Women’s Likeability – Competence Dilemma: Overcoming the Backlash Effect

Madeline Heilman

Madeline Heilman

Aaron Wallen

Aaron Wallen

Almost a decade ago, New York University’s Madeline Heilman and colleagues Aaron Wallen, Daniella Fuchs and Melinda Tamkins, demonstrated the challenge women face when they are seen as successful in traditionally-male roles.

Melinda Tamkins

Melinda Tamkins

The team conducted three experimental studies with 242 volunteers to investigate reactions to a woman’s success in a male gender-typed job and found that when women are recognized as successful in roles dominated by men, they are less liked than equally successful men in the same fields.

Tyler Okimoto

Tyler Okimoto

Heilman extended the work with Tyler Okimoto, now at University of Queensland, in three additional experimental studies to evaluate whether successful women’s likeability challenge is attributable to perceived deficit in nurturing and socially- sensitive “communal” attributes, which include warmth and “niceness.”
They found that successful women managers avoided interpersonal hostility, dislike, and undesirability when they or others conveyed “communal” attributes, through their behaviors, testimonials of others, or their role as mothers.

Frank Flynn

Frank Flynn

Stanford’s Frank Flynn demonstrated the competence-likeability disconnect when he taught a Harvard Business School case of Silicon Valley venture capitalist and entrepreneur Heidi Roizen.

Heidi Roizen

Heidi Roizen

He and collaborator Cameron Anderson of UC Berkeley changed Heidi’s name to “Howard Roizen” for half of the students.

Cameron Anderson

Cameron Anderson

Flynn and Anderson asked student who read the Heidi case and those who read the Howard case to rate Heidi and Howard on several dimensions before the class meeting.

Students rated Heidi as highly competent and effective as Howard, but they evaluated her as unlikeable and selfish, and wouldn’t want to hire her or work with her.

Whitney Johnson-Lisa Joy Rosner

Whitney Johnson-Lisa Joy Rosner

A more recent example of backlash toward high-profile, accomplished women was illustrated by Whitney Johnson, co-founder of Rose Park Advisors (Disruptive Innovation Fund), and Lisa Joy Rosner, Chief Marketing Officer of NetBase, in their evaluation of social media mentions of Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter.

Johnson and Rosner evaluated “Brand Passion Index” (BPI) for Mayer, Sandberg, and Slaughter over 12 months by

  • Activity (number of mentions)
  • Sentiment (positive or negative)
  • Intensity (strong or weak sentiment).

Public Opinion-Mayer-Sandberg-SlaughterThese competent, well-known women were not liked, and were evaluated with harsh negative attributions based on media coverage and at-a-distance observations:

  • Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO, was described as impressive and super-smart, and annoying, terrible bully
  • Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg‘s was characterized as truly excellent, successful working mom and crazy bizarre
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department, was depicted as an amazing, successful mother and destructive, not a good wife
Laurie Rudman

Laurie Rudman

The competence-likeability dilemma is illustrated in hiring behavior, demonstrated in experiments by Rutgers University’s Laurie Rudman and Peter Glick of Lawrence University.

The team asked volunteers to simulate hiring decisions for male and female candidates for a “feminized” managerial role and a “masculinized” managerial role.

Peter Glick

Peter Glick

Applicants were presented as:

  • “Agentic” (stereotypically male behaviors) or
  • “Communal” (stereotypically male behaviors) or
  • “Androgynous” (combining stereotypically male and female behaviors)

Women who displayed “masculine, agentic” traits were viewed as less socially skilled than agentic males.
They were not selected for the “feminized” job, but this hiring bias did not occur when agentic women applied for the “male” job.

In contrast to the “agentic” women, both male and female “communal” applicants received low hiring ratings, pointing to the penalty for being perceived as “nice.

“Androgynous” female applicants were not discriminated against.

Rudman and Glick noted that “… women must present themselves as agentic to be hireable, but may therefore be seen as interpersonally deficient.”
They advise women to “temper their agency with niceness.”

Linda Babcock

Linda Babcock

Once women receive job offers, the competence-likeability disconnect continues when they negotiate for salary and position, reported by Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon.
Her research demonstrated and replicated negative evaluations of women who negotiate for salaries using the same script as men.

Deborah Gruenfeld

Deborah Gruenfeld

Stanford’s Deborah Gruenfeld suggested that the likeability-competence dilemma may result from women’s challenges in integrating expansive, powerful body language with more submissive, appeasing behavior to build relationships and acknowledge others’ authority.

She posited that many women have been socialized to adopt less powerful body positions and body language including:

  • Smiling
  • Nodding
  • Tilting the head
  • Applying fleeting eye contact
  • Speaking in sentence fragments with uncertain, rising intonation at sentence endings.

In addition, many people expect women to behave in these ways, and negatively evaluate behaviors that differ from expectations.

Body language is the greatest contributor to split-second judgments of people’s competence, according to Gruenfeld.
She estimated that body language is responsible for about 55% of judgments, whereas self-presentation accounts for 38%, and words for just 7% — in less than 100 milliseconds.

Her earlier work considered the impact of body language on assessments of power, whereas her more recent work investigates gender differences in attributions of competence and likeability.

The likeability-competence dilemma may be improved by shifting from “playing high” or taking space when demonstrating competence and authority.
Gruenfeld noted that this powerful body language may be risky for women unless counterbalanced with “playing low” or giving space when conveying approachability, empathy, and likeability.

Posing in more powerful positions for as little as two minutes can change levels of testosterone, a marker of dominance, just as holding a submissive posture for the same time can increase cortisol levels, signaling stress, according to Gruenfeld.

To enable versatile application of powerful “playing high” with more familiar “playing low,” Gruenfeld urges women to practice both awareness and “the mechanics of powerful body language.”

Alison Fragale

Alison Fragale

Women’s competence-likeability dilemma is not mitigated by achieving workplace success and status.
University of North Carolina’s Alison Fragale, Benson Rosen, Carol Xu, Iryna Merideth found that successful women – and men, like Mayer, Sandberg, and Slaughter, are judged more harshly for mistakes than lower status individuals who make identical errors.

Benson Rosen

Benson Rosen

Fragale’s team found that observers attributed greater intentionality, malevolence, self-concern to the actions of high status wrongdoers than the identical actions of low status wrongdoers, and recommended more severe punishments for higher status individuals in two experiments.

Iryna Meridith

Iryna Meridith

The team found preventive and reparative value in the shunned qualities of warmth and likeability.
Wrongdoers who demonstrated affiliative concern for others, charitable giving, and interpersonal warmth built a reservoir of goodwill that could protect from the impact of subsequent mistakes and transgressions.

Navigating the Likeability-Competence dilemma requires demonstrating both capacities, depending on situational requirements.
Learning this skill can take a lifetime.

-*How do you convey likeability AND competence?

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6 thoughts on “Women’s Likeability – Competence Dilemma: Overcoming the Backlash Effect

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