Must Hillary Be Likable?
A real issue for women in politics
Posted Feb 03, 2016
Can any American woman – including Hillary Clinton – be elected president as long as there is a gender gap in “likability”?
Maybe, but it will be a tough slog.
Men who are forceful and competent are seen by both sexes as assertive, worthy of promotion and likable, reports NYU psychologist Madeline Heilman.
Women who are competent and forceful, on the other hand, are seen by both sexes as unlikable, unfeminine, aggressive, conniving and untrustworthy – what Heilman called “your typical constellation of ‘bitchy’ characteristics’”. She added that often, such women are seen as “not just unlikable, but downright awful”.
Less competent women are seen as more likable, but not very good at their jobs. And women who were perceived as friendly and likable were seen as not competent and less likely to be promoted than men.
These attitudes create a real double bind for women: be very competent, and you’ll seen as a “bitch” and not promoted. Be less competent, or even just more friendly, and you won’t be able to move up – or you might wind up out the door.
As Hillary Clinton runs for president, early polls show that few doubt her competence, but “likability” is a problem. Google offers page after page of media stories about whether she is “likable enough”, as then Senator Obama condescendingly said during the 2008 campaign. Celebrity author Ed Klein, whose previous efforts to chronicle Clinton were roundly criticized, has a new book out about her titled Unlikeable: The Problem with Hillary.
“Clinton being painted rightly or wrongly as ‘unlikable’ will damage her electability,” said Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which has campaigned to get a woman in the White House. Kimmell told the Boston Globe that “female candidates who aren’t likable also are viewed as less qualified for the post, even if the candidate has excellent credentials”.
The foundation found that women, much more so than men, must be seen favorably to garner votes. Its research found that, in the 2010 gubernatorial contests, when women opposed each other, the more likable candidate won in nine of 10 contests. But when two men ran against each other, favorability didn’t predict the outcome.
In this presidential campaign, too, Donald Trump seems to get more popular the louder he gets – and when he makes nasty remarks about his fellow Republicans, the higher his poll numbers climb. Mr Nice Guy he is not.
Could Clinton get away with such behavior? Hardly. A New Hampshire focus group run by Bloomberg Politics came to the conclusion that Hillary Clinton speaks with an “edge”, is “condescending” and “bitchy”.
Bloomberg Politics managing editor Mark Halperin asked voters if Hillary’s personality would hurt her, and every hand was raised.
Meanwhile, few question Clinton’s competence or her experience; we all know she’s a policy wonk. Pushing her grandmother status – as the campaign has done ad nauseam for months – may be as helpful as her advisers have hoped. “I think it’s a way to soften her image and make her seem very relatable,” Jennifer Lawless, director of American University’s Women & Politics Institute, explained to the Washington Post. It even seems to have helped her likability ratings in polls.
Sheryl Sandberg, who wrote the bestseller Lean In, knows all about the B-word and the ways in which women compensate. She wrote:
I believe this bias is at the very core of why women are held back. It is also at the very core of why women hold themselves back. When a woman excels at her job, both men and women will comment that she is accomplishing a lot but is “not as well liked by her peers.’” She is probably also “too aggressive”, “not a team player”, “a bit political”; she “can’t be trusted” or is “difficult”.
She cited in her book an experiment conducted at Columbia Business School and New York University by professors Frank Flynn and Cameron Anderson, respectively. They selected the résumé of a real-life female entrepreneur who was quite successful and noted for her outgoing personality. The woman’s real name, Heidi, was placed on one set of identical résumés, and a man’s name, Howard, on another. Half of a group of business school students read Heidi’s résumé, the other half read Howard’s.
The result was stunning. The students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent, but Howard was judged to be likable and a good colleague. Heidi, however, was seen as overly aggressive, selfish and not someone you’d want to work with.
As Sandberg noted in her book, “When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.”
So what can women do about the “competent but unlikable” syndrome? Maybe the best advice is just to know what you want and go for it – even if it’s the presidency.
Professors Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “To manage the competence-likability trade-off – the seeming choice between being respected and being liked – women are taught to downplay femininity, or to soften a hard-charging style or to try to strike a perfect balance between the two.”
That’s a lot of time and effort that men don’t simply have to put in, and the effort itself can be “self-defeating”, according to Ibarra, Ely and Kolb.
“Over-investment in one’s image diminishes the emotional and motivational resources available for larger purposes. People who focus on how others perceive them are less clear about their goals, less open to learning from failure, and less capable of self-regulation.”
Women in the US may have a tougher time combatting the perception bias, given our chaotic and weakening party structure. No longer do politicians meekly stand back and accept the choices of party establishments. Individuals can put together huge war chests through political action committees, gobble up media time if they are savvy – like Donald Trump – and use social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to connect directly with voters.
The emphasis on individual personalities in the US differs from the emphasis in parliamentary elections. When strong parties select and back candidates and the election cycles are shorter, there is just less time to focus on the personalities of every candidate and on every minor gaffe.
And parties in parliamentary systems can insist on certain levels of female representation among their seated delegates, creating a back bench of candidates who can move up within the party structures without being entirely vulnerable to voters’ perceptions that they might not be likable enough.
To succeed today in American government or Americans businesses, women have to confront and challenge entrenched stereotypes that can easily derail their best efforts at advancement. It isn’t fair, but it’s necessary because, until the B-word is vanquished, Clinton might be able to put another 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, but still have to convince voters they would want to have a beer with her.
(previously published in The Guardian)
Rosalind C Barnett
Dr Rosalind C Barnett is the senior scientist at the women's studies research center at Brandeis University. She has directed major research projects for the Sloan Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute for Mental Health, among others.
Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University who received the Helen Thomas award for lifetime achievement from the Society of Professional Journalists. She and Rosalind C Barnett are the authors of The New Soft War on Women (Tarcher/ Penguin), an Oprah Magazine top 10 pick. In 2011 they won both the Casey Medal for distinguished journalism and a special citation from the National Education Writers Association for opinion columns.