Shaving for Success: Women, Work, and How to Dance on the Two-Edged Sword of Likeability

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Issue 105 — August 19, 2019

I remember when I was eleven years old and begged my mother to let me start shaving my legs. That, I thought, would be a true symbol that I was becoming a woman.

Fast forward to this article by law professor Joan C. Williams in the August 16, 2019, New York Times opinion section, entitled “How Women Can Escape the Likeability Trap.” In it, Williams, who has coauthored a new book titled What Works for Women at Work, advises that women expand the behaviors in our toolbox by using those considered true to our culturally defined femininity and those deemed to be characteristic of successful leaders (meaning men, who represent the leadership archetypes in both male and female minds).

I like the article because it offers solutions to the leadership disparities faced by women and people of color, however imperfect and very annoying its underlying premise is. The implication of course is that anyone who doesn’t fit into the predominantly white male leadership culture of organizations needs to change, adapt, and/or cover their authentic selves in order to succeed.

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So upon first read, I thought that at least the headline wasn’t a negative spin on the topic, such as this one on more or less the same ideas: “For Women, Being Liked at Work is a Double-Edged Sword.”

And yet I dislike Williams’ premise, because once again it’s telling women how we need to change, instead of challenging our institutions to change their outdated discriminatory views of gender, so that everyone can bring their best talents and selves forward for the good of all. That includes, as it turns out, the good of the bottom line. And gender diversity by and large makes firms more productive as well as more profitable.

The graphic chosen to illustrate the article includes all the usual stereotypes: the female “tools” are yellow stilettos and lipstick, whereas the male “tools” are, well, actual tools — screwdriver, saw, and such. I am going to declare a national holiday in celebration when the cliched stiletto goes away as a symbol of femininity.

When I posted the article on LinkedIn, I drew an immediate pushback from a well-intentioned male colleague.

He said, “Just because a man may be forgiven for being a jerk does not make it an effective strategy. Although they may be forgiven when business is going well bad behavior is not forgotten when things start going badly. Being likeable does not mean being weak or giving in. Women and men by the way who exhibit a quiet firm confidence can be as or more effective.”

To which I replied in my most approachable and nurturing language: “Thanks for the comment. You are of course right anecdotally because there are always exceptions but the research in the article is sound and has been replicated often. These are facts of life women live with, and thrive anyway. That’s why I concentrate in my 9 Leadership Power Tools training on helping women realize we can thrive in the world as it is while we’re intentionally changing it to the world we want it to be. And anything can be changed, even things as resistant to change as culture.”

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Which brings me back to leg shaving, prompted both by the article that set me off this morning and by a comment about it in Lauren Zalaznick’s “Sunday Paper” that has become a must read for me. You might want to consider subscribing as well for a terrific weekly curation of articles about women you mean to read and a few more that you missed, all with a mostly high touch, except when she gets ticked off at the same things I do — which is always super gratifying. Here’s Lauren’s rendition of her recent conversation with a young woman in her 20's.

She was saying that the eternal quest for hairlessness (of legs, lips, etc) was getting tiresome, even for her. She was discussing —  with her waxer! —  the (literal) price of keeping the aesthetics of femininity on track versus the (implied negative) price of not caring. And the waxer said,

“That is why the feminists are wrong about [not] letting men pay for dinner or anything else. We should charge all we can. It is the tax men should pay.”

Maybe we should translate that to the workplace. Maybe we should legally be entitled to out-earn men, let’s say $1.13 to every one dollar they earn instead of the 87 cents we trail by. Just to cover the costs, literally and figuratively, for having to be extra nice, extra blond, extra hairless.

At eleven, I already had loads of dark black hair on my legs. I quickly learned to hate it, hide it whenever possible, and keep the pressure on to be able to shave it in order to be more “likable” — to be accepted in the culture of hairlessness as beauty that I’m convinced men created to keep women infantile and therefore less than competent to lead.

And just as troubling, women were enforcing these standards of objectified appearance. That’s because co-option into the predominant culture can become so pervasive that one doesn’t even notice when something is unjustly penalizing one’s own group. I wanted to fit in above all. And sure enough, my persistent lobbying resulted in my mother allowing me to shave my legs to avoid the mortification of having to compete in athletic games during my school’s upcoming field day. There was never a discussion about why such a practice was good or bad; it was only a question of when I was old enough to engage in it.

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These are the kinds of implicit biases that sear into our brains and cause many women, or at least more women than men, to feel like imposters in the workplace and thus to be more likely to undervalue their own worth.

Faced by the double-edged sword, I confess that not only do I still shave my legs, I have become quite adept at the use of both masculine and feminine tools — whichever will work best in any given circumstance. Some days, I really resent the hours I’ve spent blow drying my hair and applying makeup. And yet I know full well that I would not have been nearly as successful in my career if I had not done so.

At the same time, I am heartened to observe increasingly that the very characteristics that have been considered female weaknesses are finally becoming recognized as the very strengths that drive those positive business results.

We (women and men) are in the midst of an unfinished revolution. It might be a while before the majority of men wear yellow stilettos or shave their legs, but learning to be more empathetic and emotionally intelligent could help men and women both have more satisfying and productive workplaces.

Let me know your thoughts in comments here or by tweeting me @GloriaFeldt.

And do download my latest podcast where I tackle the fraught topic of imposter syndrome and give you specific ways to combat it and let your natural light shine! You can find the Take The Lead Women podcast wherever you get your podcasts. Oh, and if you can take a minute to rate and review my podcast, I’d be eternally grateful because that’s how the podcast platforms know to suggest it to others who might benefit from it. 

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All Best,

Gloria


GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet @GloriaFeldt.