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Likability & Leadership: The Female Double-Bind

Most women know that unlike their male counterparts, success in the workplace takes more than competency and ambition alone. Female leaders are expected not only to lead, but are often tasked with additional emotional labor. They need to be both direct and authoritative while being collaborative and likable.

Super Woman

The issue is, working women—regardless of career status—are not superhuman. They aren’t capable of being everything to all people, all of the time. And yet, the likability-versus-respect question (also known as “ambivalent sexism”) continues to be a vicious double bind confronted by women.

©2020 Gender Bias Learning Project

As a man gets more successful, he is better liked by men and women, and as a woman gets more successful, she is less liked by men and women.

Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

Anna Wintour? Check. Jill Abramson? Check. Hillary Clinton? Check. Check. Check. Check. 

Even Reese Witherspoon, an actress often described as extremely likable, wrote in Glamour magazine that she was “allergic” to the word ‘likable’ and that she “wants to change the perception that ambition is an ugly quality in women.”

©2015 Glamour – Reese Witherspoon “Ambition is Not a Dirty Word”

Breaking Down the Bias

The long-held assumption that women take care and men take charge remains largely true, even though women today comprise more than half of the talent pipeline. Women hold some 60 percent of graduate degrees, and the majority (64 percent of senior women, according to Center for Talent Innovation) are eager to be promoted. 

Everything from the tone of a woman’s voice to her choice of attire is relentlessly critiqued in a manner that few male leaders experience, notes Ludmila Leiva on Refinery29. Further research continues to show that successful women suffer social rejection and personal derogation if they defy gender stereotypes, especially when their success is in a male-dominated arena.

©2019 Richard Chance for Refinery29


  • According to Harvard Business Review “[High-achieving] women experience social backlash because their very success—and specifically the behaviors that created that success—violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave.”
  • A Fortune study found that while 58.9 percent of men’s performance reviews contain critical feedback related to their skills, 87.9 percent of women’s reviews focus on critical feedback and references to their personalities.
  • “A majority of Americans say they would like to see more women in top leadership positions—not only in politics, but also in the corporate world….But most say men still have an easier path to the top and that women have to do more to prove their worth,” says a Pew Research Institute report.

It’s clear—women not only have to work harder at their jobs to be taken seriously, but they’re expected to adjust their behavior to avoid seeming emotional or confrontational. Meanwhile, men can exhibit dominant, competitive behaviors in leadership roles without having to walk the tightrope between their gender and their job. 

“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.”

Lex Schroeder, Women’s Leadership and the Likability Trap

On the Up and Up

Asking women to pander to these biases and avoid advancement is not the way forward. Instead, we can choose to commit to visible, valued work and support other women while we do it. We can choose to balance decisiveness and fairness with compassion and creativity. We can choose to develop unique leadership styles that engender respect, and pick up some likeability along the way. 

©2019 Yahoo News

During the Obama administration, several female White House staffers adopted a meeting strategy of “amplification” to make their presence known and voices heard. When one suggested an idea, another would repeat it and give the first woman credit. Obama noticed and began calling more often on women and junior aides.  

Good leadership should transcend gender, not depend on it. In professional settings women can actively participate in dismantling workplace stereotypes by refusing traditionally gendered tasks and avoiding soft language when it undermines our messaging. We can also use emotional intelligence to pick up on the gender stereotypes of organizations and actively participate in combating them. Even if that workplace is the White House.

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