The ‘Cute-and-Little’ Stage Hurts Hillary Clinton Chances with Young Women

It’s been a while since I’ve written about this topic, but little has changed.  On Huffington Post today, I revisit it in terms of Hillary Clinton’s run for president.   In They Don’t Get It, Do They?  (re-released recently on Kindle – $2.99), I wrote about the “cute-and-little effect” where young women are perceived as nonthreatening and so their work experiences are not, as a rule, fraught with gender bias.  During this period of time, it’s easy to think that gender no longer makes a difference.  Later, women learn that isn’t the case.  But the early years can leave us unprepared for the change.

TDGI was published a while ago.  Of course, so was Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetic.  And while I’m not Aristotle, some things are true for a long time.  One of those is that when it comes to preparing oneself for politics in the workplace, in nonprofits or in government, women often have a slow start.

Women, as a rule, start their careers enjoying male mentoring and encouragement.  They begin to think that things have changed.  They don’t need to be feminists, God forbid. They can sit back and reap the benefits of those old gals who worked so hard to level the field.  The truth is that often young women are eventually blindsided by politics.  If you have a daughter, you might tell her this.  There is no point too early to learn that negative forms of politics are inevitable in most organizations and your turn to deal with them is going to come.  Most men know this as well they should.

Hillary Clinton knows this in spades.  She has had to deal with politics in a very public way.  She knows that she has to be twice as good to even get a chance at grabbing the gold ring.  She makes mistakes.  After all, who is there for her to learn from?  Not many women.  Much of what she does is trial and error.  Given that, she’s doing well.

Some women try to stay in what is referred to in They Don’t Get It, Do They?  as the “cute-and-little” stage for as long as possible.  I’m not referring here to young women actually being cute and little, but rather being perceived as such, especially in terms of power.

Recently, a woman told me that she used that stage effectively, allowing that perception to persist for a while.  She was aware of the stage, which is far better than not knowing it can’t last for ever.  Some benefits accrued.  She was seeking tips for moving out into her organization’s arena of tougher politics.  There comes a point where it’s up or out and up means becoming a threat to some people.  It’s best to be prepared.  That’s why I wrote The Secret Handshake and It’s All Politics and why they’ve been bestsellers for male and female readers.

Women need to learn about politics before they enter the workplace and particularly about the forms that are used more frequently to derail  women’s careers.  There’s no need to become demoralized or defensive about the inevitability of politics that get in the way of women’s progress.  Once you know the terrain, navigation becomes easier.  Positive politics can be learned and the ability to “read the tea leaves,” see political moves coming, can be developed.

Clinton has known the terrain for some time.  Her navigation efforts may seem unnecessary to some young women.  But it won’t be long before the perception of them as “cute-and-little” runs its course.  If they are ready, they won’t be blindsided.  They may be criticized for being assertive or even aggressive, but nobody becomes a leader by being demure and criticizing other women for not being sufficiently feminine.

Updated blog 2/7/2016

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8 Responses to The ‘Cute-and-Little’ Stage Hurts Hillary Clinton Chances with Young Women

  1. Wendy Goldman says:

    They Don’t Get It…one of my favorite readings of 1995 and still a gem. Keep it in the front lines so today’s young people can appreciate it as well. It’s fresh and important to share Reardon’s outlook and opinions, with a special timelessness.

  2. Paul says:

    Can women please stop “playing the victim”? Do you think it might be possible that many young women simply prefer the message of Bernie Sanders? I see nothing in your article that suggests women should vote for Hillary for any reason other than her gender. I voted for Barak Obama. I didn’t vote for him because he’s black. I voted for him because I preferred him as a candidate. Throughout your article I hear you I yin that women should vote for Hillary because she’s a woman and women’s’ time has come. The young women are supposed to vote for Hilla because it will improve the prospects for all women? That’s not what the election is about. It’s about all Americans regardless of gender.

    • admin says:

      Paul: I don’t see women as victims and nowhere in the blog is there a plea to vote for Clinton. As a social scientist, I observe stages in our lives that have an impact on our thinking and choices. Gender is only one issue in this election. Young female voters have every right to prefer Sanders. I like him myself. The stage I refer to is a perception of young women common in organizations that often leaves them unprepared for what follows with regard to grappling with politics. I’ve spent part of my career studying political skill. This stage likely makes it difficult for young women to identify with Clinton and causes many to judge her style and choices harshly. That doesn’t make Bernie Sanders a bad choice. In fact, it says nothing about him. The blog grapples with the issue of why many young females aren’t supporting Clinton. Their inexperience with politics contributes. It’s part of the equation. Thanks for writing. Kathleen

  3. Ray Gin says:

    Thank you Kathleen for clarifying this situation surrounding Hillary and young female voters. You are right on target. I just hope they don’t wait until they feel buyers remorse and find themselves exactly in the position you describe beyond the “cute and little” stage.

    • admin says:

      Thanks, Ray. We all live and learn. Some of us try to share what we’ve learned so that the path will be less bumpy for those who follow. Best, Kathleen

  4. Mike Pane says:


    Good article. I understand and agree with your points, to a point.
    I do agree that strong, tough women do get a bad rap.
    The sooner young women(as well as men) understand the politics of the office place as well as the national stage, the better prepared they will be to make educated(calculated?) choices, moves.
    I believe the main reason young voters don’t cast their ballots for Hillary is that they want to be inspired(at a young age – Bernie being the exception – aren’t we all prone to idealistic thinking?). She does not do this now nor did she in the previous failed attempt against now President Obama.
    It also may be that they don’t fancy duplicity, inconsistency, faux apologies. Perhaps they are savvy enough to get these?


    • admin says:

      Mike: I think the inspired part of your comment is important for Clinton. And young people, even the rest of us, like to be inspired. Gender can make a difference in how that plays out. I’ve seen it many times. Thanks for your comments. Kathleen

  5. Neeraj says:

    Hi Dr. Reardon,

    I have read your book ” the secret handshake”. And I have liked the concepts expressed in it.
    And I reach to those concepts time and again as guiding principles to tackle political terrain.

    I am a research scientist who work in area that can be termed as fringe theory by mainstream scientists.

    But with my thorough research I have reached a conclusion that what I am pursuing is correct and would gain wider acceptance over a time.

    The problem is how to do this?

    This is not just the problem of logical argument, it is matter of rhetoric, persuasion and power.

    So I am ordering now your the first book written on persuasion.

    Do you want to say something additional on this subject matter?

    Do you want to refer additional books on this subject matter…any new ones or classic sources?

    ( the problem I am facing is similar to what is expressed in this article:
    Incommensurability and theory comparison in experimental biology

    Marcel Weber

    Where my views are from heterodox camp and I want to successfully challenge the orthodox view.)

    If I get your email address I can elaborate my situation further.

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