Likeability: a double standard we can’t seem to shake


Yesterday, journalist Jessica Valenti wrote about “The Niceness Trap” we’ve seen on display this week. She wrote:

When 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke at the United Nations yesterday, she was not cute or pleasing… She was powerful and most definitely not “nice.” There is a reason men resort to calling women “nasty” or suggest we’re unpleasant when we try to hold them to account: They believe it’s a conversation ender. If we’re not sufficiently pleasing or deferential, we’re not really worthy of listening to.

Claire Bond Potter further explored this concept earlier in the year, nothing that, “[…] likability is a standard that history shows us was created and sold by men. The bad news is that means it’s a tricky fit for women. The good news is that what was invented once can be reinvented.”

This mirrors what Barbara Lee Family Foundation research has consistently shown in the political arena: Likeability remains a must-have for the women candidates, but not for the male candidates. Voters will vote for a man they think is qualified even if they don’t like him, but a woman must clearly showcase both qualifications and likeability to earn their vote. And what makes likeability especially difficult for women candidates is that men only have to fill one gender stereotype when running for office – women have to fill both.

But what makes women likeable in the eyes of voters? There are two key components: presentation and track record. In other words, style and substance both matter. And confidence is key.

While there is no silver-bullet solution for cracking the code of likeability – it’s not a one-size-fits-all concept –  research shows that women being themselves, not versions of men, can be enough to showcase likeability to voters. As Americans express frustration with the political status quo, the perception of women as “different” in a sea of male—mostly white—elected officials and candidates offers them a distinctive advantage in the eyes of voters.

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