The Myth of Likabilty


You don’t have to be likable to be electable. Unless you’re a woman.

In the run-up to the 2016 election I remember reading a number of articles, tweets, and Facebook posts claiming Hillary Clinton was not likable enough to win the presidency. She was cold. She was out of touch. She wasn’t relatable. 

I’m reading the same things now about Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and some of the other women who have since dropped out of the race. 

What does it mean to be likable? And why is likability more important than competence when it comes to elections, at least for women?

I have yet to hear about Donald Trump’s chances being affected by his likability. And he is quite unlikable. 

Apparently, you don’t actually need to be likable to be president. You only need to be likable if you’re a woman who wants to be president.

The fact that this concept seems to apply only to women, or at least is applied more harshly to women, has far reaching consequences. Research shows that we are more likely to vote for a male candidate that we think is qualified, but don’t find likable, than a woman who is just as qualified but, for whatever reason, we don’t find likable.

And it can be hard to put into words why we do or don’t find someone likable. It tends to be based on whether or not we find them relatable. 

But even so, why do we find men more relatable than women?

Elizabeth Warren Via Gage Skidmore/Flickr

According to sociologist Marianne Cooper, successful and high-achieving women are judged very different than their male counterparts because “their very success—and specifically the behaviors that created that success—violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave.” 

Women acting boldly receive push-back because they aren’t subscribing to the traditional roles our culture demands of them. They aren’t being feminine enough, and “we are deeply uncomfortable with powerful women. In fact, we don’t often really like them.”

This issue runs far deeper than just politics. Female CEOs are viewed differently than male CEOs. Students view their female professors differently than they view their male professors, even if the course material is exactly the same. 

This cultural attitude makes it even harder for women to run for, and be elected to, political office. We don’t demand the men we vote for to be likable, but we do demand it of women. And it’s much harder for a female politician to appear likable than it is for a male politician. 

We tend to judge women based on their appearance, voice, and overall demeanor more oppressively than we judge men.

Oakland 2019 via Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Donald Trump can wear ill-fitting suits, have messy hair, yell, and no one bats an eye. Imagine if Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris showed up to a debate dressed similarly or acted like him. The only thing we’d hear about for the next three days would be their appearance and lack of decorum. The actual arguments they put forth at the debate would disappear into oblivion. 

It’s like walking a tightrope. You must be dressed nicely (otherwise you’re a slob), but not too nicely (then you’re vain). You must speak loudly (so we can hear you), but not too loudly (because then you’re yelling at us). You must be assertive (no one likes a pushover), but not too assertive (then you’re rude). 

See how impossible our culture makes it?

We tell women they need to be likable in order to be elected, but make it nearly impossible for them to fulfill such a ridiculous demand.

Instead of holding female politicians to a hypocritical higher standard, why don’t we focus on who is competent enough and experienced enough to lead the country. 

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