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



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. 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.

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    • "Assertiveness is defined as self-confidence in stating a position or ''the psychological and behavioral ability to stand up for one's rights'' (Lightsey & Barnes, 2007, p. 32). Among the many different academic disciplines, law provides a competitive educational environment in which assertiveness is highly prized (Bateman, 1997; Schneider, Tinsley, Cheldelin, & Amanatullah, 2010). Prior research has found that assertiveness is associated with high self-esteem and that it is likely to serve as a buffer against stress, anxiety, and fear of disapproval (Lightsey & Barnes, 2007). "
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