aforementioned companion piece), along with some useful addenda:

  • The first study I cite there, by David Paul and Jessi Smith, surveyed a fairly representative sample of nearly 500 likely voters in Ohio, including people in the 18—24 age range, about real-life male and female presidential hopefuls (Hillary Clinton among them). They found that men were at a significant advantage when competing against a woman from the opposing party, rather than another man, in potential head-to-head match-ups for the 2008 general. Age didn’t seem to make a difference. Nor, incidentally, did gender.
  • Moreover, in another study from 2007, by Smith, Paul, and Rachel Paul, explicitly studied young voters (who were then undergraduates), and found that they assess male and female presidential candidates’ resumes differently. When there was a characteristically male name at the top of a resume, it was significantly likelier to be held to belong to a more accomplished politician and promising presidential hopeful than when a characteristically female name was substituted. This effect did not hold for candidates for the Senate, interestingly, suggesting it may be limited to positions of unrivalled and/or unprecedented female power and authority.
  • In the second study I canvass, Madeline Heilman and her collaborators found that, when there is clear evidence that both a man and a woman are highly competent in a male-dominated leadership position, the woman is likely to be disliked and shunned for her success, rather than liked and rewarded for it, as men are. This social stigma is thought to owe to, and seems restricted to cases involving, clashes between prescriptive gender norms and the behavior required to excel in the role. The US may not be a man’s world anymore, in any simple or monolithic sense. But a woman doing a “man’s job” will tend to be perceived not only as cold and abrasive, but also hostile and anti-social—as not being a team player, as uncooperative or disruptive. These perceptions were equally prevalent among both men and women. And, notably for our current purposes, the participants in this study were under 21, on average (their mean age being 20.5 years old, precisely). This would place them now, like me, on the upper end of the millennial spectrum.
  • There’s also no evidence that these biases have improved—further work by Heilman and others indicates their persistence. A case in point is the third study considered, by Rudman et. al., which was performed on college undergraduates in 2012. (And, though the mean age of the students is not listed, they were taking an introductory psychology course, which is presumably indicative.) Beyond the particular “threat condition” result which I explain in detail in the companion piece, Rudman et. al. also report several other findings. They summarize (in their abstract):
Agentic female leaders risk social and economic penalties for behaving counter-stereotypically (i.e., backlash; Rudman, 1998), but what motivates prejudice against female leaders? The status incongruity hypothesis (SIH) proposes that agentic women are penalized for status violations because doing so defends the gender hierarchy. Consistent with this view, Study 1 found that women are proscribed from dominant, high status displays (which are reserved for leaders and men); Studies 2–3 revealed that prejudice against agentic female leaders was mediated by a dominance penalty; and in Study 3, participants’ gender system-justifying beliefs moderated backlash effects. Study 4 found that backlash was exacerbated when perceivers were primed with a system threat. Study 5 showed that only female leaders who threatened the status quo suffered sabotage. In concert, support for the SIH suggests that backlash functions to preserve male dominance by reinforcing a double standard for power and control.

This is bad news for a generation which likes to think of itself as woke. But the writing was on the wall—or, rather, in student evaluations.

***

It’s strange that noone has mined student evaluations in this connection yet (if I’m not mistaken). Student evaluations have been written about quite a bit recently, in connection with ongoing evidence that they are afflicted by certain biases. And, when you think about it, there are an impressive number of parallels between politicians and professors—not just in terms of the authority figure you tacitly have to represent yourself as being (this would apply to many other professions), but also in their embodied and performative dimensions. As a professor (like me, now—I’ve been teaching for three years at Cornell), you have to stand before a crowd and ask them to invest in your words in the coin of trust, respect, and attention. And it turns out that gender has a significant impact both on how, and how well, you are subsequently evaluated—in the latter case at least, and hence the former as well, plausibly.

Plausibly but highly defeasibly, if it were taken just on its own. But, in conjunction with the foregoing evidence, there is strong evidence that, as millennials, we’ve been too smug in assuming away unconscious anti-Hillary biases.

It’s not just that many students—again, male and female alike—tend to prefer their intellectual and moral authority figures to come in a male body (though that is what studies consistently show). It’s also that the perceptions of women versus men tend to be different; and, relatedly, they tend to be punished for different shortcomings. In a 2005 study, Joey Sprague and Kelley Massoni showed that male professors are penalized more for being boring, and female professors for seeming cold, uncaring, or not developing a personal relationship with every student. They also found that, in students’ descriptions of their best and worst teachers:

[T]he most hostile words are saved for women teachers. The worst women teachers are sometimes explicitly indicted for being bad women through the use of words like bitch and witch. Students may not like their arrogant, boring and disengaged men teachers, but they may hate their mean, unfair, rigid, cold, and “psychotic” women teachers. These findings are substantiated by…reported incidents of student hostility toward women instructors who are perceived as not properly enacting their gender role or who present material that challenges gender inequality (e.g., Baker & Copp, 1997; Davis, 1992; Messner, 2000; Neitz, 1985).

The researchers concluded that, though both male and female professors had to make special efforts due to their gender, women’s efforts were likely to be especially effortful. For, while a man’s not being boring will scale with ease to a larger audience, a woman’s developing a relationship with each student obviously won’t. And, beyond a certain point, it would simply be impossible.

Sprague and Massoni describe this as an instance of “the Ginger Rogers effect,” named after the former governor of Texas, Ann Richards, who pointed out that Ginger Rogers had to do everything her famous dance partner Fred Astaire had to do—but backwards, in high heels, and often, for less credit. The fact that this observation was made by a female politician, and has often been applied to Clinton in some form, is a nice non-coincidence.

Another useful resource here is an interactive database of a huge number of student evaluations (some 14 million) from ratemyprofessor.com, designed by Ben Schmidt, which shows the frequency of word use therein, broken down by subject area and the gender of the professor. Not all gendered descriptions are as obvious as “witch” and “bitch.” On a hunch, I typed in the word “fake,” and the results were striking—even before I’d read Amanda’s testimony.

The results suggest that female professors were more often described as “fake”—sometimes by many orders of magnitude—in all but two subjects. On the flipside, male professors were likelier to inspire students to use the word “genuine,” although by a somewhat smaller margin. (This time, in all but one subject; a different one, not obviously suggesting a pattern.)

The results for “cold,” “mean,” “nasty,” and—again, strikingly—”unfair” also showed dramatic gender distributions. Namely, women appear to be perceived as mean, nasty, cold, unfair, and above all fake, as opposed to genuine, much more often than their male colleagues.

You might wonder whether male and female professors just have different teaching styles, and so are subject to different kinds of assessment and criticism. Fortunately, Sprague and Massoni address this point, and argue this is unlikely: male teachers often receive comments along the same dimensions, but of the opposite polarity. This suggests they are not evincing incommensurably different qualities, so much as being held to different standards.

Assume (as I think is safe though, again, defeasibly) that it’s not that female professors deserve these unflattering perceptions—by genuinely seeming ‘fake,’ somehow, whatever that might look like. This suggests that young people (most of whom would still be under 30 now, by my estimation) are more inclined to see women in positions of authority as posers and imposters compared with their male counterparts.

***

And this hypothesis would obviously be explanatory when it comes to why Bernie Sanders was preferred by many millennials to Hillary Clinton by such a large margin, in no small part due to differential perceptions of their integrity, sincerity, and authenticity, and seemingly in excess of the political and moral differences between them—now that all the allegations of Clinton’s dishonesty and untrustworthiness have come to very little.

But you would hardly know that, given the way voters like Amanda, quoted in opening, continue to speak of her. Some progressive millennials who supported Sanders have even reportedly bought into conspiracy theories that Hillary’s health concerns are much more serious than was reported—which has resulted, of late, in the preposterous notion Hillary has a “body double.” Or, alternatively, that Clinton has died and been replaced by this doppelganger-cum-puppet.

Nor is Clinton the first to suffer from these kinds of perceptions among female politicians. Julia Gillard, the first female prime minister of Australia, was slated as inauthentic to the point where her first election campaign tried to undo the damage by presenting the Australian public with “the real Julia.” This effort was, however, spectacularly unsuccessful: Gillard was mercilessly mocked and held to be a Russian doll-like figure—layer upon superficial layer, with no substantial core of values.

The belief in female leaders in politics seems to founder even at the level of visual perception. Weekend at Bernie’s, meet Hillary’s September.

***

You might object that the perception of Clinton as fake can’t be gendered, because it doesn’t encompass all women: Amanda is a big fan of Jill Stein, after all, and many other progressives are enamoured of Elizabeth Warren. But this is to misunderstand the nature of gender prejudice. It needn’t apply to all women, or even most of them. If it did, it would be peculiar, since women are socialized to be supportive, nurturing, empathic, compassionate, understanding, and generally serviceable. Even Trump loves his daughter, Ivanka, and seems at least superficially well-disposed toward his female subordinates, until they cross or challenge him.

We can generalize: it’s when women threaten to deprive a man of something he wants and feels entitled to that suspicion and hostility is liable to surface. They did after Gillard “knifed” the former leader, Kevin Rudd (a manifestly tendentious description of Gillard’s successful internal leadership challenge). And they did after Bernie Sanders briefly looked like he had a real shot at the nomination—and Hillary stood in the way of a man’s upset victory.

My sense is that women just don’t seem to belong on center stage, in the spotlight, asking for the investment of an audience in the coin of attention. When people are asked to pay attention to a woman in this way, they frequently get resentful and suspicious, and subsequently attribute their irritation or consternation to something somehow wrong with her. But she’s not the problem; the audience is. We are not used to being in this position as viewers—to the point where the woman we’re watching seems like a fraud or a charlatan. Or she may be dismissed as unworthy in being boring and conventional, having nothing new to say or to offer: just business as usual, the status quo, completely unoriginal. We’re not very good at anticipating and sitting with our discomfort toward a female subject of attention of this kind: namely, that which is neither sexualized nor geared to other forms of service and succour. She’s not a porn star or a TV cooking show host, not to put too fine a point on it. So, who is she, really? Who does she think she is, exactly, to be hogging the limelight, and making herself the center of attention? There is a prevalent sense that she is out of line, entitled.

You might also object that, though millennials may be somewhat biased, they must surely be less biased than older generations. That’s actually less than clear. Whatever the case, even if someone like Amanda wasn’t biased to begin with, there are reasons why she may have become so, as primary season wore on. For, the biases clearly harbored by some were liable to generate claims and narratives that others would buy into—in no small part due to the natural downside of one of this generation’s characteristic virtues.

***

One of the most important aspects of campus culture, and progressivism among younger Americans in general, is its moral and political seriousness—its commitment to combating historical injustices such as racism, sexism, misogyny, classism, able-ism, anti-LGBT bigotry, and income inequality. I think such moral seriousness is an admirable trait, and I find it inspiring to see evinced by many of my students, among others. I believe it is the sine qua non of making real progress in the long and difficult struggle to dismantle unjust social hierarchies—which is, I suspect, one of the reasons conservatives find campus activists so irksome.

But there’s no denying this virtue also has its pitfalls. Costs and benefits, virtues and vices, tend to be entangled. And I agree with the criticism (not always constructively put) that my generation can be too anxious about moral purity, as well as too prone to insist we’re on the right side of history—or, as the case may be, the left of it. Sometimes caring about being politically savvy, and getting it right (or correct, if you prefer) can make us too quick to distance ourselves from politically imperfect people or movements. Clinton has been, I believe, a victim of this tendency. Her achievements and attractions have been unduly eclipsed by her past mistakes and shortcomings.

Remember, she’s not on trial. We’re deciding whether or not to vote for her, as compared with one or other of her rivals.

There’s also a paradoxical problem that stems from caring deeply about combating bigotry, such as sexism and misogyny. It can make people inclined to throw bad reasons after good ones, for choosing the white male candidate over the female one, in this case. People may hence become biased against the woman because she’s a woman and (how’s this for a painful irony) they are too anxious about being biased against her to accept that the decision is anything but straightforward. They hence unwittingly reach for post hoc rationalizations of a choice which, warranted though it may be, still has troubling visuals. Even if it was the right result, it would have invited some of the wrong revellers. And that may engender anxiety and defensiveness.

Finally, to trot out an old observation: a sense of a common cause can make people reluctant to police or even admit the possibility of prejudice on the part of those with whom they stand in solidarity. In retrospect, as a former Sanders supporter, I wish I’d been more forceful in telling others to tone down the anti-Clinton rhetoric when it took on a misogynistic tenor. I found, on the left, a troublingly permissive attitude to verbal expressions of misogyny—as well as the narcissism of differences which, while not small, certainly became exaggerated by post hoc rationalization.

And it’s not as if there was a shortage of fodder for post hoc rationalization here—not only that which has leached into the air from the decades-long smear campaign levelled against Clinton, but also that which has emanated from Sanders’ quarters’ directly. Reasonable minds can disagree about whether there was ever a deliberate attempt to weaponize the virtue of moral seriousness against Clinton. Nevertheless, as the campaign wore on, Sanders’ important message seemed to morph into a simpler and more Manichean moral narrative in the collective leftist imagination.

I take it that Sanders is right about many of the central problems facing America today, and the need for fundamental political and economic reform. That is why I supported him initially. But other grievances and resentments were heaped upon an effigy that became overloaded. And effigy is the word here: a complex set of bad practices and unjust institutions—Wall Street, big banks, corporate greed, money in politics, and so on—merged into a composite rhetorical object, by dint of constant conjunction. The composite object also came to have a face: a woman’s face, Clinton’s. She became a witch to be burned in the mind of a small subset of Sanders’ supporters. And many others regarded her as at least somewhat evil, and very likely corrupt, dishonest, and untrustworthy. But, again, the many suspicions to this effect have not been borne out. And the absence of evidence is strong evidence of absence now.

A further, related problem was the way many Sanders supporters seemed to ignore, overlook, deny, or minimize the gaps in his progressive platform—e.g., his dismissal of reparations for Black Americans, his “disagreement” with conducting internal investigations for sexual assault allegations on college campuses (an important requirement under Title IX provisions), his relatively weak stance on gun control, and his anti-immigration protectionism. Sanders also maintained his disappointingly weak stance on the farming of non-human animals. Then there were his dismissive remarks to the effect that the increasingly common punitive stance on abortion wasn’t one of the “serious” or “real” issues facing America, his ongoing reluctance to discuss LGBT rights, as well as the rights of the disabled (with the exception of disabled veterans, of whom he spoke often).

As self-identified leftists, we can be too quick to decide who is to the left of whom, and then side with them reflexively—in this case, taking Sanders to be to the left of Clinton on every issue, including on matters of race and gender. This was often argued on the grounds that addressing income inequality—Sanders’ central goal—would benefit non-whites and white women disproportionately. While true, this was fairly obviously insufficient to make Sanders’ platform best serve the interests of members of those groups, all things considered, if he wouldn’t have done enough to address problems more or less specific to them. And, as we have seen, this concern was a live one.

Given the multiplicity of issues that matter in order to make social progress, and the conflicts which often arise between them, the joking direction “not that left… to your other left” is useful to remember.

Of course, there are aspects of Clinton’s record that will trouble any leftist deeply. But the same is true of Sanders, even setting aside his well-known peculiar essay on gender relations (written in his 30s), which describes a woman who fantasizes about being raped by three men. But less was made of the (to my mind, more important) fact that, as a Representative in Vermont, Sanders co-sponsored and pushed for legislation which would dispose of nuclear waste in Sierra Blanca, a poor largely Latino community in West Texas, despite it having no major advantages as a nuclear dumping ground. This is paradigmatic environmental racism. And when protesters from Sierra Blanca drove all the way to Vermont (which now looks to be a thirty-four hour drive) to try to reason with him in person, their testimony suggests that Bernie stonewalled. “My position is unchanged, and you’re not gonna like it.” “What about Sierra Blanca, Bernie?” one of the protesters subsequently hollered during one of Sanders’ speeches. Vermonters, sympathetic to the anti-nuclear protesters, joined in. Sanders stalked off stage, and the pilgrimage came to nothing.

***

Well, OK, you might say, so Clinton may have been underestimated by some of us, and Bernie does have his faults. But he is at least a genuine person—and has a kind of warmth and humane quality which Clinton clearly lacks, not being a “natural politician,” by her own admission (so the thought continues). No prizes for guessing the fraction of the remarks below that were made about Sanders over those made of Hillary, by colleagues and members of the media who’d interacted with them personally.

  • Lacking a soft touch;
  • No social skills;
  • As cold as ice;
  • Pious and self-righteous;
  • Utterly humorless;
  • A scold;
  • A moralizer;
  • The most unpolitical person in politics;
  • An asshole;
  • Just unnecessarily an asshole;
  • At their best, a skilled reader and manipulator of people and events, but at their worst, they fall prey to their own emotions, are unable to practice what they preach (though they would believe otherwise) and exude a contempt for those they deride, including their staff;
  • Unbelievably abusive to subordinates;
  • Would make an awful president.

There were no prizes for guessing this because it was actually a trick question; they were all descriptions of Sanders, not Clinton. The denominator of the fraction was, in this instance, zero. The result is undefined; does not compute; error message.

There’s a metaphor in here somewhere. Perhaps you see it coming.

For, somehow, despite this testimony from multiple sources, indeed the clear consensus of those who worked for, with, or under him, Sanders retained his grumpy (as in: sweet old, as in: indulged) grandpa image. The idea of him as an admirable but in many ways difficult person didn’t parse for many people. Or else, it didn’t matter. He was subsequently given a pass for many of the tendencies and traits for which Clinton has been lambasted (often quite unfairly, judging by the testimony of insiders).

This isn’t to say that Bernie’s interpersonal faults are a serious problem with him as a politician: I’m not convinced they are. Rather, it’s to say that Clinton’s supposed shortcomings on this score are no more important. And, when it comes to who is ‘genuine’ and who is ‘fake’ in politics—or, more generously and perhaps accurately, the extent to which politicians need to present a certain persona or ‘face’ to the public, in order to reach them—our perceptions are often quite untrustworthy. We tend to impugn women for sins and vices men are forgiven for, or which we don’t even notice he was charged with.

For instance, when it came to who was putting on a bit of an act during the primary season, Mickey Hirten wrote, of Bernie’s self-presentation:

The candidate you see on television working crowds, shaking hands and even smiling has undergone a presidential campaign conversion. And there is no doubt that Sanders is a smart, deft politician riding a popular, populist wave. But what is real?

Good question. Among other things, I’d suggest: gender biases in our perceptions of politicians, as millennials.

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