Why a younger Hillary Clinton may never have had a chance
One of the biggest applause lines in Hillary Clinton’s kick-off speech last weekend contained both a self-deprecating remark about her age, and a big jab at sexism. “I may not be the youngest candidate in this race,” Clinton said, “but I will be the youngest woman president.” The crowd went wild.
Though my 66-year-old father won’t be thrilled to hear me say it, 67 is not young. Hillary Clinton is not young. She wouldn’t be the oldest commander in chief to serve, but there’s no point pretending that she’d be a young president. Instead, let’s talk about why it is that she’d get to the Oval Office this late in the game.
Simply put, Clinton is living proof of how sexism and ageism interact: when it comes to leadership positions, women always seem to be held to a higher standard than men, and by the time they’ve accumulated the experience to meet that standard, they’re old enough to be hit with age discrimination. That Clinton is running at 67 is one high-profile example of how long it seems to take women to amass the experience necessary for people — whether it’s voters or employers — to overlook the fact that they’re women. We know this about ourselves: in January, a Pew survey found that 65 percent of people recognize that, in business, women are held to a higher standard than men.
Clinton is far and away the most qualified person to enter the race so far. Between her legal and advocacy experience; her time in the White House as the most politically active first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt; her time as a senator; and her service as Secretary of State, she has amassed more relevant experience and knowledge than a number of the current Republican candidates combined. Detractors can reasonably question her judgment, her trustworthiness, her husband and her emails, but her qualifications are indisputable. Her resume is undeniably presidential.
None of which protects her from being subjected to what Catalyst, a research and advocacy group focused on normalizing gender and race representation in corporate leadership, calls the High Competence Threshold. “Women leaders face higher standards and lower rewards than male leaders,” Catalyst found in its 2007 study The Double Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership. “On top of doing their job, women must prove that they can lead over and over again,” the study found.
Proving over and over again that you can lead takes time, as does accumulating enough experience to overcome the High Competence Threshold. In other words, overcoming one’s woman-ness in a male-dominated world and in male-dominated professions takes time. For Clinton, it has taken until she’s 67. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects workers over the age of 40, meaning that Clinton is well past the age where age discrimination begins to occur.
Of course, the presidential field is not your average workforce, and the Constitution limits the top job to people 35 and over. But they don’t have to be too much older; Barack Obama was 47 when he won the Democratic nomination, and with considerably less qualifying experience under his belt than Clinton had at the time Obama was nominated. Republican contender Marco Rubio is 44, and his youth is being considered by some to be an advantage. And though, in 2008, many questioned if John McCain, running at the age of 70, was too old to be president, few people are asking the same of Bernie Sanders, who is currently 73.
Men, too, are of course subjected to age discrimination, but they do not sit at the intersection of sexism and ageism that leaves professional older women without the glory or accolades — or, more importantly, real power — to show for their years of hard work. Though there are diminishing returns, advanced age is usually seen as an advantage for men. Where Rubio can be heralded for his fresh, new ideas, Sanders can benefit from the perception — among admirers, at least — that his age makes him wise and experienced.
This dynamic plays out in the entertainment industry — where art imitates life. By the time a female actor has gained the respect of her fellow actors, of directors, and of audiences — by the time she has finally accumulated enough gravitas to make meaningful choices about what roles she takes, like male actors do as they age — opportunities have dried up. A 2013 analysis of the Academy Awards found that 62.35 percent of Best Actress Oscars went to women under the age of 35, and women under 35 accounted for half of the Best Supporting Actress statuettes, too. By comparison, only about 15 percent of Best Actor winners are that young.
This year, a study of top-grossing films found that women account for just 12 percent of lead roles (4 percent in films written and directed by men), and that, of the women who appear on-screen in those films, “the majority are in their 20s (23 percent) and 30s (30 percent).” There are exceptions to this rule — Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep — but they are notably scarce.
Efforts to get more women involved in politics, and involved early, abound. There are numerous organizations that train women, particularly young ones, to prepare to run for office, like Running Start and the Yale University Women’s Campaign School. These efforts are necessary, and yet they don’t solve the problem of the double whammy of sexism and ageism that Clinton is facing. They don’t do away with the High Competence Threshold: they equip women to work around it. Increasing the number of women in office might merely increase the number of women who are held to higher standards than their male colleagues and are then told they’re too old when they finally meet those standards.
It is the height of hypocrisy to set the bar higher for women, and to then declare, once they finally clear that bar, that they are too old to lead. In so doing, we of course do them a disservice, but we do ourselves one, too: we deny ourselves the opportunity to be led by the most qualified person.
Doing away with the High Competence Threshold for women will take time; changing culture always does. But electing “the youngest woman president” would have the advantage of securing us a candidate with an exceptional resume — one she’s spent a lifetime building. And, if we’re lucky, it might secure us that Meryl-Streep-as-Hillary-Clinton biopic you know you want to see.