Read: How to sound charismatic
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 proposals on taxation, government corruption, prescription drugs, housing, and even “postal banking,” 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.” The reason, according to a 2010 study by Victoria Brescoll and Erica Dawson of Yale University and Eric Luis Uhlmann of INSEAD, is that women in traditionally male jobs “are penalized more harshly for making mistakes. Their status and competence [are] fragile and more easily revoked.”
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 likable. As Susan Fiske, Amy Cuddy, and Peter Glick have illustrated, 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—say, women soldiers, businesspeople, or politicians—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 percent of voters who said “the right experience” was their most important criterion supported Clinton. But a majority viewed her negatively nonetheless. (Michelle Bligh, a professor of organizational behavior at Claremont Graduate University, reminded me that, by contrast, Sarah Palin was widely deemed “warm but incompetent.”)
Read: Elizabeth Warren and the down-to-Earth trap
What happened to Clinton is now happening to Warren. FiveThirtyEight has called her “the wonkiest person in the field.” In February, however, when the University of New Hampshire asked Granite State voters which candidate they considered most “likable,” 31 percent chose Joe Biden and 20 percent chose Sanders. Beto O’Rourke, who hadn’t yet announced his candidacy, received 9 percent. Warren, despite being a well-known senator from a neighboring state, garnered only 3 percent.
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, Herminia Ibarra of the London Business School and Rice University’s Otilia Obodaru 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,” write Ibarra and Obodaru, they “are less likely to go out on a limb, extrapolating from facts and figures to interpretations that are more easily challenged … They adopt a defensive, often rigid, posture, relying less on their imagination and creativity.” Fearful of coming across as insubstantial, they often appear uninspiring.