"Saturday Night Live" opened up recently with a skit of 20-something couples having a Hillary versus Bernie discussion over brunch-time mimosas. When they each sheepishly fess up their love for Bernie to the others, they then collectively grasp at straws to capture what they don’t like about Hillary. In swoops Kate McKinnon, playing Hillary Clinton, on a swing from above in her asexual power suit, singing Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” The skit had me in stitches but it was the kind of moment where, while laughing, you suddenly realize the joke is on you. And it’s personal. Not only did it perfectly satirize Hillary’s predicament, but it brilliantly captured something even bigger (and sadder), which is the professional and public experience of the educated career woman. In my world (academia), this is a common experience for women. What I’m referring to is this phenomenon of having your knowledge and expertise discounted, minimized or dismissed because of amorphous personal traits, expressed so perfectly on the skit in a simple noise, "she’s just 'eh.'" And everyone agrees. It's being the most learned and experienced person in the room, yet people take more seriously the less experienced, loud-talking male who has some kind of charisma on his side, the kind that she could never have because gender norms have long taught us that "intelligent" and "woman" equals anti-charisma. This is the kind of thing Gloria Steinem knows. This is the kind of thing Madeleine Albright knows. This is the kind of thing I hear from women in academia all the time.
It's the kind of thing women in their 20s haven't quite experienced yet. Let's go back to “eh” for a second. Not until school is out do you realize that this is the noise that comes with the advanced degree because education in a woman is still a turn-off to many. This is classic implicit bias, manifesting in our inability to articulate the feeling. It’s a visceral response to a person. It’s how people feel when you go somewhere you don’t belong, when you speak up when it was expected you should just listen, when you threaten an establishment that doesn’t really want to include you. People just get annoyed. It’s the adverse effect of Sandberg-style leaning in. At first it will be boyfriends whose egos take a bruising as you blaze past with your ambitions. You know how they never seem interested in your school or work? So you break up and forge ahead. But then it turns out to be a lot of people. At work. Among friends. Slowly trying to chip you down, slowly reminding you that you are out of bounds.
I spent most of my 20s in college and graduate school, soaking up as much as I could about my field. I had that “fire in the belly” passion, studied long nights, read books in my field just for fun, and was fascinated by the professors who shaped my mind. Then there were the signs. For some women it was sexual harassment in school; I was lucky that wasn’t me. Instead, I remember in my early clinical training days how a new patient would look me up and down and say, “Are you my therapist?” Starting in the one-down position certainly puts the pressure on to perform. I remember going out to buy a whole new wardrobe of “grown-up” clothes from the working woman sections of Kohl’s and JCPenney’s and tying my hair back to age myself. I couldn’t masquerade it away, though. The questioning of my credentials continued. Admittedly, I never felt entirely comfortable in clinical practice. It felt too much like having to prove myself to the patient. I eventually gravitated toward a career in research and teaching.
Now for my 30s. Life was long hours of writing manuscripts and grants while preparing class lectures, all while juggling the home front. The credibility question persisted. I remember a student flagging me down before class was about to start to ask, “Are we going over anything important today?” to assess whether it was worth his time to stay. Message: My lectures are not important. Or the student who went all the way to the dean to argue against taking my required course because she already knew everything I was going to teach (in spite of never having taken coursework in this area). Message: My courses are not important. Or after my first NIH grant was funded, having a male colleague comment, “Wow, they must have more money for your field.” Message: My success must be a lucky break. One of my personal favorites was when my female colleague was invited to be expert commentator on a major TV program. In the makeup room they drew wrinkles on her face to make her look more “mature” (read: credible). Of course, when they turned their backs, she wiped the wrinkles off. Message: You don’t look credible. The stories are endless and they are a thousand little knives as you climb the ladder. You respond by working harder to prove yourself, to build the résumé so it can’t be argued.
Now my 40s are here and, admittedly, it's getting exhausting. It's become clear that building the résumé does not fend off these experiences. Why, at this stage, do I still need to prove myself? It is still standard fare to meet someone at a cocktail party, tell them what I do, and then sit through a lecture on their theories on my area of expertise without their once asking my opinion. (In spite of the fact that I now have real wrinkles!) Meanwhile, across the room my male colleague is wowing the crowd forming around him with anecdotes about his work. Even when his musings venture wildly outside of his expertise, he can still enrapture a crowd. He’s no "eh."
I have a couple of fantastic male mentors who I know have great respect for me, and every time either of them introduces me, they add, "She's really smart!" At first this makes me proud, but then I wonder why do I require an endorsement? The pride quickly gives way to deep embarrassment.
The truth is, I’m burning out. I don't want to compete with loudmouths who know less. I don't want the kid in my class who thinks there's nothing to learn. I’m tired of requiring an endorsement. I don’t fake smile anymore. I’m less polite. I talk over people.
I have no idea what my 50s and 60s will bring. As in most fields, the female part of the herd is going to thin out as the ranks get higher. The road is likely to bring new challenges as senior women attempt to peel men's fingers off the power structures it has taken years of career climbing to even glimpse. What is happening to Hillary Clinton is discouraging. Her career is far more successful than mine; her thousand knives were not little. She’s been hit hard. Her physical self, her mind, her integrity, her daughter. How does she persist? How does she not wake up daily in a rage? How has she not quit? I look to her for strength.
So yes, I'm voting for Hillary Clinton because she's a woman. But it's not quite as simple as that. Women aren’t unidimensional. Hillary Clinton is a woman with a platform for women. She and Bernie are so similar that during debates they say “I agree with him/her” more than any married couple ever has. However, just by being president, she will change the country in ways no man can. All women stand to benefit from the impact that female executive leadership will have on the psyche of the country. On our daughters. She will slowly erase the “eh” factor for the rest of us. This means my daughter will have a different experience. She may be taken seriously, respected, and not require male endorsement to get through doors. Her effort and accomplishments will be acknowledged. I wonder how much she could accomplish without that burden? I will vote for anything that spares her even a tiny bit of having to tirelessly prove her competence to a world that isn't going to believe it. They don’t believe it because female leadership is not a part of our history. It needs to be.
When we listen to the comments (from men and women) about Hillary Clinton, we must consider them through the lens of implicit bias and we must, even more importantly, not exempt ourselves from that bias. We need to ask ourselves, what does “eh” mean? Is there substance to this feeling? We also have to adjust the bias in our assessment of her. By getting this far, she’s a measure smarter than she's been credited. She has survived experiences her male colleagues could never know. And, she keeps going. She has proved she has more energy, more toughness and more resilience than anyone running because the hurdles she overcame to get here were so much bigger.
Even if Hillary Clinton loses, she has stimulated conversations that need to be had. She’s taking one for the team by shouldering body blows of unconscious bias in front of the entire world. For that, as women, we have to thank her. In between punches, one day maybe she’ll tell us how she endured it all and kept pushing on. I, for one, would like to know.
Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., is a behavioral scientist, licensed clinical psychologist, and mom to an 8-year-old girl. She tweets at @DrSherryPagoto and blogs at FUdiet.com.