Social scientists have come up with a neat little equation for us to understand and analyze our reputations. I had the pleasure of learning about it in Gabrielle Adams' course at London Business School - it was a pleasure because she also taught us in unequivocal terms about the equation's gender difference.
Perceived Warmth + Perceived Competence → Reputation
Competence is more than intelligence - it also includes political skills, such as social astuteness, networking ability, sincerity and interpersonal influence. And warmth can be understood as likeability. These reactants are on the left hand side and the product on the right is your reputation.
For women, the two components of reputation have a negative correlation. This means that:
• when a woman is perceived to be competent, she is also judged to be cold and
• when a woman is perceived to be warm, she is also seen as incompetent.
Men are not subjected to this tradeoff. But when evaluating women this tradeoff is deeply embedded in our minds and widespread in culture. When we come across a woman who seems both warm and competent, it likely causes some cognitive dissonance - literally a pain in the mind.
Prior to business school, I worked at a professional services firm as an Engagement Manager. The structure was the same as in all law, accounting, and consulting firms: pyramids with a few Partners at the top, Managers in the middle and a bulk of Staff at the bottom. The first thing that's gossiped about when you get staffed on an Engagement is the reputation of the Managers and Partners you'll be working under. The whispers about female Partners were "she's nice, but she's not calling the shots" or "she's really smart, but she's brutal - be careful!" Generally, the male Partners' reputations didn't have such "buts". The popular male Partners were both "really nice" and "really smart" - and everyone wanted to work for them.
Reputation has a lot to do with success, whether that's fair or not. I tend to visualize the tradeoff between competence and warmth as women swimming in an ocean against the tide. No matter which stroke is taken to move forward, they'll be pushed back some. At one point, they'll be exhausted from just keeping up - only the very exceptional won't drown.
You should know, I worked at a firm celebrated for being a great place for women to work. The firm does hard work to ensure that individuals get equal opportunity and are fairly evaluated - harder than most other organizations.
But people don't wait for formal evaluations before talking. First impressions and resulting reputations carry the potential to be self-fulfilling prophecies. Example: you think Sara is mean, you then stay away from Sara, your expectation of Sara being cold and distant is confirmed. For women who are both competent and warm, this is really scary.
What can be done to resolve this inequity?
The next time you are experiencing cognitive dissonance because you've come across a woman who seems both competent and you like her, do not cast her into either warm or competent. Instead, focus energy from that mental pain to actively hold off judgment until you have had multiple interactions. You are bound to witness warmth and you are bound to witness competence.
But all this is effortful, and effort is costly so why should you be bothered to do it - whether you are a man or a woman but especially if you are a man? Because women with great reputations are tilted for success and their successes will add value to your organization, your society, your economy, your life. Why would you want to miss out on that? You should be bothered because it is in your self-interest to prevent your future losses.
This investment has a high IRR - so, don't be a loser.
The images in the article belong to Kelly McKernan (http://www.kellymckernan.com). She is a fine artist and her current body of work examines the personal growth that results from internal struggle. Her ethereal women are often battling the opposing forces of natural inclination and cognitive reasoning, or they may be seen in their moment of resolution, finally understanding their strengths, weaknesses, and desires.