Warmth and Competence: Ambivalent Sexism keeps Women out of Politics

On July 28, 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to become the presidential nominee for a major political party in the US. People talked of her breaking the glass ceiling, ushering in a new era where women will be seriously considered alongside men for the highest office in the nation. But why has it taken so long for a woman to be a serious candidate for president? Women earned the right to vote once the 19th amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, almost a century ago. And even though we make up half of the population, we only make up about 20% of congresspeople. Why is it that women don’t have proportional representation in our federal government?

It may be due to the fact that people often think of others in terms of their competence and warmth. Ideally, people rate high on both, but most people are seen as warm at the expense of being seen as competent, or vice versa. Unfortunately, warmth is a quality we expect from women, so while men often just need to rate high in competence, highly competent women are seen with envy, resulting in ambivalent sexism, a type of sexism that isn’t necessarily hostile (e.g. women are all gold diggers) or benevolent (e.g. women need to be protected by men). Women who are seen as competent but not warm are often non-traditional women, as opposed to filling housewife or sex object roles, they occupy career paths, or compete as athletes, filling spaces traditionally reserved for men. Traditional women tend to be seen as warm and likable, but they don’t garner respect.

So women are forced to walk a pretty fine line, they need to be seen as competent, but not so competent that they wouldn’t make you a sandwich. This may underlie the difficulty women have getting elected to office. If they reach the point where they are seen as competent enough for the job, they are often seen as unlikeable. If they compensate by upping the warmth factor, they may be compromising their competence. It’s a lose-lose situation for many women. Just ask Hillary Clinton, who has had a difficult time drumming up enthusiasm for her candidacy. People regularly say she’s qualified for the job and she is often seen as highly competent. But warmth? People just don’t want to have a beer with her. And while many of our male leaders have been seen as charismatic, it’s worth wondering how many of them have had to make a concerted effort to appear likable, as well as good at their jobs. For men, the latter is often the only real requirement.

 

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of personality and social psychology82(6), 878.

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