Women Are Treated More Harshly Than Men for Being Unlikable, Study Finds

Likability is a more important character trait for women than it is for men, a study has found, with likable women (but not men) faring better in two-player games of co-operation than their less amenable counterparts.

"Our study provides the first thorough evidence that mutual likability impedes team cooperation, in particular in all-female and mixed-sex teams," lead author Dr. Leonie Gerhards from the Department of Economics at the University of Hamburg, Germany, told Newsweek.

"We expected that there would be a meaningful gender difference in behavior. However, we had not expected that this difference would be so stark."

The study was published in The Economic Journal on Tuesday.

In a "novel" laboratory experiment, Gerhads and colleague Michael Kosfeld pitted two players against each other in games of cooperation. If both participants played nice, the outcome would benefit both parties. If the participants contributed different amounts, the more generous player would be the player worse off.

To throw a spanner in the works, the researchers primed participants by asking them to rank each other on how likable they appeared in photographs. Before the games began, each player was also told how likable their partner had ranked them. Combined, the two rankings provided the basis of a mutual likability score based on nothing but a pair of photographs.

In the first game, both players were given six euros to put towards a joint investment. The amount donated was increased 150 percent and split equally between the two players—the idea being that the more money in the pot, the better both players do overall. However, if one was to play cynically, they could choose to keep all, or most, of their money while reaping in significant sums from the other player.

The second game had a similar goal, whereby to maximize the amount paid out to each individual, participants should cooperate and donate the maximum number possible. However, if the donations are out of balance and one player donates significantly more than their partner, they will lose money. The goal, therefore, is to achieve an equilibrium where both parties donate the same or similar amounts of euro.

On average, male participants contributed slightly (but not significantly) more than female participants—in the first game, men donated 4.05 euros, whereas women contributed 3.92 euros. However, the researchers did notice a significant difference based on mutual likability scores when a female player was involved.

Men rarely varied how much they contributed. It did not matter how high or low the mutual likability score was between players, provided they were both male. In contrast, same-sex teams of female players with high mutual likability scores contributed, on average, 30 percent more than those with low mutual likability scores.

The results in mixed-sex teams were even more stark, with men contributing 50 percent less and women contributed 37 percent less if mutual likability scores were low.

The second game produced a similar set of results. In all-female and mixed-sex teams, mutual likability was positively correlated with high scores. In all-male teams, both participants chose high numbers right from the start, irrespective of their mutual likability.

"Women always face this potential [likability] hurdle, men don't," the study's authors wrote.

Hillary and Trump
Female presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton (pictured here at the final presidential debate in 2016) and, more recently, Elizabeth Warren have come up against a likeability problem. New research suggests likeability affects women more than it does men. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty

The researchers conclude that "dislikability hurts more than likeability helps" and, significantly, "women significantly suffer from the variation in likability and achieve overall worse outcomes than men."

In this game, that translated to a lower financial reward. They earned, on average, 4.36 percent less than the male participants. In the real world, this could translate to lower wages and less representation at the top of the career ladder.

Gerhads was reluctant to pin the blame on sexism.

"According to the Cambridge dictionary, sexism is defined as 'the belief that the members of one sex are less intelligent, able, skillful, et cetera than the members of the other sex,'" said Gerhards.

"We wouldn't go so far as to assume that men believe that women are on average less able to cooperate per se. However, given mutual dislikability, we do observe that men treat male teammates differently than female teammates."

However, gender-based assumptions could play a role.

"We can only speculate that for male teams the earning opportunity from collaboration is paramount, whereas in all other teams the likability factor is important, too," said Gerhards.

"One could think of this factor as a self-fulfilling prophecy: team members simply expect that likability matters whenever there is a woman on the team and everyone lives up this expectation in order not to be exploited monetarily."

While the study didn't delve into the reasons behind these differences, Gerhards and Kosfeld suggested companies limit the effect of the likability factor by introducing work cultures centered on performance, rather than likability.