Do You Need to Be Liked?

One of the interesting things that Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, author of Lean In, has been saying recently is that people don’t like successful women in the same way that they admire and like successful men.

weeping angelShe has a point.

In 2003, Columbia Business School ran an experiment to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace.

They started with a real life case, Heidi Roizen. Heidi had become a successful venture capitalist and the business case described the story of her success, using phrases like “outgoing personality” and “vast personal and professional network”.

Two copies of the business case were made. In one she remained Heidi, in the other ‘Heidi’ was replaced with ‘Howard’.

Half the students were given Heidi’s story and the other half  Howard’s. The students were then asked about their impressions of Heidi or Howard. Both were rated as equally competent, both were respected. Heidi however, was seen as ‘selfish and not the type of person you’d want to work for’ Howard was viewed much more kindly.

I have seen numerous examples of this double standard being applied to women; I suspect I have even done it myself. (Shame on me). Because there are so few women at the top and we all know how difficult it is for women to get there, do we make assumptions that they must not have been nice people in the first place? Assumptions that we don’t make about men who have a ‘natural right’ to be there?

I certainly saw it in my work with offenders in the criminal justice system. Women were held to different standards by the judiciary.

If we punish women for success by not liking them how are we going to redress the balance? Will we perforce end up with women leaders who don’t care what people think of them? Is that a necessary quality in a leader?

And if you are a woman do you mind that successful women are more disliked than their male counterparts? What impact does it have on our ability to do the job? Does the fear of being thought strident, or distrusted hold you back?

What do you think?

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Photo by Melissa Anthony


Posted on April 24th, 2013 by

6 Responses to “Do You Need to Be Liked?”

  1. Tammy says:

    It is very unfortunate that there is still a double standard applied to women in the workplace and the wider society. I have often see where men are regarding in such great awe while women in similar positions are seen as being too tough. It makes it more difficult for those women to do well because they are under so much scrutiny.

    Successful women should not be disliked because in most cases they had to work twice as hard to get there. I agree that persons make assumptions that they took short-cuts to make it and spread gossip about them. As a result that fear holds women back from asking for promotions, pay raise and other benefits. How should we deal with this?

  2. Dave says:

    I agree. In our society, women still need to work extra hard to become equal with their male counterparts and once they get on top, people treat them differently. It will take time but I am sure this equality issues and double standards will also change. I think this applies to everyone around the globe.

  3. Hi, I am a big fan of the book too! I would like to add a bit more insight, showing you where our behaviour comes from: Girls are just as competitive as boys. Boys compete for status (biggest biceps, strongest daddy). Girls compete on ‘being nice’. The ‘top-girl’ is the most popular one. The way to take away her top place is to attack her image: ‘did you see what she said to Angela? wasn’t it awful? I really don’t think Angela was being unkind’ The latter part is needed to show to the other girl that you are obviously much ‘nicer’. This explains why women are keen to be ‘nice’. It’s such a strong force as we have started training it from a very young age.

  4. Philippa says:

    This reinforced exactly the conversation I had last month with a group of women in leadership. Isn’t it bizarre how two individuals with exactly the same traits can be viewed so differently because of their gender? Men and women have a different focus – men are generally more interested in getting results through achievement, power and being competitive. Women are generally more interested in getting results through co-operation, harmony and communication. There is an expectation that women will always be ‘nice’ and if they are seen as doing something which contravenes this view they will be viewed as being harsh, much more than a man dong the same thing. Interesting topic and one I could talk about a lot!

    • Jane says:

      Oh yes, I’m sure we could talk and talk on this one. Reminds me of women writes who had to pretend to be men to get published! Thanks Philippa.

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