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This Likability Thing Goes Deep

This Likability Thing Goes Deep

If you’re having a moment this week (and aren’t we all?) and want to imagine a different world, think about how different our world might be:

  • if women made up 50% of Congress, rather than 24%. And 50% of state legislators rather than 29%. Imagine the different debates we might be having and laws we might be passing.
  • if women CEOs received 50% of venture capital funding, instead of 2%. Imagine the different types of start-ups that would be funded and the problems that they might be solving for us.
  • if women made up 50% of corporate executives and boards, rather than 12% and 15%. The gender pay gap might be closer to closing and the mommy track closer to being abolished.

Maybe you don’t buy into all of the positives that the research indicates would follow if more women were in roles of power. Women tend to be a moderating force, so it’s hard to imagine that a bunch of negatives would follow.

But there are many issues with women getting there. So. Many. Issues. And there’s one that might surprise you.

One issue we should be aware of (and question ourselves honestly about, and talk about) is unconscious bias. It’s a hurdle that we all — including women — can accidentally put in the way of other women’s success … without even recognizing it.

And one of the biggest hurdles? “Likability.”

The research tells us that the more successful men are, the more likable we see them as being. But the more successful women are, the less likable we think they are.

We talk about the “likability factor” as an unfair double standard — something men hold women to. But we all tend to punish women for the “sin” of not being likable.

That’s certainly true in politics, but also for other women leaders. I’ve felt the sting of this myself, during my career ups and downs. I’ve even punished myself: I almost turned down a job because I wanted to be liked.

And I’ve done it to other women. I’ve judged women when I felt they were unlikable.

One example: There’s a successful woman founder I’ve always sort of thought was a b*tch, tbh. Every time her name’s come up, I’ve thought it. This is despite the fact that I know her reasonably well and she’s treated me well. I also know a lot of people who know her. I know a lot of people who have a lot of great things to say about her.

So why don’t I like her?

I once interviewed someone who left this CEO’s company ... or maybe was fired. And this person once told me that this founder is a complete b*tch. And so — in a society in which successful women have historically been portrayed as tough as nails — this characterization felt intuitively right enough to me that it stuck. That’s all it took.

Ugh. Seriously, ugh.

Why did I take this characterization with me?

I don’t really know. I’m guessing it was the media I watched when I was younger, in which successful businesswomen were rarely portrayed positively. I’m sure part of it was the experience I had when I was more junior in my career. The women in senior roles seemed to have to be super-tough even to survive.

I am consciously working to change this reaction in myself. This is one area in which sometimes our sense of what is right isn’t actually right — maybe because of the messages we grew up with. I believe that’s certainly true for me.

Unconscious bias is real. And research also shows that having to focus on how to overcome the likability penalty can also keep women leaders from being able to effectively lead.

So how do we change things?

We need to check our own biases constantly. Part of this is to break out of the old “I want to elect a woman, but not that woman.” Or “I want a woman to be CEO of Wells Fargo, but maybe not her.”

We need to talk about those biases. I think one reason we don’t has to do with stereotypes: Women talking about other women is gossip; it’s burn books and back-biting. But new research shows that, though those stereotypes of gossiping women persist, women don’t talk behind others’ backs any more than men do.

We definitely, definitely need to give women and people of color the promotions they deserve. And create hiring and review processes that are fair to everyone.

We need to prioritize ability over likability. Or at least redefine “likable” to center on “I like the way they get the job done” and “I like their honesty.”

And if a woman we don’t personally like happens to succeed ... we need to celebrate the victory.

Read the original article here.


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