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It's time for powerful women to dump the 'nice act'

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 - 00:00 -- THE TELEGRAPH
U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive at Stansted Airport, near London May 26, 2011. Obama left Britain following a two day state visit. Photo/REUTERS
U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive at Stansted Airport, near London May 26, 2011. Obama left Britain following a two day state visit. Photo/REUTERS
German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the media at State House in capital Nairobi July 12, 2011. REUTERS/Noor Khamis
German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the media at State House in capital Nairobi July 12, 2011. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

A new report sheds some light on how important it is for women running for political office to be ‘liked’. Dr Brooke Magnanti analyses its findings and questions the traits powerful women need to succeed versus men in the same roles

 

What’s the key for women who want to run for public office? Have a solid political CV, lean on your honesty and ethics? Sure, yeah, that’s probably not going to hurt. But have you considered wearing a colourful jacket over a sheath dress and… you know… being likeable?

Those are the salient points that form a new study produced by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation called Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women.

The report, which gathered data from all US gubernatorial campaigns by women in the last 15 years, found that the electorate actually hold women candidates to higher standards than they do the men.

And if that happens to mean smiling sweetly and wearing a nice outfit, well... You have to wonder about the timing — hot on the heels of another study saying we judge women candidates by their appearance, and in the thick of campaigns all across the US such as Wendy Davis’s gubernatorial punt in Texas — not to mention, of course, the eternal and pressing question of Hillary Clinton, will she or won’t she? Do we actually need reminders that people like women to present a certain way in order to be accepted, just right now?

What do any such studies prove, really, except for underlining the status quo? Asking the population to confirm their prejudices in study after study is apparently what passes for insight these days, and it’s tiring.

Just because something is usual does not mean it is good, or should be the standard. But it does reveal some essential truths that we should be looking to challenge in the years ahead. First up, that the status quo being so rigorously enforced is one that applies only to women.

Likability is a trait we seldom perceive as positive in powerful men. Sure, there was the poll in the US before the 2000 election that said more people would like to have a beer with George W Bush than with his opponent Al Gore. But that genial, Sunday-morning frat boy in chino shorts air was also the butt of many political jokes for an excruciating eight years.

For the better part of a decade it felt as if we’d elected a family dog rather than a commander-in-chief. In the world of business it’s even more stark.

Football boss Karren Brady has done extremely well but if she was one percent as grumpy as Sir Alan Sugar is, she’d lose her loyal following sharpish.

Lingerie tycoon Michelle Mone is clearly a strong boss, but the pill is significantly sweetened compared to any man in a comparable position. And there isn’t even a female equivalent of Donald Trump.

Not that there should be, mind. They broke the mould when that one was made and thank goodness too. That said there is likeable and there is likeable. For whatever people say they want in a woman candidate, nobody wants a pushover representing them in government. This in particular is a lesson America’s southern women get in their mother’s milk, how to be a steel hand in a velvet glove.

The feminine wiles of Ann Richards (former governor of Texas) and Frederica Wilson (current Florida representative) are almost entirely a cloak for legendary ball-busting abilities.

From a very young age women of the American South are schooled in the art of serving up vinegar pie: smiling sweetly while you poison the well. It’s a tradition perhaps inherited from the region’s close ties to the Celtic fringe of Britain.

After all, when a British person prefaces a sentence ‘with all due respect,’ isn’t that really a subtle way of saying eff off?

As a result it’s always surprising to me when British people think all Americans are puppyishly sincere (really, no, we are laughing at you, not with you) and Americans think all Brits are weedily insubstantial (not recognising that the worst insults can be ones that don’t even sound like insults at all).

There actually is more in common here than most people notice, and in the end when the question is likability, doesn’t likeness lead to liking? Given the cynical age we live in, maybe women should be dumping the nice act and going for the throat. Or something about three feet lower. — The Telegraph