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Women, politics and likeability – the double bind!4 Apr 2019

There has been a lot of emphasis in recent years on getting more women in to Parliament as MPs, equal pay for women, more women on boards and equality and diversity in the workplace. So, you would think it would be getting so much easier for women to take up leadership roles in business and politics, … and yet it still is not. Where progress is being made, it’s happening at a glacial pace.

To reach the top in business and politics, people need to be highly competent, strong, decisive and assertive and in politics particularly they need to be likeable. Clearly your constituents and parties have got to think you’ll be good at the job but you’ve also got to be the sort of person they want to go to the pub with after a hard day’s campaigning.

But here’s the thing – when women are strong, assertive, powerful and successful, they actually become less likeable. Women face a double bind situation when they speak up or when they seek political office.

The data 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 societal norms. It feels un-natural and therefore at a sub-conscious level, is rejected. End result?  People then judge the women as not likeable. Interestingly, it can be other women that are most subconsciously offended by this variance from the norm that they themselves have lived by.  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.

So, what to do?  When making speeches to get themselves selected or elected how do women position themselves to be strong, successful, competent and yet likeable

  1. Call it out

It’s an ancient Greek rhetorical device called “refutation”. What you do is to clearly and openly outline the issue or objection you face, bringing out into the open what people may be thinking (consciously or even sub consciously), which then enables you to offer the counter argument. What this might sound like is, “I’ve done XYZ in my career and achieved ABC. Now some people might think that makes me aggressive and hyper competitive which of course is not what we expect women to be, I’m sure however that you are more sophisticated than that, you do not buy into those anachronistic stereotypes of women. Yes, I work hard and yes, I compete to win, but that makes me someone who strives constantly for the good of my employees / constituents / community and that’s what I would do for you if elected / selected.”

  1. Strike a balance

Say enough about your background to ensure people know that you are credible and successful but be wary of saying too much about your achievements. Women’s natural tendencies can cause many of us to not want to brag about what we’ve accomplished but when it comes to interviews and selections we know we have to talk more about ourselves and our achievements. We push ourselves out of our comfort zones and can end up coming across as too forced, unnatural or too “pushy” in articulating what we have achieved. So, finding a way to strike a good balance, practicing how we position our career and CV details is a key skill for women.

  1. Be yourself

Given that the vast majority of MPs are men (as are the leaders of FTSE 100 companies), the cultural and social paradigm that is still strong, is that male qualities and leadership go hand in hand. Traditionally female characteristics of compassion and empathy, whilst lovely, are not synonymous with leadership. In the tragic shooting incident in New Zealand (where a gunman killer 50+ worshippers at a mosque), the female Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden, demonstrated that leadership and being a politician can look different from the traditional male orientated paradigms. She took strong and assertive action in rapidly driving through much tougher gun controls and committing Government resources and money to support the bereaved families. She also showed female traits of gentleness and compassion in how she hugged and comforted the survivors. Given the dramatic circumstance, the whole world noticed this and applauded this model of leadership. No one suggested that she was weak for showing active empathy or that she was unfeminine for taking assertive action on gun law change.

So, be yourself and bring that great female mix of skills to the party. Bring that blend of compassion, empathy, nurture and care with strength, assertiveness and drive and trust that it will be recognised for the powerful package that it is.

Patricia Seabright

Patricia is a consultant and public speaking coach and the principle of Archimedes Consulting Ltd. She has coached business and political leaders to help them optimise their speaking impact.



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