Why Successful Women End up on the Wrong Side of Likability


A woman colleague of mine came up to me once, and hesitatingly shared how one of her team members said that I was really good at what I did, but was also a bit shrewd. This comment came from another woman, so no surprises there. And I don’t particularly want to dwell on why my colleague thought it was a good idea to bring it up with me. I was caught off guard. I knew it wasn’t possible for everyone to like us, but I didn’t necessarily enter office every day to battle sexism from one of my own gender. I said something that was mildly defiant. For the most part, I felt upset about being dumped in the ‘she’s-excellent so-must-be-scheming’ bucket.

Since then, I’ve thankfully met many more women who find in themselves the capacity to enjoy their own and other women’s successes. I now surround myself with them, and build them up in turn. It’s a heady, virtuous cycle that has proven to me that we are capable of calling out our own biases and being better people and better professionals.

Coming back to my story from long ago, I remember saying how I didn’t consider ‘shrewd’ a bad word, and I was okay with being smart about dealing with whatever came at me on a daily basis. Not the best response, but that was my impromptu defiance. In hindsight, I felt more surprised than rebellious.

Most of us know this by now, and if we don't, then several research outcomes point to our bias that considers successful men to be intelligent, smart and competent. Whereas, women who rock at work are considered most likely scheming, bossy and a bit too smart for their own good; competent yes, but shrewd for the most part. In my observation over the years, powerful men who bred fear at work, and weren't the best leaders around, were held in appreciative awe. Even they generally did better than us on being liked. Unfortunately, not just men, but women negatively correlate success and likability about other women.

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What doesn’t help is that conscious beliefs about fairness, good judgement and objectivity can coexist with unconscious & biased ones without our realisation, at times. 

This bit of interesting info didn’t provide me much solace back then. I resented hearing what I heard, but I was even more perturbed that I was perhaps paying the price for being a competent, professional woman. I brooded about the possibility of being respected, considered competent and successful, over being nice and likable. Uncomfortable as I was, I did give it a think. Was I really doing something that I needed to set right? Was I unintentionally betraying my tribe in ways that tilted the balance of rewards in my direction, but tossed shame and embarrassment their way?

So what was I doing to have drawn this judgement? I thought about how I never competed with anyone else, I still don’t. I worked for the sake of doing great work and to feel excited about it. Work continues to be a personal and emotional experience for me. I shared our combined success and celebrated with the team. I protected and pushed them. I was gregarious, but also very single minded about goals that had my name on them. I was approachable, yet knew when to keep my distance, but felt deeply about another’s pain on important issues and when someone needed me. I could be counted on for calling out unfairness and bad ideas when most others were hell bent on agreeing with the boss or keeping silent. And I knew how to lead others and myself on most occasions. So yeah, that could be construed as shrewd, I guess. It could also mean I was in the right place, doing the right thing, because I knew how to.

My success wasn't at the expense of others, on the contrary, it was with them. I had finally found comfort and reassurance.

To decide to dislike and doubt a woman who is successful and powerful is not a sound judgment most times. It’s the unfortunate outcome of unconscious biases. We most likely mask bias under our assumed competence to make considered decisions based on instinct & how good we are at sizing others up. I include myself in being susceptible to this gender bias, so I remain alert to my own conditioning of who women can become or not.

Even the very educated, well travelled and enlightened amongst us are not completely immune to seeing women through a lens smudged with centuries of perceptions and beliefs about our (supposed) place in society. Such value judgments are far from what sound decisions are made up of. For that, we would need to wipe our lens, and that takes awareness, courage and willingness. We never know what we might see and how it may change us.

I decided that I would do what I could to call out bias, but more than that, I wouldn’t let it derail me from what I loved to do and how I did it. And neither should anyone out there who is called unpleasant names because you are so good at what you do that your success sparkles. It demands a response, and we don’t always get the one we would have chosen for someone like us. It’s not all right, so I won’t say that sexism, weather from our own gender or another, is okay. So, call out bias when you can, and gently turn others around to see how their ‘on-the-go’ judgements affect both of us in unproductive ways.

Each slight, every unfair judgement, knocks us down a bit further on a tough path women walk each day.

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To women, I would say, think hard before we bring down one of our own. We get precious moments to build each other up, give the benefit of the doubt, and ask questions when we can’t understand or don’t want to. But let’s not assume that likability and standout success is an either-or choice for any of us.

There’s ‘and’ there, and it’s up to us to keep it firmly between our success and likability. Everyone loses, even men, when we compel each other to choose between being powerful and successful and being nice.

And maybe, we need to question ourselves as women before we question anyone else, on why we aren’t where we needed to be in this world, in this decade and the next.

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