Either likeable but incompetent or competent but not likeable

The last federal election in Germany took place over a year ago. In the run-up to the election, the three chancellor candidates Olaf Scholz, Armin Laschet, and Annalena Baerbock participated in a televised truel. A viewer survey of the TV event highlights a dilemma that women regularly face in the professional world - a predicament between being perceived as either competent or likable. Following the truel, viewers were asked which of the candidates they perceived as compelling, competent, likable, energetic, and credible. The only female candidate was viewed as the least competent but the most likeable. There are certainly a variety of reasons for this result, however, it is likely also the outcome of a phenomenon that socio-scientific research has been emphasizing for years: Women face special, restrictive conditions when they try to succeed in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Various models postulate that the character traits that can be attributed to people are reducible to a few crucial dimensions. The Stereotype Content Model (SCM; Fiske et al., 2002) proposes competence and warmth as the two basic dimensions by which people perceive and judge each other. Here, warmth refers to a person’s perceived intention (good vs. bad) and includes attributes such as trustworthiness, friendliness, helpfulness, and sincerity. Perceived competence concerns whether the person has the skills to carry out that intention and therefore includes attributes such as intelligence, knowledge, self-awareness, and efficacy (Cuddy et al., 2008; Fiske et al., 2002). Both qualities are essential for success. However, the incongruence of normative female roles (warm, caring) and qualities essential for professional success (independence, assertiveness) means that women are perceived as either likable but incompetent, or competent but not likable.

Traits such as independence, assertiveness, confidence, and power are in line with the male stereotype. Traits such as warmth, sense of community, benevolence, and helpfulness correspond to the female stereotype. A confident, strong woman whose characteristics and behavior violate expectations created by the core female stereotype threatens the social conventions about how women should behave. This can lead to defensiveness and counter-reactions.

This is related to Rudman and Glick's (2001) finding that job applicants who violate social stereotypes tend to be perceived negatively. For instance, agentic women are perceived as competent but cold, while communal men are perceived as warm but incompetent. This phenomenon is also known in social psychology as the “backlash effect.” This problem is particularly evident in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as politics or senior management. Despite the organizational advantages of promoting women, such as higher returns on equity and greater diversity which can foster creativity and problem-solving, women are still underrepresented in senior management and generally receive lower compensation.

Many organizations embody a "gendered" work environment. They promote and reflect traits and values such as rationality, aggression, and emotional stability. Because these traits are important for workplace success and are stereotypically associated with men rather than women, it can make it difficult for women to thrive in the workplace.
Various gender theories argue that an important contributor to this economic inequality is the social constraint that results from the incompatibility between the "feminine" stereotype and the "masculine" expectations of the business world. The values and behavior expected of effective managers are strongly related to stereotypically masculine traits such as independence, assertiveness, confidence, and power and are incompatible with stereotypically feminine traits such as a sense of community, benevolence, and helpfulness.

Such trade-off is also evident among working mothers. An empirical study by Morgenroth and Heilman (2017) indicates that women cannot do it right when deciding on parental leave. Working mothers have to balance family and work responsibilities and are also in a dilemma regarding the expectations of their job performance and their role as a mother. The result of the study shows that both a woman's decision to take parental leave and her decision not to take it have negative consequences - but on different dimensions. Women who chose to take parental leave were perceived as significantly less competent than women who did not take parental leave. Conversely, the women who did not take parental leave were judged to be worse mothers and less desirable partners. These effects can also be attributed to the incongruence between the normative female role of the caring mother and the societal expectation of a successful and competent careerist. There seems to be a perceived incompatibility between the two roles that is
shaped by stereotypes.

Is she locked in a stalemate?

Not necessarily. Some approaches can reduce the backlash effect in the leadership context. According to a study by Williams and Tiedens (2016), displayed dominance affects the rating of a woman's likeability and warmth in particular. Competence and self-confidence, they claim, are traits that are now widely accepted in women. Showing these does not automatically result in negative consequences. These occur when women display direct and obvious forms of dominance (e.g., giving orders or commands), but not when they show indirect forms such as direct eye contact. Moreover, it may be beneficial to exhibit typical feminine qualities (e.g., being understanding and empathetic) in addition to stereotypically masculine leadership qualities. A study by Heilman and Okimoto (2007) indicates that women who display these qualities are perceived to be just as competent and just as sympathetic as their male colleagues.

The question remains whether it is the woman’s responsibility to find a solution to this predicament. In the business context, it is the company’s responsibility to break down traditional thought patterns and structures. Active diversity measures, setting an example of an inclusive corporate culture, and offering support, such as in childcare, can have a great impact. Diversity and inclusion must be established at all levels in order to trigger a change in the prevailing norms. For this change to be sustainable, it needs the support of top management.

The increasing amount of female leaders finding their way to the top and enhancing the visibility of women in leadership is encouraging. Dasgupta’s & Asgari's (2004) research suggests that the increased visibility of women in leadership roles positively affects the automatic stereotypical evaluations and assumptions, so-called unconscious bias, of them. The authors found that women who encountered female leaders in their social contexts tended to express less unconscious bias toward their ingroup. An environment that regularly confronts us with female executives challenges the stereotypical images we have of them in the professional world. This may result in a reduction of the automatic gender-stereotypical evaluation of them.

This finding gives rise to hope: The increasingly changing role models and stereotypes could lead to a gradual softening of the boundaries between competence and warmth, sympathy and agency. This would enable women in professional contexts to be judged based on their characteristics, behaviors, skills, and values - without their gender influencing this assessment.

Rudman, L. A., & Glick, P. (2001). Prescriptive gender stereotypes and backlash toward agentic women. Journal of social issues, 57(4), 743-762.

Heilman, M. E., & Okimoto, T. G. (2007). Why are women penalized for success at male tasks?: the implied communality deficit. Journal of applied psychology, 92(1), 81.

Cuddy, A. J., Fiske, S. T., & Glick, P. (2008). Warmth and competence as universal dimensions of social perception: The stereotype content model and the BIAS map. Advances in experimental social psychology, 40, 61-149.

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(6), 878-902.

Williams, M. J., & Tiedens, L. Z. (2016). The subtle suspension of backlash: A meta-analysis of penalties for women’s implicit and explicit dominance behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 142(2), 165.

Morgenroth, T., & Heilman, M. E. (2017). Should I stay or should I go? Implications of maternity leave choice for perceptions of working mothers. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 72, 53-56.

Dasgupta, N., & Asgari, S. (2004). Seeing is believing: Exposure to counterstereotypic women leaders and its effect on the malleability of automatic gender stereotyping. Journal of experimental social psychology, 40(5), 642-658.

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