Why do powerful women get caught in the likeability trap?
Powerful men are likeable, powerful women are not. Why do women have to balance success and personality? How do we avoid the double bind of the likeability trap?
Nice girls finish last. Successful women are seen as less likeable, and likeable women are seen as less successful. For men, the opposite correlation is true: powerful men tend to be better liked. This phenomenon is known as the likeability trap for women, and it’s a huge hurdle for powerful women to overcome.
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In first popularised the idea of the likeability trap, but the idea really started to hit home during the 2016 US election.
When women are decisive they are bossy
Hillary Clinton was a thoroughly competent Secretary of State. Towards the end of the Obama administration, she had higher approval ratings than the then-president himself. In the run-up to the election, Trump didn’t bother to criticise her past political decisions. Instead, his campaign was largely focused on the fact that she was bossy and abrasive, with a straying husband and cold eyes. She wasn’t accused of being incompetent, ill-informed, or unreliable. She was just a nasty woman.
The backlash comes because the very qualities people need to succeed in the workplace – such as being forthright, decisive, and authoritative – are seen as traditionally male attributes. When a woman strives for a promotion or fires a bad employee, she is deviating from the social script which dictates how a woman is expected to be.
Networking and building personal relationships are far more important at the top of the pile than the bottom, which means that the likeability trap tends to affect women more as they advance in their careers. The higher someone is in the company hierarchy, the more likely they are to be criticised on the style of their leadership rather than their performance. So not only are successful women seen as less likeable due to their gender, they’re also more likely to face criticism of their character due to their high position.
The gender penalty
Under Jill Abramson, its first female executive editor, the New York Times garnered eight Pulitzer Prizes in three years. It wasn’t enough to save Abramson for being fired in 2014 for her “blunt and confrontational” management style; previous men in the role were known for throwing telephones across the newsroom in screaming rages, but never faced the same criticism.
Not all leadership styles evoke equal hostility. Research has shown that male and female leaders are seen as equally likeable when acting in a way that invites participation, for example when asking for employees’ suggestions. But when it comes to authoritative acts – like imposing an unpopular new system – then female managers lose popularity in a way that male managers don’t.
There are ways that women can make themselves seem more likable at work, through tricks like using more eye contact and always calling people by their name. But why should we have to? It’s not our responsibility to make ourselves smaller to match society’s expectations.