By Jill Iman, Managing Director and Director of Research and Evaluation

Regardless of whether you consider yourself social or not, the reality is that people are social animals—and as part of that, we are primed and equipped to make quick judgments of others.

These judgments, whether accurate or not (e.g., stereotypes), are believed to stem from our ancestors, who often were more regularly confronted with situations that required quick and efficient processing (“is this person a friend or a foe?”).

Perhaps less helpful in today’s world, these mental shortcuts still help us function in a busy, chaotic world where we’re still confronted (bombarded?) by information important for guiding us on if and how to act. Unfortunately, a very serious factor influencing this processing are the biases that impact resulting judgments.

For example, we’re all exposed to the stereotypes of the world/culture in which we live, and whether or not we explicitly believe them, they shape how we expect others to behave based on who they are or what they look like. One of those many biases relates to gender—how we expect men and women to act.

Although it’s difficult to unpack in one blog, one particular area for focus as we charge headfirst into the  election is the consequences of gender biases related to expectations of warmth and competence, and the subsequent perceptions of leadership ability.[1]

Data show us that men and women are not equally represented across many leadership roles, and although there are likely many contributing factors (e.g., limited role models, the “old boys club”), one profound factor is the warmth X competence paradox that many women face. Specifically, we expect women to be warm AND competent to be seen as confident and capable leaders, whereas men need only to appear competent.[2]

There is an expectation, driven largely by bias, that women must be likeable, nurturing, compassionate, helpful and empathetic in addition to being perceived as knowledgeable, persistent and practical. Put differently, stereotypes related to gender are at odds with our stereotypes about leadership—so trying to reconcile them places women in a bind … needing to artfully navigate the waters between appearing decisive yet approachable, assertive yet kind.

So what do we do about it? Well, the broader good news, according to social psychologist Alice Eagly[3], is that we live in a time when our cultural views are always changing, meaning the stereotype and resulting expectations of what it “means” to be a woman, a man or a leader are evolving. But also, on a more personal level, we can all take a moment to pause and reflect when perhaps we find ourselves falling victim to our own snap judgments—seeing a congresswoman state a clear case on the floor and not perceiving a shrill or cold individual; or seeing a female coworker bringing her sick child to work and still seeing a confident, brilliant colleague and not perceiving her to be soft or incapable of leadership.

This is not even scratching the surface of the influence of biases in our lives, and completely leaves out the role of intersectionality (e.g., how these perceptions differ with other intersecting social identities, such as race or age). But perhaps it can offer some food for thought as the political ads ramp up and we’re bombarded by even more information—further stretching our capacity to deliberately pause and process incoming information.

We’re curious, how have you seen this warmth X competence dynamic play out in your own lives?


[1] E.g., Cuddy, A. J. C., Fiske, S. T., & Glick, P. (2008). Warmth and competence as universal dimensions of social perception: The stereotype content model and the BIAS map. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 61-149.

[2] E.g., Mayo, M. (July 8, 2016). To seem confident, women have to be seen as warm. Harvard Business Review.

[3] Too sweet, or too shrill? (October 18, 2016). Hidden Brain Podcast.