The Likability Penalty – Part 1

The most common reason given by registered voters for not voting on Election Day, Tuesday November 7, 2017, was that they didn’t like the candidates.

Hillary Clinton should have won the Presidency and made history as the first woman President of the United States. Candidate Clinton had a killer resume: Secretary of State, two terms as a New York Senator and former First Lady. The New York Times said she was one of the “most broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in modern history.” She should have had a huge advantage in her bid for the Presidency. She was dressed and ready for the obvious next step.

By Donald Trump August 19, 2015 (cropped).jpg: BU Rob13Hillary Clinton by Gage Skidmore 2.jpg: Gage – This file was derived from:Donald Trump August 19, 2015 (cropped).jpgHillary Clinton by Gage Skidmore 2.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

It may tie your brain in a bow but now hear this: Trump was able to win, in large part, because according to exit polls, voters who disliked both candidates favored him in big numbers. Clinton, apparently, couldn’t get those who disliked both candidates —even black and Hispanic voters who overwhelmingly favored her– to turn out and vote. Younger black voters who were more likely to support Bernie Sanders in the primary also stayed home. Despite Trump’s disparaging remarks about the lives of African-Americans and outrageous comments about Mexican immigrants being killers and rapists, they allowed Trump to win the White House.

Was Trump “likable” by reasonable standards?  And was Trump presidential? He spoke about domestic and foreign policies in ways that were vague (as in little content) and based on few facts. He was vulgar and engaged in documented scandals —from questionable business dealings to allegations of sexual assault; mafia ties to unscrupulous business dealings; and racial discrimination to alleged marital rape.  Trump’s consistent examples of misogyny and sexism made international news. Still, that didn’t stop 62,979,879 voters from voting for him. Can you imagine how they would have reacted if Hillary Clinton didn’t provide her tax returns, had his history of sexual aggression, bankruptcies, and was as self-aggrandizing as he was?

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Clinton and Trump both had favorable ratings in the low 30s among registered voters who didn’t cast a ballot — both had ratings in the low 40s among those who did vote. That’s a pretty sizable difference. So why was Clinton hurt more by non-voters? I believe that Clinton lost because too many people just plain didn’t like her and, as a result, didn’t cast a ballot on Election Day. But in trying to figure this out, we can’t dismiss the prevalence of outdated sexist stereotypes about women, including where they should speak, how they should sound, and the power they deserve to have. After all, “normal women” are nice, nurturing, and subordinate to others. They don’t brag about how much they know and how smart they are. When women seeking power deviate from the social script that dictates how normal women should behave, decision-makers often simply don’t like them.

In this series of posts, I explore why the likability issue that penalized Clinton reflected a double standard. I’ll also provide lessons to be learned from critiques of her presentation style in terms of women’s voice, talkativeness, and ability to connect with audiences; all of which affect a woman speaker’s likability. After all, knowledge is empowering.

#1: COMPETENT WOMEN LEADERS AREN’T LIKABLE

There is resistance to believing that women are capable of performing well in top leadership roles. Research has shown, for example, that in Corporate America, men’s performance is more likely to be described in “agentic” terms that emphasize individuality, decisiveness, and getting results. Women’s performance, in contrast, is more likely to be described as favoring process over getting results with traits that favor her ability to work with others, e.g. helpfulness, accommodation, and a positive attitude. This double standard occurs when women’s achievements and skills are on par with or even exceed the men they are competing against.

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Jill Abramson is an example of the double standard undermining a woman’s success. Abramson garnered eight Pulitzer Prizes during her three-year editorship at the NY Times and, according to Stanford professor Ann Grimes, was “one of the most distinguished journalists of our time.

She was also the first woman executive editor of The New York Times, but Abramson was fired in 2014, not because of editorial mishaps or ethical issues, but because of complaints from employees that she was “polarizing and mercurial.” People didn’t like her. Abramson’s firing calls attention to what scholars call “the Likability Penalty.” The more competent a woman is, the less likable she is judged to be. The opposite also holds true: the more likable a woman is, the less competent she is perceived to be. Double standard, double bind!

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Engaging speakers communicate empathy and authenticity to the audience. In Hillary Clinton’s case, I suspect that her inner circle of loyalists and speechwriters didn’t give her constructive criticism about the ineffectiveness of her scripted and academic speaking style, which turned off younger as well as less educated voters. At a recent Wellesley College Commencement address, Clinton was warm and humorous while making some hard-hitting points. If she had exhibited this speaking style throughout the campaign, she might have gained more support from those younger voters who chose not to vote.

LESSON LEARNED #1: Be aware of the Likability Penalty phenomenon that will defy any reasonable criticism of your competence. After all, unlike men speaking up, women walk a fine line between seen as “too nice” and “abrasive” when they address controversial issues.

What you can do:

  • Ask trusted allies to identify potential issues that will divide people in the audience. Have supporters lined up before you speak
  • Be pro-active in asking for feedback from your critics, not just from loyal supporters who might only tell you what you want to hear.
  • Do your due diligence. Get bad news before your presentation, not during the Q and A when you may be breathless, if not speechless.
  • Focus on your ability to get results by working well with others.

#2: PUNDITS DISLIKE WOMEN’S VOICES

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In a particularly nasty comment from Fox news, Mark Rudov said, “When Barack Obama speaks, men hear, ‘Take off for the future.’ When Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, ‘Take out the garbage.’” Her voice was described as a “cackle,” a term used to describe a witch. Bob Woodward complained that she shouted too much. A Morning Joe discussion (MSNBC) concluded that she wasn’t restrained enough. Nobody said she wasn’t “feminine enough,” but that was implied.

An excellent article in the Atlantic includes speech experts who believe that Clinton’s voice is actually average in pitch and loudness for her age and gender, but she does yell into microphones and speak in an overly enunciated voice—two factors that may make her seem abrasive. She articulates very precisely and her speech doesn’t sound conversational, which makes her less relatable. She doesn’t use pausing for emphasis so she seems to be hammering the listeners without distinguishing between key points. And her sincere and hearty belly laugh has been the subject of mockery and described as not feminine. But on the other hand, in terms of a double standard, Bernie Sanders voice was harsh, raspy, and he was screaming much of the time.

Young women have a tendency to speak in a gravely voice, technically called a “glottal fry.” Women’s upspeak also distracts from the message because the speaker sounds hesitant, less confident and indecisive. While men also have this style of a rising inflection at the end of a sentence, women who are seeking power and authority need to make sure that their statements are deliberative and don’t sound as if they’re asking a question. Imagine saying this sentence: “It seems like we’re bleeding red ink.” It is not a good idea to up-speak in this instance. And even the most nervous speaker will want to avoid Marilyn Monroe’s signature breathy cooing voice which makes it impossible to take the speaker’s ideas seriously.

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LESSON LEARNED #2: Have you heard yourself recently?  You will want to sound rational and pleasant to the ear, even while you make hard-hitting points. Record yourself reading today’s Letter to the Editor to ensure that you don’t sound like a young girl or a serious smoker. If you stand too close to the mic, you’ll sound as if you’re screeching. You want to be seen and heard as a woman who knows what she’s talking about.  Ask yourself:

  • Are you sounding tentative with an uptick at the end of your sentences?
  • How do you sound when you laugh? Is it a chortle, cackle, giggle, or guffaw?
  • Are you comfortable using a microphone?
  • Are you moderating your voice, using pausing and variety to emphasize certain words, and only amping it up to make a point?

Stereotypes about women are difficult to change because they are often unconscious and perpetuated by those in power. That’s why women speakers need to be sure that they present themselves in ways that don’t support those stereotypes. In future posts, I’ll provide additional “lessons learned” about the likability issue including how to navigate stereotypes about women’s verbosity (real or imagined), lack of a sense of humor, and indecisiveness.

In addition to being on top of the content presented, women speakers need to convey a meta- message, which is “I know what I’m talking about, I have fresh new ideas, and my presentation will change your life.”

About the Author:

Lois Phillips is a dynamic public speaker whose clients say she “practices what she teaches.” Her academic background combines with executive experience to inform her training and coaching. Using principles gained from interviews with successful speakers and outlined in “Women Seen and Heard: Lessons Learned from Successful Speakers” she provides coaching and training to spokespersons, managers and executives. Dr. Phillips has a special interest in executive and professional development, strategic planning, and Board leadership. She has produced conferences on women’s leadership, moderated two television programs about the changing roles of women and men, and has delivered numerous keynote conference presentations.

15 Responses

  • Great piece and so on target. What professional woman over the age of 60 does not identify with the competent vs. likability factor. No wonder every time I hear someone say “I could not stand Hillary” including other women, I cringed and felt it in a deep way. All of us should be worried that this gender bias had anything to do with putting a man in the White House who is incompetent and unstable and needs to be constantly stroked like a pet. This is an important article that all should read and hopefully will think twice about their decision to eliminate a women based on likability and/or not cast a vote. Thank you Lois.

    • The degree to which Hillary wasn’t liked was astonishing to those of us who liked her and respected her but also because we ARE accomplished women and think highly of ourselves. If we’re honest, competent, tested, and “try hard,” we assumed we’d get ahead, but this was a kick in the gut. Of course, there are so many reasons Hillary lost that had to do with the party’s missteps, with Bernie’s loyal fans, and the degree to which evangelicals will do whatever it takes to get an anti-choice candidate in the White House. There’s so much to say in terms of LESSONS LEARNED but I worked hard identifying strategies to communicate more effectively, even to push against those who are sexist. I love that phrase, “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.” The world has shifted and we are teetering on the brink of…I hate to say it out loud!

  • GReat analysis and advice. Only question I had is section where you say “despite Trump’s disparaging comments….., they (African Americans and Latinos implied) allowed Trump to wn the White House.” Feels like too broad an indictment of those two groups — e.g., many other groups contributed to his victory.

    • Good point Nancy. Perhaps I should have said that “…it was ironic, given his particularly insensitive and insulting remarks about African Americans and Latinos, that they joined Bernie supporters and stayed home on Election Day, thus allowing Trump to win the White House.” Appreciate your comment! Lois

    • good point, Nancy! along with the millennial, college students, Bernie supporters, and on and on. but these two groups were particularly maligned so I thought they would definitely show up for Hillary on election day. Go figure!

  • Excellent article, Lois, and something for women running for office need to read carefully! Have your ideas and research been shared with those groups training women to run for office i.e. Emerge here in Colorado?

    Big hugs

  • Excellent column, Lois.
    We’ve heard a lot about what Hillary did wrong. You take your analysis far beyond that, giving great “Lessons Learned” and tips for avoiding the pitfalls.
    That’s where we need to go ~ not dwelling solely on the past, but looking to the future and ever improving.
    Here’s to many more meaningful, constructive insights from you.

  • Very thoughtful, and very sad piece. We are still far from equality. I wish that powerful executives who identify as female did not need your services — but they have to invest in their image and voice to make it though to a still primative society.

    Here’s what should really happen; all of us should invest in our own ability to recognize our biases. What is keeping us from listening to one another? Why does a leader have to dress and sound a certain way in order to earn credibility with us?

    I tried to follow a couple of your good links and they didn’t work. But your observations and deep experience, as always, are excellent. Thanks

    • Patricia, you were such an important role model for me when I was a young mother trying to find my voice. One never realizes the power one has as an encouraging friend, the power to ignite passion and self-confidence in someone else. Thanks for everything and congratulations for all you still do to provide a place, space, and encouragement -in this case- to writers. Be well, and take good care~ Lois

  • Trump is an entertainer. He promises big things that the crowd likes to believe. He shows passion. Many followers wanted change. Hitler was able to stir up the crowd and was able to offer the answer to everything. It’s what people wanted to hear. Trumps first 100 days was
    going to “make America great again. People wanted to believe it.
    I think had Hilary not run Bernie’s passion would have put him in the running. Of course I believe Hilary is truly the most qualified candidate we have ever had but she lacked the delivery that rallies people. Also, many never believed that Trump had a chance and felt Hilary had the election in the bag. She was rational, told the truth and and never stooped to Trump’s level.
    Michelle Obama has that passion that makes you want you to stand up and cheer. Charisma.
    I think the pattern set for women for eons is that we are soft, kind, caretaking, emotional
    and are good at raising children and tending to the home. Did Hilary lose because she was a woman. Ask Pence. He would like to handcuff us to the a white picket fence . And Al Gore, he lacked charm and expression but would have been a marvelous president. There are many pieces to the puzzle and women are more “seen and heard”as your book is titled then they have ever been. You are a great role model Lois. Thanks for keeping us awake and aware.

    • Thank you so much for responding to the blog posts. I spend so much time trying to unearth new ways of seeing an issue when women are involved. In this case, I could have written a book! And look at the state of our country. This has been a crash course in CIVICS 101 where we realize the power of the presidency to do great things or undo great things by the prior President. It will take decades to undo what is being done to the environment, women’s rights, voters’ rights, and on and on. We all need to get involved in politics in ways that are meaningful to each of us! Warmest regards, as always- LOIS

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