Being Liked vs. Being Respected: Why is This a Choice?
Is it better to be liked or respected?
It should be incredibly easy to answer that question. It’s better to be respected, right? Being liked is for wimps and approval hogs. Did General Patton ever worry about whether his men liked him? Does our new president, Donald Trump, spend his nights fretting about his likeability?
Of course not. Successful people don’t concern themselves with such frippery.
But, for women, the answer is far more complex. Our success is deeply interlaced with our likeability. As Marianne Cooper, the lead researcher for Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, wrote in a fantastic Harvard Business Review article, the more successful a woman is, the less likeable she is.
She cites “decades of social science research” showing “that women face distinct social penalties for doing the very things that lead to success.”
Because success is an important indicator of how much one is respected in her field, we’ll let “success” stand in for “respect” for the purposes of this column.
The problem is, the character traits required to be successful – strong leadership, decisiveness and the willingness to make tough calls – aren’t considered feminine. So women who exhibit those traits run headlong into the gender bias briar patch.
When we act feminine (nurturing, compassionate, self-effacing, etc.), we get walked over, we don’t get credit for our work and we miss out on promotions, raises, etc. But when we exhibit traits considered more masculine – the ones associated with successful leaders – those around us are put off because we don’t conform to their expectations.
True, there are women who have achieved great heights of success, but even they will tell you that they have had to dance backward and in heels to get there. Exuding both “warmth” and “strength” is a tough combination.
How many times during the most recent presidential campaign did we hear about Hillary Clinton’s “likeability problem”? I lost count of the number of stories that recited the fact that she was the “second least-liked major party nominee in history.” It didn’t seem to matter that the least-liked major party nominee in history was her opponent, Donald Trump. For reasons political scientists will be picking over for generations, the historically unlikeable Trump bested Clinton (in the Electoral College, at least).
One of the things I’ve learned after 30+ years of being a lawyer is that behavior that is ignored or even applauded in men is viewed negatively when it is exhibited by women. Just a few months ago, I was informed that some people I was working with were going to vote against me on a particular project. The reason was that being a “strong, smart woman” didn’t work in my favor.
“Strong” and “smart” were seen as negatives. Who knew?
What’s most heartbreaking about gender bias is that men aren’t the only ones doing it. Women hold biased views against women almost as much as men do. Even worse, most such bias is unconscious, so the people who are guilty of it don’t even know they’re doing it, which makes it next to impossible to overcome.
So what do we do? How can we, as women, stop butting our heads up against gender bias? How can we be more concerned with being respected than being liked?
First, we need to become aware of our own unconscious biases. Do you expect a level of intimacy and friendship from your female bosses that you would never expect from your male bosses? Do you hold it against a woman when she behaves in a way that wouldn’t be held against a man? Question your own assumptions, first.
Second, call it out when you see it on TV or around you. It doesn’t have to be directed at a loved one or even someone in your immediate sphere. Simply pointing out a word or a phrase on TV or in a news story and saying “Isn’t it funny that Madonna is criticized for being ambitious, but I never see male artists criticized for that.” Or, “Wow, I love how a woman politician is called ‘shrill’ or a ‘ballbuster’ for doing the same kinds of things male politicians have been doing for centuries.”
Call it out when it’s done in your office (or home). If a colleague makes a comment about a female colleague that you believe exhibits bias, point it out gently. Chances are, that person doesn’t even realize he or she has shown bias.
Don’t ignore bias in young people. When kids and teens use biased language, find a way to open a dialogue with them about their assumptions. Even commonly accepted phrases like “you throw like a girl!” exhibit bias. (One of my favorite YouTube videos ever, an ad by Always, illustrates this perfectly. And, no, I’m not on the payroll of the feminine protection industry.) Kids are more open to questioning their assumptions than adults are, and as any parent can tell you, they’re adults before we can catch our breath.
Talk up your female colleagues. One of my favorite news stories last year involved the concept of “amplification” by the female staffers in the Obama White House. Here it is in a nutshell (as reported by the Washington Post):
When President Obama took office, two-thirds of his top aides were men. Women complained of having to elbow their way into important meetings. And when they got in, their voices were sometimes ignored.
So female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called “amplification”: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.
“We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it. It was an everyday thing,” said one former Obama aide who requested anonymity to speak frankly. Obama noticed, she and others said, and began calling more often on women and junior aides.
These are just a few suggestions. There are a million more ways to help combat bias in our midst. If you have any, please feel free to share them with me and we’ll include them in a future column.
We shouldn’t have to choose between being liked and being respected. Women – like men – should have the option of being respected regardless of whether we’re liked.