Chitra Ragavan

How the Warmth vs. Competence Gender Dichotomy Shaped the Fani Willis Misconduct Hearing

Listen to Chitra’s interview with Ron Roberts on The Ron Show.

Last week, I wrote a piece published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution headlined, “As Fani Willis shows, dominant, ambitious women leaders pay price.” In it, I argued that it is true that Willis, the District Attorney from Fulton County, Georgia, likely committed a significant ethical mistake in hiring Nathan Wade as special prosecutor in the Trump case, despite their romantic entanglement. It also is likely true that Willis was targeted as a prominent and aggressive Black female prosecutor attempting to bring to justice one of the most powerful and seemingly untouchable men in the world, election-denying former President Donald J. Trump and his merry band of cronies and enablers from the Republican Party.

I wrote the piece in light of the evidentiary hearing held on Feb. 15 by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee. At issue was whether to remove Willis from the Trump election interference case she was prosecuting because of the allegations of misconduct filed by one of Trump’s co-defendants.

Willis testified angrily and combatively for two hours, defending her reputation, describing the allegations as “lies, lies, lies,” and reminding the court that it was Trump and not she who was under trial. Willis has argued that the allegations are another smokescreen to hide the former president’s criminal conduct. The criminal case is one of four Trump is confronting and one of the most sprawling and complex, with a novel legal theory that he and 18 co-defendants took part in a sweeping criminal enterprise to subvert the outcome of the 2020 presidential elections and stay in power, despite losing the elections to President Joe Biden.

My opinion piece got a lot of responses on social media. Ron Roberts, host of “The Ron Show,” (link at the end of this post) also invited me on his podcast on Atlanta’s progressive audio platform on AmericaOne Radio, to explore the question of whether there truly is a double standard in the workplace that judges women differently than men.

The answer is an unequivocal “yes!”

As I said in my opinion piece, the hearing came on the heels of a new research study by researchers at the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon that shows that while men benefit from networking with high-status people, women lose status in the eyes of their colleagues and damage their careers.

Why? The study’s authors wrote, “People typically don’t like dominant and ambitious female leaders.” Willis can certainly attest to that.

The authors also point to sobering but unsurprising statistics that women “continue to be underrepresented in the highest echelons of business and government.”

I spoke about the study’s conclusion last week at a long overdue lunch with a friend, Christopher Graves, former global chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations and now, founder of The Resonance Code. Graves is one of the preeminent behavioral science researchers in the world. He has created a unique way to decode the human hard-wiring that prevents critical messaging (for example, vaccine adoption, climate change, or gun control) from reaching target audiences, whether through ads or public health messaging.

Over lunch, Graves introduced me to some essential behavioral science research and concepts, which I’d like to share with you, foremost by the legendary Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton University who has spent decades doing landmark research studying how “stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are encouraged or discouraged by social relationships, such as cooperation, competition, and power.”

Central to Fiske’s research is her work on how “two crucial dimensions of social cognition,” warmth and competence, affect men and women differently in life, work and society.

“Susan Fiske’s research reveals that we assess others across two axes: warmth and competence. Warmth is accessibility and likeability,” Graves said. “From an evolutionary stance, warmth takes primacy over competence because before we stick around to find out how competent you are, we need to know if you are an enemy or a friend.”

To put it simply, for the caveman bent on survival, warmth and competence determined whether human A was likely to kill human B and whether A had the competence to do so. In dozens of studies, Fiske and many of her behavioral science colleagues and compatriots have determined that that hardwired dichotomy continues to manifest every day in society and the workforce in how men and women are perceived, hired, promoted, rewarded, and positioned for influence.

“Warmth alone isn’t enough. It is the hapless bungler. Competence without warmth, at its extreme, is the evil scientist or Bond villain,” says Graves. “So the big win is scoring highly on warmth and competence. But there is a gender divide on how this works which comes to the detriment of competent women leaders and professionals.”

Fiske and others have uncovered that a man who is perceived to be competent can also be perceived as warm despite no evidence to that effect. But, when a woman is perceived to be competent, “warmth and competence become a zero-sum game,” says Graves. “That is, a woman perceived to be competent is unfairly also seen as incapable of being warm. So she will be labeled “bossy” or “hard-edged” or a “b–ch.”

In her blog, Musings on Media, Tech and Leadership, digital advertising expert Cecile Blanc wrote an article in 2020, titled, “The warmth/competence matrix for women, from the West Wing to the workplace.” Blanc notes how this matrix is pervasive including in pop culture.

Blanc noted that some of the central West Wing male characters, for instance, “exhibit borderline antisocial behaviours, but all are leadership material. Their lack of warmth can be compensated by competence.” For the female characters, however, she says “a lack of warmth cannot be compensated by more competence or the other way around.” They are portrayed as cold, incompetent, or powerless.

In their 2009 research paper, “Warmth, competence, and ambivalent sexism: Vertical assault and collateral damage.” Harvard psychology professor Mina Cikara and Fiske opened with examples of how presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was skewered for her perceived lack of warmth:

          [Hillary Rodham Clinton’s] most serious deficits are more personal than political… She is notoriously thin-skinned, and her stony aloofness makes Al Gore and Bill Bradley look like Cheech and Chong. — Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune (July 28, 2004)

          I’m surprised they did a portrait of Hillary. I thought maybe an ice sculpture would have been more appropriate. — Jay Leno, The Tonight Show (April 26, 2006)

In the face of these inherent biases and tremendous obstacles, I asked Graves, with some despair, how does one counter these “occupation stereotypes,” triggered by the age-old dictates? What are women to do?

“It’s a terrible trap,” Graves acknowledged. “If they are competent, they are assumed to be less than warm. And if they intentionally try to warm up their image, they are deemed incompetent.”

Many other cognitive researchers cited in this piece also describe the punitive effects on professional women of  warmth vs. competent dichotomy in stark terms, as a “double-edged sword,” a “dilemma,” and a “likeability trap.”

Indeed, just the titles of their research papers reflect the depth of the problem:

  • “Warmth, competence, and ambivalent sexism: Vertical assault and collateral damage”
  • “The Price of Power: Power Seeking and Backlash Against Female Politicians.”
  • “When Professionals Become Mothers, Warmth Doesn’t Cut the Ice.”
  • “To Seem Confident, Women must be seen As Warm.”
  • “Likeability v. Competence: The Impossible Choice Faced by Female Politicians, Attenuated by Lawyers.” 

In the “Likeability v. Competence” article, apparently, female lawyers may skip the curse, in part because they meet the altruistic demands placed on women, in order to be deemed successful: They are aggressive on behalf of their clients.

Graves says teaching the workforce about the warmth-competence dilemma is crucial because both men and women can fall into this perception trap, with enormous consequences.

Cognitive researchers offer some techniques to deflect and overcome these inherent biases, and I’ve listed some of those papers and articles below that Graves pointed me toward. They make for depressing but essential reading.

Using humor could be one way to do it. Despite studies that indicate that humor can help male executives more than female executives (no surprise!), a Harvard Business Review article says that “funny women may be perceived more positively than pop culture stereotypes often suggest.”

Other than being the office clown, what else might work? Another Harvard Business Review article discusses six techniques to help women navigate corporate boards. Many of these suggestions are dehumanizing and reflect the depth of the challenge.

Case in point: Here is one  suggestion from Harvard Business Review, called “Asking.”

“Asking involves voicing ideas in the form of questions and/or using a polite or soft tone to present ideas or express opposing views. One participant shared why the asking tactic works for her: “It’s not [that] I challenge them. I just ask them … what would be the downside of that? … Is there another possibility? Or, what about if we did this? I always try to come from a positive side and just ask for more information…. Even if they [have] a strong personality, they’re usually okay to tell you more information. [Because] it’s not like you’re disagreeing with them.”

This New York Times “likeability trap” opinion piece says that savvy women “learn that they must often do a masculine thing (which establishes their competence) in a feminine way (to defuse backlash).”

In other words, women have to twist themselves into knots daily and orchestrate their every breath, syllable, and thought in order to navigate these minefields.

Sometimes, says Graves, it helps to have a partner with the opposite trait in the warmth vs. competence dichotomy weigh in on your behalf and endorse your ideas in the conference room or boardroom or, as in the case of Willis, in the courtroom.

When Willis testified on the first day of her misconduct allegations hearing she came out of the gate guns blazing, blasting the defense lawyers, pushing back at their questions at every twist and turn. Graves says she was likely perceived as “cold, competent.”

The next day, Willis’s lawyers put her dad, John Clifford Floyd III, on the stand. Though a fascinating, respected legend in his own right as a fierce criminal defense lawyer and a father figure in the Black Panther movement, Floyd deliberately seemed to dial down his “competent” vibes and dial up his “warmth” vibes. It was uncanny, almost as if he had read all the research by Fiske et al. He was folksy, disarming, apologetic at times, a cuddly and supportive dad above all.

On the plus side, Floyd’s warmly disarming dad act may have defused some of the sizzling hostility that Willis projected. But on the minus side, it showed that she, a powerful prosecutor and legal mind sharp enough to bring a criminal case against a former U.S. president, still needed a male to validate her and pull her out of the reputational rubble she had created for herself.

Even more troubling perhaps for Willis is the observation that Cikara and Fiske made in their paper, citing various studies that indicate, “People tend to possess a negativity bias, a tendency to attend more to negative than to positive information.” Cikara and Fiske state that in fact, once people attribute “negative traits,” to someone, they take longer to revise them. So, the authors caution, “Women must walk a narrow path.”

For example, they say, “One needs to lie only once to be seen as untrustworthy, but one must be honest over a long period before observers will confidently ascribe trustworthiness. Conversely, people more easily revise positive trait ascriptions but more reluctantly confirm them.”

In other words, a good reputation is hard-earned but easily lost. On the flip side, a bad reputation is easy to get and difficult to shake off.

Unfortunately for her, Willis has just embarked on that long, hard road to refurbish her tattered reputation.

Here are some of the research papers and articles cited above. 

Warmth vs. Competence dichotomy

  1. Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence
  2. Warmth and competence as universal dimensions of social perception: The stereotype content model and the BIAS map.
  3. Warmth, competence, and ambivalent sexism: Vertical assault and collateral damage.
  4. Warmth and Competence Perceptions of Female Job Candidates: Who Gets Hired?
  5. Likeability v. Competence: The Impossible Choice Faced by Female Politicians, Attenuated by Lawyers
  6. Warmth or Competence: Which Leadership Quality is More Important?

What can women do about the warmth vs. competence dilemma?

  1. Research: Being Funny Can Pay More for Women Than Men
  2. How Women on Boards Navigate the “Warmth-Competence” Line
  3. How Women Can Escape the Likability Trap
  4. Research explores tactics women leaders employ to overcome gender stereotypes, toll such actions take
  5. The Price of Power: Power Seeking and Backlash Against Female Politicians
  6. When Professionals Become Mothers, Warmth Doesn’t Cut the Ice
  7. To Seem Confident, Women have to be seen As Warm 

Book Recommendation

The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know

Thanks to Chris Graves, founder of Resonance Code, for compiling this great list of research studies and articles and for the book recommendation.