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Damned if you do and damned if you don't

Updated: May 23, 2023

Can women be both powerful and likable? When women enter leadership positions, they are held to a different standard of likability. This double standard acts as a glass ceiling for women and stands as an obstacle toward realizing gender equality especially in leadership positions. A report from Catalyst summarized, “Women leaders are perceived as competent or liked, but rarely both.”

Several studies have evaluated fictive onboarding of new leaders where name and gender were removed. The participants, both men and women, consistently evaluated a high-powered woman as more unlikable than a man with identical qualities and background. Even research by the Think tank Agenda and Oslo School of Management document that woman is held to a different standard than their male executives’ peers in one of the most equal countries in the world, Norway. 100 students read the same successful career story. The students rated “Hans” significantly more likeable, being a good leader and preferred to collaborate with him. “Hanna” was judged to be a better parent. Gender stereotyping failed “Hans” and favored “Hanna”.

The same kind of study at Columbia Business School documented the same issue. Heidi Roizen was a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist who became the subject of Professor Frank Flynn’s research. He presented half his class with the original application with Heidi’s name on it and gave the other half the same application but changed her name to “Howard”. The students rated “Howard” and Heidi, equally competent, but Heidi was perceived significantly less likable and worthy of being hired than “Howard” and even perceived more selfish. Research related to how women are perceived when wearing more feminine or more masculine clothing at the workplace also add to the complexity. Women who wear feminine attire are perceived to be lower in ratings of dominance and expertise, and women in more masculine attire are perceived to be lower in ratings of kindness and friendliness. Women and their choice of clothing can either be perceived as powerful but unlikable, or weak but pleasant. Furthermore, we know that physical appearance plays a more important role for women’s reputation than it does for men. Physical appearance and likeability are a complex balance game women are experiencing daily at work and confronted with. The documented negative correlation for women between power, success, and likability makes it even more challenging for women to embrace leadership positions and be appreciated as leaders. Not only do women in leadership positions need to accept the role of being the token or quota in the name of desperately required change. They are also judged harder on the likability scale and experiencing mismatch between the qualities traditionally associated with leadership designed by men. The assertive and often dominant behaviors that we associate with leadership tend not to be viewed as attractive in women’s leadership style. Men are strong, ambitious and determent. Women are expected to be caring, building trust, and be likable. Women are evaluated more for personal qualities than for their competencies. They need to prove they are competent, but not over competent, while we tend to assume that men are competent. It is a different starting point for a conversation, promotion, hiring process or asking for a raise. If women speak up, pursue their own goals, are assertive and direct they are often labelled as too aggressive, too ambitious or bossy. Research into voter attitudes documents that ambitious women receives less favorable ratings, while it does not affect ambitious men. It is not an even playing field. It is normal for women to overthink about how they are perceived before or after e.g. they have delegated task to be executed or taking charge in a meeting. Furthermore, women also take on more of the office housework to be perceive as nice and likeable. We need to empower and encourage women to become authentic leaders who not only understand the current cultural stereotyping biases they need to navigate in, but also challenging the old rules and reinvent new ways of leading that will engage the new generations. We all need to have more awareness around the pressure we put on women to be amiable at work on top of all other demands. Burnout and resignation are a high-risk women pay for internalizing all demands including being likeable. Often, they suffer in silence long before they give up. In training and coaching sessions, we hear over and over again how women overthink and jeopardize their own leadership development because their fear of not being likeable and experiencing barriers of double standard. Female Leadership believes that knowing one’s strengths, being able to apply them, and appreciate them is key. Valuing one’s own unique talent and style instead of trying to fit in to traditional organizational cultural behaviors and biases can be liberating. Conversations that focus on contribution, potential, skills, and strengths and not personality are more likely to be authentic and can short-circuit unconscious bias and assumptions. It makes it easier to give constructive developmental feedback and not jumping into subjective bias feedback, which women tend to receive more of compared to men. A strength-based approach can be the path to gender equality and meaningful interactions for all. Being appreciate for one’s authenticity makes it easier to avoid being stuck in learned behaviors and the likeability trap. Likeability is an important part of the condition we set for each other but knowing and owning our talent and career will help us show up and bring our whole self to work and not be a victim of the likeability trap. Finally, we want to highlight that we have written about women in general. But for women of color, it is often even more difficult to break the likeability trap.

Written by Charlotte Søndergaard the 19 of April 2022


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