Talking to a rally in Philadelphia, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Wednesday rolled out a new talking point against his rival Hillary Clinton: that she’s not qualified to be president.
“Secretary Clinton appears to be getting a little bit nervous,” he said. “And she has been saying lately that she thinks that I am ‘not qualified’ to be president. Well, let me, let me just say in response to Secretary Clinton: I don’t believe that she is qualified, if she is, through her super PAC, taking tens of millions of dollars in special interest funds. I don’t think that you are qualified if you get $15 million from Wall Street through your super PAC.”
Clinton didn’t actually say that she thought Sanders was unqualified. Still, Sanders ran with the line and went on to list a number of substantive disagreements he has with her on policy: taking donations from Wall Street and other “special interests,” voting in favor of the Iraq invasion, and supporting past trade agreements.
Those arguments are fair game in a close primary between two Democrats with differing views. But by arguing that Clinton — who served in the Senate, ran for president in 2008, and served as secretary of state — is not qualified, Sanders has, wittingly or not, deployed a common attack used to undermine and overlook women in all walks of life.
Research has found time and again that women’s abilities are consistently discounted compared to men’s, even when they look nearly identical.
One Canadian study found that young women are less likely than young men to be viewed as “high potential” employees, even though they are more likely than their male peers to actually be high performers. Another British study found that employers view male job applicants who are perceived to have the potential to be good leaders as better job candidates than female applicants who actually have proven track records. An American study found that while women are viewed as better positioned for their first jobs, men are seen as more likely to have successful careers. Even one in Norway, a country ranked globally as relatively friendly for working women, found that women with the same jobs in the same industries as men who also have the same education, experience, and tenure are still about 3 percentage points less likely to get a promotion. Even at the same company, at every job level women’s promotion rates are 34 to 47 percent lower than men’s.
Women who try to start businesses and raise money to fund them run into this problem frequently. Three experimental studies all found that female entrepreneurs are seen as less skilled and competent than men in business across all industries and that women’s businesses are seen as less worthy of investment. A different study even found that investors prefer pitches made by men over women even when the content of the pitch is the exact same.
The Sanders campaign has stumbled into gendered language controversies before. Terms that may seem like standard campaign fare become problematic or volatile when lobbed at women. Even though Sanders wasn’t necessarily intending to be sexist, certain words or portrayals trigger predisposed notions about how women should or should not behave.
Take one example just a day before Sanders’ controversial speech in Philadelphia. His campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, warned that Clinton’s campaign shouldn’t “destroy the Democratic Party to satisfy the Secretary’s ambitions to become president.” The offhand remark cast Clinton’s ambition in a negative light, something that constantly happens to women who act assertively or ambitiously in the workplace and find themselves penalized for it. They face a backlash if they self-promote or behave aggressively in negotiations. Women’s feedback is far more negative if they’re seen as coming on too strong.
In November, Sanders also came under fire for repeating a line he often used before in a more general context, that people were “shouting at each other” about gun control. But when he directed that same “shouting” comment specifically at Clinton in a debate, he again played into a negative stereotype that women face. Women who speak up in normal tones are often told they are being abrasive or aggressive.
By and large, these biases that confront women working to advance their careers are unconscious and are held by men and women alike. But they still have ramifications. They are part of why so few women can be seen at the top of businesses or in influential positions. Discounting their abilities and reacting strongly to the same tactics that help men get ahead leads directly to women being overlooked and stuck at the bottom.