Women's Leadership and the Likeability Trap
If we want to have generative conversations—conversations that help us arrive someplace new—we have to ask the right questions. As leaders, we especially have ask the right questions of ourselves and others.
In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg and lead researcher for the book, Marianne Cooper, show us that success and “likeability” are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. (Cooper expands upon her research here). When a man is successful, he is well-liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, she is liked less. When a woman accomplishes a great deal on the job, or demonstrates behavior perhaps more typically associated with men, she is often perceived by her co-workers as aggressive, political, or difficult. Why does this matter? Most of us want to enjoy healthy working relationships. When we feel disliked or unappreciated, we downplay our accomplishments and doubt our abilities. Gender bias is real, and it affects not only the trajectory of our lives, but how we live them.
Since the release of Lean In, there’s been continued talk about women, likeability, and success. To deal with this likeability problem, Sandberg encourages us to use our power and get more comfortable with conflict and criticism (without taking it personally). Her recommendations are wise, and we also have an opportunity now to ask really good questions about leadership and likeability and what the two have to do with each other.
Now that we have this research, is the question, How much does likeability matter? or How do we get around this likeability problem? Or is it, Given the amount of gender bias that exists, what kind of leadership do we need? Where is most of our leadership coming from now? What unique contributions and perspectives do women bring to the table? These are the kinds of questions I want to hear women and men attempt to answer together. These questions go beyond gender, without dismissing it in the least.
Because at the end of the day, good leadership transcends gender. It isn’t that gender doesn’t matter—this would be like saying we all should be “colorblind” and forget our nation’s history of racial/ethnic discrimination and disenfranchisement. It’s that good leadership representing the actual make-up of the world we live in should be our focus, not hyper-awareness of how one gender should behave or is being perceived. Do we want to focus on the problem of powerful women being so darn unlikeable? Or do we want to work toward a solution: gender balance in the workplace, our communities, and all of our major institutions, which will inevitably mean new visions of leadership?
In last week’s Take the Lead webinar, Gloria Feldt kicked things off by reminding us that women have always had a pretty mixed relationship with power. I like to remind myself and others that women have also been individually and collectively culturally distracted from the things that matter most. (For example, in large part thanks to the media, many women waste an enormous amount of time and energy worrying about waist-size and appearance, rather than health and fitness and whether or not they feel good and confident in their bodies). Let’s pay attention to the research on women and likeability, and let’s have this conversation, but let’s not let concerns over likeability distract us from our real goal either.
I want to take Sandberg’s and Feldt’s advice on getting more comfortable with power and redefining power. And I hope we use our power to ask big, provocative questions about the kinds of leadership, working relationships, and organizations we want and need today.
What does 21st century leadership mean to you?