But Is She Likable Enough?


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“Women who behave in authoritative ways risk being disliked as insufferable prima donnas, pedantic schoolmarms or witchy women.”

Joan C. Williams, professor of law, on the “likability trap” that continues to plague powerful women

I was recently asked if I could recommend a “likability coach” for a woman who’d received feedback at work that she was a bit too brusque.

A likability coach, really?

The question sent me into a rage (which was probably not very likable of me).

But men don’t hire likability coaches. They don’t pepper their emails with exclamation points (!) to sound nicer. They don’t ask each other for tips on how to appear less threatening or — if they happen to be running for president — get asked about their likability prospects. They certainly don’t have to smile when they ask for raises (something that’s been shown to help women appear less aggressive). In fact, they don’t have to smile at all.

The idea that a “likability trap” exists for women has been well documented. It’s a phrase used to describe how women who behave in authoritative ways risk being deemed difficult, brusque or bossy, while those who are too nice risk having their competence questioned.

It exists because of stereotypes about how we expect women and men to behave — women as nurturing and collaborative, men as authoritative, and seemingly no rubric for those who identify as neither — so when people exert characteristics outside of those expectations, they face a penalty.

But as the workplace scholar Joan C. Williams has written in her book “What Works for Women at Work” — and tackled in a recent column — there is an effective way to combat that penalty, and it involves a delicate balance of competence and warmth, of taking those feminine stereotypes and turning them on their head.

She calls it “gender judo.”

There is ample evidence to show that gender judo can work: Venture capitalists are more likely to fund female-led companies if they are framed as being about social good (because women help people!), while women who use “softeners” in conversations about money are less likely to be perceived as crass or demanding.

In her interviews, Professor Williams spoke with women who said they effectively embraced the stereotype of the “office mom” — being helpful around the office (’cause women are helpful!), taking on the administrative tasks, bringing the coffee — in order to offset the times she was firm.

As one former chief executive told her: “I’m warm Ms. Mother 95 percent of the time, so that the 5 percent of the time when I need to be tough, I can be.”

And yet, reading all that brings me back to the likability coach. What if you, like me, just don’t have the energy to engage in all that judo all day long — or the funds to hire someone to teach you how to do it?

As the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett once told me, it’s not women who are the problem. It’s that we still define leadership in male terms.

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Monday was Women’s Equality Day, which marks the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, which granted American women the right to vote. It’s often said that women were “given” that right, but in fact they earned it — in a battle that took more than a century and decades more to overcome the racist laws and policies that prevented African-Americans from exercising their right freely. Read more about the complex history of the women’s suffrage movement, and the contentious — and unfinished — struggle for voting rights in America.

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