The Sexism of “Likability”

More women than ever are running for a single party’s presidential nomination—and in many ways, they’re dominating conversations about the 2020 election. But unfortunately, the buzz around the unique and unprecedented primary race sounds disappointingly familiar.

Are women “likable?” According to the polls, voters don’t think so, even though former advisors to Elizabeth Warren are doing their best convince us that she is “warm and affectionate.” But the real question is why “grabbing a beer” with a candidate is still the yardstick used to measure their potential—and why female candidates are (still) unfairly suffering from it.

There’s a difference, for candidates, between being “liked” and being “likable.” Being liked, according to Associate Professor of Political Science Scholar of the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP), Dr. Kelly Dittmar, is more technical and concrete—it can be measured in surveys on popularity, for instance. “When voters and practitioners interpret it [likability], it’s very much tied to voters perception of relatability, and if they have a pleasant reaction to this candidate,” Dittmar told Ms. “They look for a candidate they would like to spend time and is nice.”

Not liking a candidate because of their policy proposals, voting history or even for their ability to articulate themselves well in speeches is not sexist, but the “likability factor”—which has nothing to do with how liked a candidate actually is—is an inherently sexist standard used to evaluate candidates. Men also happen to be the primary beneficiaries of an election cycle dominated by conversations around it.

“Likeability” does not evaluate the popularity of the candidate—if it did, the likability of candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris would not be up for debate, considering their popularity with key voting blocs. Instead, “likeability” focuses on reactions to candidates, rendering stereotypical gender biases into statistical talking points.

Women running for office are already breaking gender norms. Their candidacies contradict notions of stereotypical femininity. Measuring “likability,” then, become a way to justify negative sentiment about them—without acknowledging the sexist roots of it. Recent polls revealed that 74 percent of voters surveyed felt comfortable with a woman in the office—but only 33 percent believed their neighbors would be comfortable with a woman in the Oval Office.

“Women leaders are expected to be warm, but they also need to be competent, which is more associated with men and masculinity,” Dittmar explained, citing Alice H. Eagly’s theory on congruity. Emphasizing the importance of the relationship between stereotypes of gender and candidacy, Dittmar described how more powerful and aggressive leadership traits are often associated with men, which plays well in their favor in times where issues such as national security are a priority. Qualities associated with women however—as more soft and affectionate, for example—align less with the stereotypes that typically guide voters.

While appreciating the qualities of men as leaders doesn’t cause any commotion, women running for office tend to confront sexist complaints in seeking the same praise. Their authenticity is called into question. The qualities that make women candidates “likeable”—smiles, affectionate natures and family lives— are considered incompatible with the presidency.

The bottom line? The women running for president are popular and competent, just like their male peers—and they have unique and interesting personalities just like the hundreds of men who have vied for the post before them. “There is value in talking about the different standards as to which women are held,” Dittmar concluded. “It calls it out for voters and pushes voters to see what implicit or unrecognized biases that they have.”

We shouldn’t be worried about proving that they’re “likable” enough to win. Instead, we should be concerned about dismantling the structures that fool us into thinking they never could be.


Greta Baxter is currently working as a summer editorial intern at Ms. Magazine. While majoring in Political Science and Law at Sciences Po Paris she was the anglophone culture section editor of her schools newspaper, The Sundial Press, and the head of editing and visuals of HeforShe Sciences Po. As a passionate intersectional feminist, she is especially interested in the relationship between gender and health as well as how gender bias and discrimination is embedded in political and legal systems. When she is not talking about gender and looking at what steps forward and backward are being made around the world, she is probably arguing about why sweet breakfast foods are superior to savory breakfast foods. You can follow her on Twitter!