Surprising Research on Women Lawyers’ Likeability v. Competence

by Angela N. Johnson

The authors open their article arguing that although women in politics “seem to face a choice of being seen as likeable or as competent, but not as both . . . [women] lawyers do not seem plagued by this same double bind . . . there is no difference between how female and male lawyers are perceived” (Schneider, et al. 2010).  The authors reflect on the 2008 “Palin v. Clinton” “Likeable v. Competent” model as an example of the struggles women politicians have in balancing competent but “hard” and unlikeable with not competent, but good looking and likeable (they can’t have it both ways, the authors argue).  Part of the problem stems from socially constructed (and maintained) steretypes of what is feminine.  According to the authors, this handicaps women who engage in assertive behaviors.  This continues despite women comprising 49.8% of the U.S. Workforce  (Schneider, et al. 2010, 367).  According to the National Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP), the 2008 statistics show that while women make up 45.3% of associates, they only make up 18.7% of partners Id. at 368.

Women in the workforce face “gendered” work environments – meaning they reflect and reward traits and values such as rationality, aggression, and emotional stability.[1] Moreover, “values and behaviors expected of effective managers are highly correlated with masculine characteristics such as independence, assertiveness, self-reliance, and power and inconsistent with feminine characteristics such as communality, caring, and helpfulness” Id. at 369.  A “backlash effect” exists; when women violate gendered expectations they incur negative social consequences.  Studies show that “evaluators tend to make negative judgments about women who behave in masculine ways to fulfill the needs of their jobs” Id. at 370.  Another study of finance directors, who had to make a choice to leave work to tend to a sick child at home or make the decision to stay at work, found that when a female finance director chose to stay at work, she was seen as competent, but unlikeable.  Females finance directors who chose to go home were rated as incompetent but likeable.  On the other hand, the choice of the male finance directors did not matter – they were always judged fairly likeable and competent regardless of their decision Id. at 370.

The authors point to at least four consequences experienced by women who act to avoid a backlash,.  “First, women may not be hired or promoted because they are either too masculine or too feminine.  Second, women may choose to segregate themselves into female-dominated or gender-diverse workplaces rather than male-dominated industries which could translate into salary repercussions.  Third, women may choose to take on excessively risky assignments to demonstrate their competence but more often than not end up losing that gamble.  And, finally, women may choose not to negotiate or act assertively at all, resulting in financial penalties as well” Id. at 371.

The good (and surprising) news is that women lawyers can be both likeable and competent.  A study of 1,000 attorneys in Phoenix relating to approaches to negotiation reveals that women do not face the same difficulties and “backlashes” that other professional women experience.  When both male and female negotiators were rated on their competency and effectiveness, the men and women received equal ratings.  Moreover, when differences existed, they were actually contrary to stereotypes – women were actually seen as more assertive than men, less likely to be avoiders, and more firm in their decisions.  Men were perceived to be more creative than women, a characteristic typically perceived to be possessed by more females.  One notable difference, however, was that men were perceived as more experienced.  However, according to the authors, this is perfectly acceptable given the fact the male negotiators in the study really did have more experience. Moreover, of sixty adjectives, the same twenty were used to describe the traits and performance of the male and female lawyers.

The authors provide several possible explanations for the surprising results of the study.  First, women who earn a position of high status are perceived to be assertive based on her position, rather than her gender.  For example, when lawyers have been hired by their clients and sent by their firms, companies, or government to negotiate, they already have a high status conferred by that situation (there is an expectation that assertiveness comes with the job, not the personality).  Second, a “female lawyer who is assertive on behalf of her clients fulfills a role that the public and her peers have accepted – and come to expect – over time” Id. at 378.  In comparing this to the 2008 female presidential/vice-presidential candidates, the public image of female lawyers in movies and TV is that of an aggressive litigator (and often lawyers are depicted as even more aggressive than what is typical in real life).  The authors offer “Judge Judy” as a prime example.  Third, when women are assertive in their role as lawyers they are not threatening a publicly created persona or construction Id. at 380. Fourth, when women are assertive for the benefit of others (for lawyers, this scan be for their clients, team members, etc.), they are fulfilling and acting consistent with the overall expectation that women are communal or nurturing and that advocating for others is natural.  Self advocating, on the other hand challenges stereotypical and societal gender roles.

The authors argue that male lawyers have self-selected into a legal career and therefore may be better to negotiate on their own behalf.  According to the authors, “Women entering law school may have already been screened so that they are no more caring or cooperative than the males in law school, and the women likely possess many of the same attributes as men because both sexes were driven enough to enter law school to begin with.  Additionally, women may also take on the view that “when they are in a male-dominated profession, they will do as the males do” Id. at 380.[2] Further, the authors suggest that “the legal training in advocacy during law school may also better equip female lawyers to negotiate on their own behalf” Id. at 381.

Lastly, the authors offer tips for women lawyers in continuing to avoid the backlash.  Admittedly, many of these tips (at least to me) seem they would slow women’s progress as equals in a historically male-dominated profession.  Nevertheless, what follows is the authors’ advice:

  1. Women can align with the core feminine stereotypes with assertive bargaining by reframing negotiations for raises or promotions as other-orientated (for welfare of her client, work team, or law firm) rather than self-interested.  Id. at 381.
  2. Women may consider providing explanations or social accounts for their assertive behavior so that they are not judges as violating gender expectations.  Statements to the effect of “I wouldn’t be a very good lawyer if I didn’t ask for more resources” can remind the other party of the position rather than the gender of the negotiator. Id. at 382.
  3. Women should keep in mind that their actions must not be a threat to conventional societal gender norms. “Affirming expectations of femininity is crucial for avoiding backlash” Id. at 382-383.
  4. Most interestingly, the authors offer “flirting” as an effective tool. “We now know that balance is the key to navigating the corporate and legal labyrinth, so maintaining a feminine presence while engaging in the masculine behaviors necessary to succeed will facilitate the ascent up the hierarchy.  For example, another study found that when both men and women flirted in the negotiation, women were perceived as more likeable.  As the researchers noted, because the flirting may fit more closely with the perceived stereotype of women, the women may have benefited more from this behavior.  Furthermore, the flirting had no impact on the measure of perceived competence of the negotiator” Id. at 383 citing Laura J. Kray & Connson C. Licke’s, To Flirt or Not to Flirt? Sexual Power at the Bargaining Table, 24 Negotiation. J 483, 490 (2008).

In sum, “despite the fact the 2008 election showed just how harsh the likeability versus competence dichotomy can be for female candidates and that this dichotomy is often repeated at the workplace, women lawyers seem uniquely able to avoid this backlash thanks to contextual factors which align assertive behavior with gendered expectations.  Female lawyers are effective negotiators, perceived as both assertive and empathetic.  This result is because of at least three factors: the high status of lawyers, their role expectations, and the fact that these negotiations are on behalf of others” Id. at 384.


[1] Interestingly, this is similar to what scholars on legal education argue about success in law school (that traits naturally exhibited by males are the same traits rewarded at law schools; thereby disadvantaging women in legal education).

[2] Research on women’s experiences in law school suggest that women are very different than their male classmates and experience backlash as a result of their inability to “become gentlemen.”

Source Citation: Schneider, Andrea Kupfer, Catherine H. Tinsley, Sandra I. Cheldelin, and Emily T. Amanatullah. “Likeability v. Competence: The Impossible Choice Faced by Female Politicians, Attenuated by Lawyers.” Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy 17, no. 2 (October 2010): 363-384.

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