Academic journal article Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy

Likeability V. Competence: The Impossible Choice Faced by Female Politicians, Attenuated by Lawyers

Academic journal article Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy

Likeability V. Competence: The Impossible Choice Faced by Female Politicians, Attenuated by Lawyers

Article excerpt

The 2008 election highlighted a dilemma often faced by women in the professional world--a double bind between being perceived as competent or as likeable. Both qualities are imperative for success but the incongruity of normative female roles (warm, nurturing) with characteristics perceived necessary for professional success (independence, assertiveness) means that women are either seen as likeable, but incompetent, or as competent, but unlikeable. Wherever you fell along the political spectrum, it is clear that Hillary Clinton's historic candidacy for the Presidency of the United States followed by Sarah Palin's candidacy for Vice-President provided a unique lens for considering how gender is viewed in our culture. Of course, Clinton's loss in the Democratic primary and Palin's (and McCain's) loss in the election was determined by multiple factors specific to their personalities and their campaigns. Yet, the election coverage demonstrated what workplace and social science research have shown for years: women face unique constraints when trying to be successful in traditionally masculine domains. Characteristics such as independence, assertiveness, self-reliance, and power are thought of as masculine, and therefore, properly in the domain of male behavior, whereas characteristics such as warmth, communality, caring, and helpfulness are thought of as feminine. An assertive, powerful female whose characteristics and behavior violate expectations created by the core female stereotype threatens societal conventions of how women ought to behave and results in backlash. Women seem to face a choice of being seen as likeable or as competent, but not as both.

Interestingly, lawyers do not seem plagued by this same double bind.

After reviewing election coverage and social science research, this Article focuses on research about lawyers demonstrating that, in style and in effectiveness, there is no difference between how female and male lawyers are perceived. In a study of lawyers rating other lawyers in their most recent negotiation, female lawyers were described in terms that were similar to their male colleagues (ethical, confident, and personable) and both were equally likely to be judged as effective in general. In fact, women lawyers were rated more highly in assertiveness than their male counterparts, and yet did not seem to suffer negative consequences for violating feminine proscriptions. This Article examines why lawyers appear to escape the backlash effect and argues that unique features of legal work reduce the perceived incongruity between assertiveness and proscribed feminine behavior thereby attenuating the likelihood of backlash. Finally, the Article concludes by suggesting further advice for how lawyers can deal with the backlash effect in contexts where incongruity is still salient.


The 2008 election provided an amazing canvas on which commentators and others could paint the candidates with all sorts of images. Even the Saturday Night Live skits about the candidates highlighted the likeability versus competence divide--Clinton always appeared smart, you just didn't like her. Palin seemed approachable and charming, just not all that intelligent. This likeability versus competence dichotomy is also seen in studies of the workplace and in several social science studies further examined below.

A. The 2008 Election

All political candidates are subject to attack from supporters of their opponent, but female candidates, especially in high profile offices such as President and Vice President, appear to face targeted gender attacks. Specifically for Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, these gendered attacks mirrored the two sides of the double bind; one was consistently portrayed as competent, but unlikeable and the other likeable, but incompetent, respectively.

For example, many attacks directed at Hillary Clinton were imbued with gendered messages. …

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