It’s not news that some female leaders have a likeability problem. In September, Trump said of Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris, “People don’t like her. Nobody likes her.” During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton felt compelled to address why she was frequently perceived as “cold” and “aloof.” And in the Democratic primaries, 41% of those who preferred Joe Biden to Elizabeth Warren stated that the likeability of female presidential candidates was a concern. But now, new research finds that not all female leaders are disliked.
The new research, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, suggests that it’s not holding a leadership position that leads to a likeability problem for women in male-dominated jobs. Instead, it’s more about how women obtained the leadership role. If the woman got a lucky break or was assigned to her position and wasn’t actively pursuing the role, then she will be liked more. However, women who are seeking the leadership role and are motivated to work hard to pursue their goals are considered to be breaking gender stereotypes that suggest women shouldn’t seek power, especially in roles typically held by men. These are the women most likely to face the likeability problem.
In one of their studies, the researchers described a financial analyst who attained a leadership position either by benefiting from lucky breaks or from hard work pursuing goals. Participants who read one of the descriptions were asked to rate the fictional financial analyst on his or her likeability and how hostile they found her or him. (Hostility was measured by asking how pushy, cold, selfish, unsupportive, vindictive and manipulative they thought the leader was).
The female financial analyst who achieved success through a lucky break was liked more and perceived as less hostile than the one who achieved success by directly pursuing her goals. Not surprisingly, this was not true of the men. When evaluating the likeability of a male financial analyst, it didn’t matter how they achieved their success.
The authors sum up the treatment of successful women, “Simply ‘being there’ is not sufficient to provoke negativity: there must also be a perception that being there reflects a woman’s choice.” They add, “the studies presented here support the idea that penalties for women’s success in nontraditional positions are fueled by the perception that these women have made a choice to pursue counternormative goals. Our findings indicate that when women’s success is attributable to circumstance rather than choice, the social rejection…is less likely to occur.”
These results put women in a no-win situation. Women could increase their likeability if they implied that they attained their positions because of luck, not because of their own ambition and hard work. But this strategy has an obvious downside. Women who attribute their success to luck don’t get credit for their accomplishments, and this strategy may have long-term, negative repercussions for their future careers.
Other researchers have also found that adhering to feminine stereotypes is an important factor in evaluations of women at work. Women who directly ask for more money are often penalized for breaking gender norms and can end up with less money than men when trying to aggressively negotiate for salary increases. However, women can reduce this penalty if they approach the negotiation using a phrase like, “My team leader during the training program told me that I should talk with you about my compensation.” In essence, the woman’s motivation in asking for more money is simply to carry out the wishes of her supervisor.
Another study found that voters were less likely to vote for female candidates if they believe the woman seeks power. Not surprisingly, voting preferences for male candidates were unaffected by the man’s power-seeking intentions.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Jennifer Palmieri reported that Clinton was liked more when her ambition was framed to be in service to others. That is, the campaign tried to make her seem more feminine by suggesting her work was a selfless attempt to help others instead of a desire for a powerful position.
As more women fill leadership roles, we may become more comfortable with women asserting power, and this gender bias may start to diminish. In the mean time, if you find yourself disliking an ambitious female leader, you may want to dig deeper to understand why.
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