Leading Women and the Likability Penalty

Posted on November 8th, 2016 by Melissa

megaphone-1480342_960_720Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer and founder of Lean In, recently wrote in a People Magazine exclusive that despite the myths that women don’t support one another, women are incredible allies and accomplish amazing things. Sandberg writes that in order to get ahead we must first of all band together and address the likability penalty, “Women face a double standard that men don’t. Men are expected to be assertive and confident, while women are expected to be nurturing and collaborative. When women take the lead and assert ourselves, we go against expectations — and often face pushback from men and women.”
This stems from the issue that Sandberg and Lean In addressed with their #BanBossy campaign. Women navigate a tightrope between being seen as competent and being well liked. When a woman exhibits leadership skills, like speaking directly or promoting her ideas, she is often liked less by her peers. On the other hand, if she is friendly and helpful, her peers tend to like her but may be less apt to see her as competent.
Madeline Albright has struggled with these labels and preconceptions, and in her memoir said, “As I began to climb the ladder, I had to cope with the different vocabulary used to describe similar qualities in men (confident, take-charge, committed) and women (bossy, aggressive, emotional).”  She also noticed how men behaved in ways that would be dismissed if they had been women.
While attacking women in power goes back centuries, “likability” has taken center stage in this year’s political process. Until recently, the likability penalty has been a somewhat subtle slight, but lately it’s no-holds-barred. Why? Perhaps it’s because women are just a breath away from full equality and leadership. People tend to be most bothered when men and women don’t fit the stereotypes they expect — men as confident, strong leaders and women as humble, cooperative and supportive, according to research by Laurie A. Rudman, a psychologist at Rutgers. As recently reported in the New York Times, insults of powerful women by men perform a particular role – cutting them down to size, and playing on society’s discomfort with women in power.
There’s a lot of power in perception, and issues surrounding whether a woman is likable or not can and does hurt women on the rise. Making likability a concern is also a really tough place to put a woman because questioning her niceness makes it hard for her defend herself or fight back – for fear of reinforcing perceptions and appearing less kind.
Banning bossy was just the beginning. We need to address the double standards that we hold our leadership to and praise women who are confident, who take-charge, and who are committed to stepping into leadership roles. Women need to come together to be the incredible allies that I know we can be. When we work together, we accomplish amazing things. That intent can be magnified if we are continually supportive of one another and use words that empower and build each other up, not tear each other down. Together we can make a difference, and build the positive sisterhood that will help us achieve the success we all deserve.

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