At the Democratic National Convention this week, the prime-time speeches have painted a vary particular picture of Hillary Clinton: That of a woman quietly working hard throughout the years, smarter and more qualified than the people around her, even those getting all of the glory.
Bill Clinton painted a picture of someone who has always worked hard — harder, he implied, than him. “I said I know most of the young Democrats our age who want to go into politics, they mean well and they speak well, but none of them is as good as you are at actually doing things to make positive changes in people’s lives,” he said.
Barack Obama said it outright. “I can say with confidence, there has never been a man or woman, not me, not Bill, nobody, more qualified than Hillary clinton to serve as President of the United States of America,” he said, to roaring applause. Bill Clinton surged to his feet, looking delighted. “I hope you don’t mind Bill, but I was just telling the truth man,” Obama quipped.
Or, as Barack Obama said in his speech about the 2008 campaign, “She was doing everything I was doing, but just like Ginger Rodgers, it was backwards, in heels.”
Research has consistently shown that equally qualified men and women are evaluated unequally. One study found that early-career women are less likely than their identically-qualified male peers to be considered “high potential” employees, even though they’re more likely to be “high performing.” Another study found that male job applicants, perceived to have “leadership potential,” are preferred by employees over female applicants with proven track records. Yet another found that even though women are seen as being better prepared for their first, early-career job, men are though to have more leadership potential and be better prepared for their entire career.
In politics, these perceptions stop women from running for office. Study after study has found that compared to men, women are much less likely to think they are qualified to run for office, and are also much less likely than men to be encouraged to run by anybody else. What that means is that the women who do run — and the women who manage to stick it out for years — are usually twice as qualified than their male counterparts, and end up being much more effective.
It’s called the Jill Robinson effect, after Jackie Robinson, the first black pro-baseball player — who had to be better than all of the white players to overcome prejudice and be given the same chance.
“If voters are biased against female candidates, only the most talented, hardest working female candidates will succeed in the electoral process. Furthermore, if women perceive there to be sex discrimination in the electoral process, or if they underestimate their qualifications for office, then only the most qualified, politically ambitious females will emerge as candidates,” write the authors of the hallmark study on the effect.
And when they do, they get things done: On average, female legislators bring nine percent more federal spending to their home district, and sponsor three more bills per Congress, compared to their male colleagues. This too holds true to Hillary’s narrative: again and again, we are told that she gets things done.
Even when she was young, she was smarter than those around her, according to Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Yale Law classmate. “She was by far a better student than either Bill Clinton or me,” he told an NBC affiliate when she first announced her 2016 candidacy. “Nobody has better experience and qualifications.”
Hillary Clinton has now been a Secretary of State, a Senator, a First Lady of both the country and a state. But it took her a long time to run on her own accord. In Bill Clinton’s DNC speech, he joked that he told her to run for office early on instead of marrying him, but “she just laughed and said, are you out of your mind, nobody would ever vote for me.”
Many women, blinded by the glass ceiling whether consciously or unconsciously, are likely to still believe the same despite being equally qualified to run for office as the men around them. The same is true of women seeking jobs or promotions.
The good news is that research shows that the best way to change this perception is to increase the representation of women in highly visible leadership positions, breaking down the subconscious bias that casts leadership as male.
“One of the common jokes in this field is that every day, there are a million men who wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say ‘I’d be a great congressman,’” Heidi Hartmann, an economist who runs the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told Vox. “And there aren’t that many women who do that.” Hillary Clinton lodging a giant crack in the glass ceiling could change that — striking a blow for the overqualified women toiling away in the background all over the country.