27 September 2023

The ‘it’ factor: Why can’t women leaders be competent and charismatic?

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Peter Beinart* says that research shows women political candidates face a ‘double bind’ when trying to be perceived as competent and inspiring.

Charisma comes from the Greek word for “divine gift,” and back in 2015, political commentators thought Elizabeth Warren (pictured) had a lot of it.

Vox called the US Senator from Massachusetts “a more charismatic campaigner than [Hillary] Clinton.”

Roll Call said Clinton couldn’t “match Warren’s charisma, intensity or passion.”

The polling firm Rasmussen called Warren “Bernie Sanders with charisma.”

That was then.

Now that Warren is running for President, many journalists have decided the charisma is gone.

A recent article in The Week noted that Warren “doesn’t do uplift, which is what people mean when they grumble about her lack of ‘charisma’ and ‘energy.’”

In a recent story about Warren’s fundraising trouble, The New York Times suggested that she was suffering because Democrats’ “longstanding fascination with youthful charisma — along with its current, Trump-driven fixation on electability — can outweigh qualities like experience or policy expertise.”

What happened?

Warren may be a victim of what scholars of women’s leadership call the “double bind”: For female candidates, it’s difficult to come across as competent and charismatic at the same time.

To be considered charismatic, leaders must be both appealing and inspiring, both likeable and visionary.

Unfortunately, for women who seek positions of power, they’re rarely perceived as possessing these characteristics while also being deemed competent to do the job.

Since announcing her campaign for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, Warren has worked harder than any other candidate to prove she’s ready to govern.

She’s laid out a wide range of policy proposals — all of which has led the Times to describe her strategy as “Stand Out by ‘Nerding Out.’”

To academics who study women leaders, this wouldn’t come as a surprise.

Catalyst, a research group focusing on women’s experience in the workplace, has noted that, compared with men, “women spend additional time during work hours proving they are competent leaders.”

But in seeking to bolster their fragile reputation for competence, women can undermine their aura of charisma in two separate ways.

First, they become less likeable.

Women in traditional roles — say, housewives — are generally perceived as warm but incompetent.

But women who defy these traditional stereotypes and prove their competence in a male-dominated sphere are frequently deemed cold and unfriendly.

That’s what happened to Hillary Clinton, who, like Warren, was renowned for her hard work and devotion to policy detail.

In exit polls, 90 per cent of voters who said “the right experience” was their most important criterion supported Clinton.

But a majority viewed her negatively, nonetheless.

What happened to Clinton is now happening to Warren.

If being disliked isn’t bad enough, there’s a second, less discussed downside for women who establish a reputation for competence: They’re often considered less inspirational.

For a 2009 Harvard Business Review study, researchers interviewed women business leaders and found that, like Warren, many had built a reputation for competence.

The problem was that in taking extra precautions to avoid mistakes, they came across as less visionary.

Because women leaders “often lack the presumption of competence accorded to their male peers,” the study reported, they “are less likely to go out on a limb, extrapolating from facts and figures to interpretations that are more easily challenged”.

Fearful of coming across as insubstantial, they often appear uninspiring.

In mid-level corporate jobs, where vision is deemed less important, this doesn’t hurt women as much.

But the trade-offs between being deemed competent on the one hand and being deemed likeable and inspirational on the other grow starker as you get closer to the top job.

Men don’t face the same bind.

Think of Barack Obama, who, despite his reserved, professorial demeanour, was widely deemed charismatic.

Or, more recently, fellow Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.

When describing Warren, journalists often imply that she must choose between being wonky and being charismatic.

As the Times put it early this year, “Warren is making a personal and political wager that audiences care more about policy savvy than captivating oration.”

But when describing Buttigieg, journalists suggest no such trade-off.

The Washington Examiner recently praised his “authentic charisma, intellect, and policy chops.”

Vanity Fair in March commended his “smarts and charisma.”

Warren’s troubles are being compounded by journalists who analyse her image without recognising how bound up it is with her gender.

The media aren’t responsible for the fact that many male, and some female, voters demand that women Presidential candidates work so much harder to prove their competence — and then react negatively once they do so.

But journalists have an obligation to explain what’s going on.

Last month, The Washington Post became the latest publication to contrast Warren’s “policy nerd” campaign with those of opponents who “may lay a greater claim to charisma.”

But why can’t policy nerds be charismatic?

The academic research is clear: They can.

It’s just easier when the nerds are men.

* Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He tweets at @PeterBeinart and his website is peterbeinart.net.

This article first appeared at www.theatlantic.com.

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