Success and likeability—for most of us this is not an either/or but a both/and. We want success (whatever that means for us personally) and we want to be liked. This is true for women and men. But somehow it seems that in our culture women are perceived to give more weight to likeability (even at the expense of success).
Many will remember Sally Fields. Pundits made fun of her tearful acceptance speech at the 1985 Oscars when she won her second best actress award and exclaimed: “You like me, you really like me!” Sally Fields is an accomplished actor, but at her moment of success, all she could think about was likeability.
Maybe it is true that women prefer likeability over success.
“Heidi and Howard” isn’t a television sitcom, but a fascinating Harvard Business School case study comparing perceptions of men and women in the workplace. Two groups were given the same report on the successful career of entrepreneur Heidi Roizen. But on the second group’s reports the name “Heidi” was changed to “Howard.”
Results were telling.
” … while students respected both Heidi and Howard, Howard came across as a more appealing colleague. Heidi, on the other hand was seen as selfish and not ‘the type of person you would want to hire or work for.’ The same data with a single difference—gender—created vastly different impressions. … The end result? Liked him, disliked her.” (p.40)
Sandberg explains how stereotypes (men are “providers, decisive, and driven,”; women are “caregivers, sensitive, and communal” p.40) determined likeability differently for men and women. This is the “double bind” facing women: between conducting themselves according to “feminine” expectations to be liked or risking negative perceptions by doing what it takes to be successful. She argues this is yet another reason why women are held back and why they hold themselves back.
“Acting in stereotypically feminine ways makes it difficult to reach for the same opportunities as men, but defying expectations and reaching for those opportunities leads to being judged as undeserving and selfish.” (p.43)
The double bind makes it difficult for women to advocate for themselves or to negotiate as freely as men. The desire to be liked increases the incentive to avoid criticism.
To get around this dilemma, Sandberg advises women to “Think personally, act communally.” Be “concerned about others and “provide a legitimate explanation for the negotiation.” (p.47)
She took her own advice when negotiating with Zuckerberg over his offer to be CEO at Facebook. Initially she was reluctant to negotiate, “afraid of doing anything that would botch the deal”. A push from her brother-in-law who told her, “no man at [that] level would consider taking the first offer,” sent her back to the table to negotiate. (p.46)
“Of course you realize that you’re hiring me to run your deal teams, so you want me to be a good negotiator. This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table.” (p.46)
She also advices, when criticism comes your way, allow yourself time to be upset and then move on. And above all, for women to support one another. But that double bind is pretty stubbornly in place no matter what women do.
For me this chapter has been a difficult one to get my head around. The complexities are mind boggling. The double bind spins out is so many different directions for the Christian career woman. It impacts how she is viewed both on the job and in the church where the male/female stereotypes intensify. And men aren’t the only ones to criticize. Other women can be our most severe critics.
On the job, if a woman succeeds in her career, the hard work, sacrifices, and tough choices it took to get her there cause her all too often to be perceived and described (behind closed doors) with a word that rhymes with “itchy.” When men make the same kind of career climb, they are perceived as admirable and visionary.
In the church, that same success can make a woman seem intimidating and result in her being marginalized and underutilized. But career success will bring recognition and leadership opportunities for a man. The church also houses an ongoing tension between women in the workplace and full-time homemakers. And gender based stereotypical thinking (frequently preached as gospel from pulpits) boxes us in, impacts likeability, and hinders us from doing what God is calling us to do.
The double bind is real. The ensuing struggle can be agonizing. I know this from personal experience.
I think of myself as likeable—Frank often tells me how much he likes me. In my calling as a Christian writer, I have always sought to write in a way that is both gracious and honest (this is success for me). But that didn’t prevent me from receiving hate mail from Christians telling me I’m “unbiblical,” “hateful,” a “feminist heretic,” and that I “deny the Bible and the gospel.” (I could go on, but alas I have to finish this blog). I confess, such words sting, even though I know they are untrue. As I translate Sandberg’s admonitions into my own life, the issue is likeability and honesty. If I am honest with my biblical studies, my likeability may take a hit. If I am a “good girl” and bite my tongue, then I am more likeable.
For all the hurtfulness I have encountered, I know that I am far from alone.
A good friend who was a business executive believed God had called her to ministry in the church—not to be a pastor, just to serve. She gave up a lucrative career in the aerospace industry to follow that call. She was professional and competent with a likeable personality. But she was also a straight shooter and not at all governed by a fear of being disliked. During employment interviews with the men, she negotiated for a job title that more accurately described her responsibilities. The men were taken aback that she took herself so seriously and considered her a bit uppity (although any one of them in her position would have done the same thing). She didn’t back down and was successful. But her success dramatically impacted her likeability factor which dropped before she worked a single day. After a year of continual resistance, she returned to the aerospace industry where her strengths were valued and taken seriously.
So like Sally Fields—I want to be liked. I also want to be successful and for me, that is bound up with my call from God. When push comes to shove, the bottom line for all of us not ultimately likeability, but will I do what God is calling me to do, even if I am perceived as something that rhymes with “itchy.”
So What’s Your Take?
How have you experienced different standards for men and women? How have you struggled with the double bind? Have you been criticized by other women? What have you learned? How have you moved forward?
Lean in with your comments!
Next Wednesday, May 22—Chapter 4: It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder
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