How Women Lawyers Avoid the Likeability v. Competence Trap

In a series of recent papers, Andrea Schneider has explored the “likeabilty v. competence” trap that seems to confront many women in leadership and professional positions.  In her view, the trap is typefied by media coverage of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin in the 2008 election.  Clinton was commonly portrayed as competent, but unlikeable, and Palin the reverse.

Now, Andrea has a new paper that discusses some of her own empirical research showing that women lawyers seem largely to avoid the trap, at least in negotiation settings.  She and her coauthors consider why this might be and how women lawyers might avoid the trap in other settings. 

Here is what they say in the abstract:

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. . . .

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.

Entitled “Likeability v. Competence: The Impossible Choice Faced by Female Politicians, Attenuated by Lawyers,” the article appears in vol. 17, no. 2 of the Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy.  Andrea’s coauthors are Catherine Tinsley, Sandra Cheldelin, and Emily Amanatullah.

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