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Women, politics and Likeability2 Jul 2019

Women aspiring to political office face a significant barrier to success.
Well perhaps they face many, but I’m not talking about balancing family responsibilities, childcare, elderly care or domestic responsibilities.

The big issue is the L word, the Likeability factor.

To be selected or elected you have to be likeable. That much is obvious. As one senior political figure put it, “You’ve got to be the sort of person they want to go to the pub with after a days campaigning”. You could argue that selecting for, or electing to, public office (whether that is as an MP, a councillor or any other public office) is not a popularity contest. We’re not, after all, talking about the homecoming queen! You could argue that actually it’s the intellect, knowledge, skills and experience that qualify you for the job, that are more important than likeability but sadly, that’s not true.

What does this have to do with women? Surely women are as likeable as men when it comes to selection/ election? The harsh reality is that often, this is not true.

When women are in an interview, a selection meeting or hustings environment they of course are selling themselves and outlining their achievements and their fitness for the role they are seeking. Sometimes women feel they need to be better than male counterparts to be selected so they heavily emphasise their skills, their experience, powerful jobs they’ve done and roles of authority and status that they have held.

The data however clearly shows that success, strength and likeability do not go together for women. You can be liked, or you can be respected, but not both. Men can do both, but it’s hard, if not impossible, for women. Why is this?

It’s caused by something called prescriptive bias. It is how we expect people to behave. Societal and cultural expectations of men are that they are strong, assertive, competitive and determined. These are also traits that are traditionally correlated with leadership and management. Women are culturally expected to be warm, nurturing, collaborative and gentle. So, when a woman is assertive, strong or competitive it contravenes people’s expectations and offends deeply ingrained societal paradigms. It feels unnatural and therefore at a sub-conscious level, is rejected. End result?  People then judge the women as not likeable. Interestingly, it can often be other women that are most subconsciously offended by this variance from the norm that they themselves have lived by. That is what prompted Madeline Albright (former US Secretary of State) to note, “There is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help other women”. These norms maybe unhelpful and anachronist but they are deeply ingrained in millennia old culture.

Sheryl Sandberg in her book “Lean In” cites 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 extroverted personality. The woman’s real name was Heidi Rosen, so 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 one résumé, and half the other. The result was remarkable. The students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent. Howard was judged to be likeable and a good colleague. Heidi, however, was seen as aggressive, selfish and not someone who would be a team player, and who they’d like to work with. This demonstrated the inherent bias that people carry within about typical gender roles and behaviours, and how men and women are judged by different rules, even when they are equally competent.

What this means to female candidates is a double bind, a catch 22 situation where the harder they work to articulate and project the leadership qualities expected of the holders of political office, the less likeable they can become. So, what to do?  Find out in next weeks blog or download the full series here

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