The ‘likeability paradox’ – why is it so difficult for female leaders to be both liked and respected?

During the month of December 2021, AMBITION will be highlighting its top 25 most-read articles of the year in reverse order, in the form of a thought leadership advent calendar. Here’s what is behind today’s door.

The most important thing you can do is to recognise when you are being disadvantaged by ‘likeability bias’ and develop your strategies and skills to handle it before it scuppers your career, says Patricia Seabright

Originally published 16 December 2020.

Here’s the crux of the problem. A woman displaying what society thinks of as typical leadership traits, (for example strength, assertiveness, determination) may be ticking the boxes of what we want from a leader but, she is also contravening all the societal norms of what we want, expect  and perhaps demand from a woman. (e.g., collegiate, compassionate, gentle)

New Zealand’s female Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, summarised this well when she said: ‘One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, I’m weak.’

This double bind becomes clear when we think of the double standards often used in describing women vs men. The same behaviours are often perceived and labelled differently depending on who is talking.  

  • A woman is bossy / a man has leadership skill
  • A woman is aggressive / a man is assertive
  • A woman is nagging / a man is persistent
  • A woman is stubborn / a man is determined
  • A woman is hysterical / a man passionate
  • A woman is pushy / a man is ambitious

For women, to develop their careers, to stand out, to be successful, to be heard, requires them to speak out.

To be a leader or leadership material you have to be visible, to be determined and demonstrably confident but when women behave like this, they are often judged negatively for it. When they speak up powerfully when they articulate views and ideas that are strong and assertive, when they talk confidently about their achievements, they risk actually being perceived as less ‘likeable.’ Women face this double bind situation whenever they speak publicly in meetings and presentations.

The data clearly shows that professional woman can be liked, or respected but rarely both. Men can do both, but it is hard, if not impossible for women. Why is this?

Prescriptive bias

It is caused by something called prescriptive bias It is how we expect people behave, Societal and cultural expectations of men and women are very different, and traits typically associated with a ‘good’ woman do not correlate closely with those of leadership.  It is a form of unconscious bias, meaning that it is not an active, calculated, judgement or intentional discrimination. When women display leadership traits, for many, it just feels un-natural and, in some way, wrong and therefore at a sub-conscious level, it is rejected.  End result?  People then judge the women as not likeable.

These norms maybe unhelpful and anachronist but they are deeply ingrained in our culture. The big problem is that whereas somethings in the world, like technology, change rapidly, societal norms and culture, change at a glacially slow pace. Unconscious bias however is not overt. It is often subtle but insidious. It is one of the factors that women instinctively feel, and it causes them to be locked into a cycle of constantly self-doubting and self-editing.

Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In, cites an experiment conducted at Columbia Business School. They selected the CV of a real-life female entrepreneur. The woman’s real name was Heidi Rosen, so Heidi was placed on one set of identical CVs, and a man’s name, Howard, on another. Half of a group of business school students read one CV, and the other half the other. The result was remarkable. The students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent. However, Howard was judged to be likeable and a good colleague. Heidi, however, was seen as aggressive, selfish and not someone who would be a team player, or someone who they’d like to work with.

Do you need to be liked?

But do you need to be liked? Is it important to be liked to be a) effective in your role b) personally happy? Of course, everyone likes to be liked but for some it is more important than others. Typically, if you are an extrovert, people type person, who draws energy and motivation from others , then it is likely that the need to be liked is higher in you than it is a perhaps a more introverted, internally motivated person. However, whatever your personality, you do need others to like you to be effective.

It is much harder to influence people if they don’t like you. Robert Chaildi , who wrote a seminal book on influencing lists ‘liking’ as one of the seven keys to influencing others. Building rapport, getting in synch with others, having them feel they warm to you, is critical to them being open to what you have to say. In politics, a rational policy platform and operational competence is not enough to get people to vote for you. They have got to like you. As one Baroness once said to aspiring MP candidates, ‘you’ve got to be the sort of person, they want to go to the pub with after a day’s campaigning.’

What to do about it

In the book I discuss several strategies some of which are about navigating around the issue and some about challenging it. Each individual has to make choices relevant to them, their situation and their personality.

Navigate

To navigate, in an interview situation for example, say enough about your background to ensure people know that you are credible and successful but be wary of saying too much about your achievements. A long list of ‘and then I did…,’ may not be the most effective approach.  Women’s natural tendencies can cause many of us to not want to brag about what we’ve accomplished but when it comes to interviews and selections we know we have to talk more about ourselves and our achievements, so we push ourselves out of our comfort zones and can end up coming across as too forced, unnatural  or too ‘pushy ‘in articulating what we have achieved. So, finding a way to strike a good balance, practicing how we position our career and CV details is a key skill for women. Using stories and case studies is often a good way to position career achievements.

Also under navigation, is the approach that is traditionally the way successful women have overcome the likeability issue and that is to work harder, much harder, at working relationships. Whereas a man could get away with walking past his PAs desk, dropping a report on it and saying straightforwardly, ‘can I have this for Monday please?’ The equivalent behaviour in a woman would be considered brusque, abrupt and uncaring. She maybe even considered a bitch.

Instead the dialogue would probably go something like, ‘Hi how was your weekend/ game / kid?  ..’ and after a suitable length of exchange, ‘ I really need this for Monday, I’d be really grateful if you could have it for me by then?’. Clearly this is time consuming but as a communication style it meets the expectations of being a female (caring, gentle etc) but still requests the task and gets it done in the time required. As a way to communicate, this is probably something men should do more of and not women less of!  

Challenge

If you are more inclined to challenge you can call it out.  There is an ancient Greek rhetorical device called ‘refutation’. What you do is to outline the issue or objection that you face, clearly and openly.  You bring into to the open what people may be thinking (consciously or even sub-consciously) which then, enables you to offer the counter argument.

What this might sound like in an interview or selection presentation is: ‘I’ve done x y z in my career and achieved a b c. Now some people might think that makes me aggressive and hyper competitive which of course is not what we might expect women to be. I’m sure however that you are more sophisticated than that, you do not buy into those anachronistic stereotypes of women. Yes, I work hard and yes, I compete to win but that makes me someone who strives constantly for the good of my employees/ my company / my objectives and that’s what I am doing / would do for you.’

Finally, you may just need to be prepared to make your peace with being more respected than liked, to perhaps be a ‘bloody difficult woman’ as former politician Ken Clark once called former UK Prime Minister, Theresa May. To an extent Theresa May turned it around by taking the intended criticism and wearing it as a badge of honour, including the phrase in her speeches and making something of a joke of it. ‘Bloody Difficult women’ T-shirts are now widely available…

To summarise, the most important thing you can do is to recognise when you are being disadvantaged by likeability bias and develop your strategies and skills to handle it before it scuppers your career.

Patricia Seabright is a speaking coach and the author of She Said! A guide for millennial women to speaking and being heard, published by Panoma Press, priced £14.99, available online and from all good bookstores.

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