15/09/2016 3:33 PM AEST | Updated 16/09/2016 2:18 AM AEST

Would We Like Hillary Clinton More If She Were A He?

As far as we like to think we’ve come with gender equality, the truth is that Hillary’s gender has more to do with her likeability than many people, particularly middle-class conservative men, like to think.

Mike Segar / Reuters
U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton stands with her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm no fan of Trump's. In fact, I despise the man. But Hillary? I could never bring myself to vote for that woman."

This is what a middle-aged, male finance exec said to me while in Washington DC last week as we talked about the only topic anyone is talking about these days -- Donald Trump Vs. Hillary Clinton.

"But surely she'd be a safer bet and more stable leader?" I asked.

After much to-ing and fro-ing, he waved his hand. "I just don't like her."

Conversation over.

And therein lies one of Hillary's more enduring problems.

People just don't like her.

It would be convenient to put Hillary's 'likability problem' down to the fact that she isn't as warm or amiable as her charismatic husband. One could even point to her questionable judgements or the ethics around donations to the Clinton Foundation. But, as far as we like to think we've come with gender equality, the truth is that Hillary's gender has more to do with her likeability than many people, particularly middle-class conservative men, like to think.

Recent research by Pew Research Centre showed that 41 percent of men think sexism is no longer a barrier for women (versus 37 percent of women). This is particularly among the conservative voters who, according to polls from the Public Religion Research Institute, believe that America is becoming too soft and feminised (a group which are more likely to support Trump.)

As a powerful woman aspiring to be the most powerful woman, Hillary pushes all sorts of unconscious buttons as she violates gender norm after gender norm. Research shows that her fierce ambition alone puts her in the firing line for people, men and women alike, who see female ambition as a threat to traditional family values. But let's put that aside for a moment and look at the whole picture.

She's very smart, tough and tenacious. She's been married for a long time. She's been in public life for decades, gauges her words carefully and rarely waivers off the line of political correctness.

All qualities that make for a highly conventional Presidential candidate. All qualities we'd admire in a man. Who knows, had she been born male she may have been President years ago.

Like it or not, leadership and masculinity are inextricably woven together. Whenever I ask people to name a strong leader, at least 80 percent of the time they will name a man (and this includes women). From the earliest age, we've been conditioned to equate leadership with strength, independence, assertiveness and... men. Likewise, we're conditioned expect women to exhibit caring, nurturing, nesting, consensus building, home building, traditional feminine traits that we neither expect nor look for in men.

While men are often rewarded for exhibiting their softer, feminine side, women who embody strong masculine traits are rarely praised for it. What is strong and assertive in a man is often regarded hard and abrasive in a woman. Not only that, but according to Public Religion Research Institute, the more traditionally male the role a woman occupies (or seeks to occupy), the stronger the backlash she can face.

While I may have my own unconscious bias, from where I stand, the bar for ethics, judgement and leadership competence seems to be set lower for Trump than it is for Hillary.

Had Donald been born a Denise, raised with privilege, married three times, arrogant, unapologetic, abrasive, happy to mock the disabled and bully those weaker than her, it's impossible to imagine she'd even get a look in at President. But of course, we'll never know.

The paucity of women at the top in every professional arena -- academia, STEM careers, at peace-making tables, inside corporate boardrooms -- make it hard to argue that the barriers for women are a thing of the past, despite the hard work of many people, women and men, to help level the playing field.

Whoever steps into the Oval Office next January, combatting sexism will continue to be a challenge for women around the globe as well as for the leaders of every institution (government and otherwise) who need the diversity of skill, talent and perspective that women bring. Gender equality isn't about having equal women at the table, it's about having equal chance to sit there. Likewise, equality isn't about having as many female US Presidents as men, it's about women having no more barriers to men in becoming one.

Hillary has a tough few months ahead. Come polling day it's my hope that Americans won't opt out of voting because they loathe both candidates but will actively participate in 'the world's greatest democracy' and vote for whoever they believe is better equipped to lead America forward. Like her or loathe her, Hillary brings a wealth of experience to the table and while she's far from perfect, the toughness, tenacity and ambition that has brought her to where she is today should not be held against her.