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.

Related article: When one of us loses out, we all lose out, and what to do about it

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.

Latest Article: Is Confidence all Women Need, and What Lies Beyond

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.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also find these useful. If you want to be notified of my newest articles, then Follow me on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

Why work-life balance doesn't work for women, and what might instead


On the topic of balance, here’s an interesting snapshot of my life. I am currently engaged with two work assignments that unexpectedly came my way within the same fortnight (and I felt like saying yes to both projects, so I did), there are a few volunteer causes that I am committed to and devote time, and then there’s a new business I began that I am invested in for the long-term. Most weeks, I visit and work out of three offices, meet and get to know at least two new people in the course of work, and have a minimum of one catch-up outside of work with someone I want to stay in touch with, if not more. What I do over weekends is of course outside of this.

Then there are the odd jobs around the house that can’t be avoided. Right now I am trying to wiggle in some time to paint, because I know I can, and it will happen soon. Not to mention the pesky part of having to exercise and eat right. Which reminds me, I manage to catch MasterChef Australia on most days, even if it’s a recording! Yes, I am one of those who love it for years now, gimmicks and all (don’t agree with Brian’s ouster this week, what a terrible pressure test, loved the edible art installations though).

For all those sailing in the same boat, you know there’s much more than the roles we play; there’s the in-between stuff that is hard to pin down, but takes up time anyway. 

In all of this, I am a daughter and a daughter-in-law, wife, mentor, friend, colleague, writer and an excitable and enthusiastic hostess who loves to have people over and cook for them. I am sure you have your roles to play, too.

Related Article: Why it's a bad idea for women to choose between success and likability

In the midst of this action, most of which is willingly attracted by me, the phrase work-life balance doesn’t add up. I don’t know what exactly it’s supposed to mean, especially for women.

What does the right balance look like? Is there an example I can follow? I’ve not done so well in the past trying to balance life. So I refuse to feel guilty about something that I don’t even get the logic of. What I do recognise is the importance of a sense of wellbeing, gratitude, love, happiness, busy-ness and a thriving network that makes me feel energised at the end of the day, tired at times, but energised and upbeat in my head. Which is why I don’t often feel or use words like ‘insane’, ‘crazy’ and ‘stressed-out’. I do feel the presence of balance without my time being divided in to pre-determined portions amongst all the parts I love to call life, if that’s what it might mean.

The word balance does skew the conversation for us though. Irrespective of what it might really mean, balance bubbles up a picture of us smoothly and gracefully moving from one part of life to another, one role to another with compartments that can be made exclusive from each other. To have enviable time management at all times, and have hard stops and clear boundaries in all roles. That’s a superhuman quality that I most certainly don’t possess.

So, I’ve chosen to redefine work-life balance for myself by taking the word balance out of it and replacing it with ‘connectedness’.

Work-life connectedness works much better for me. It conjures a picture that helps see my time and life as a series of interlinked opportunities I can be in and out of, opportunities to serve, help, mentor, love, care, be passionate, enjoy the rewards of my labour and live life the best I know how. In the realm of connectedness my roles overlap, I choose better and have clarity on what is meant for me and what isn't, I shift with moving priorities, yet give my attention to who’s in front of me and what I can do with that opportunity to connect. In the world of connectedness my boundaries are permeable, I give myself the permission to bend my own rules if the situation or the person calls for it. We are here to serve, not set down hard lines that make it tough to do so.

While I am fully present where ever I am in that moment, it doesn’t mean I won’t slip into another role within the next 10 mins if that’s what becomes important to do. I find connectedness a goal that is more human and achievable, more integrated with this pulsating, exciting world we live in. Connectedness feels more mindful and a more resilient way of life while doing most of what I love to do. Balance must feel like that, but I wouldn’t know.

If you were looking for another word for making work-life balance really work for you, then some tips I am sharing here might help. Do let me know what you think. Work-life connectedness can be achieved through a few actions taken consistently, done with love and attention and with the intent of being better than whom we were yesterday or even today morning.

1. Practice gratitude ~ Every morning, let the first act be one of gratefulness. Even before you open your eyes and get out of bed. Think of three things that immediately come to your mind that you may feel blessed about. It readies you for connectedness as others experience the energy around you is one of inclusivity and kindness. Carry on a sense of gratitude as you move about the house and get breakfast or take care of those at home. Think ‘thank you’ at every step, quite literally. Step into opportunities to feel how good life is right now, without thinking of what you don’t have or can’t get or have lost already. There is enough and more to say thank you for, so make your morning about being grateful.

2. Give first ~ I intend to write a longer article on this, and here’s a summary. When we meet someone at home, at work and in our community – let’s look for what we can give, before we ask for what we need. Giving is powerful. Giving gets us way more than asking alone might. Giving is not a sacrifice because we give of ourselves mindfully. Giving and serving last longer and create a stronger sense of community and connection than when we receive. Think of the last time you chased down something you really wanted, and then how quickly the excitement passed. Giving is a different energy, it vibrates at a level that provides sustainable happiness, a sense of wellbeing and joy that is hard to maintain otherwise. Joy feeds into the feeling that we are leading our lives in a way that is healthy for us and for those around us.

3. See opportunities, not work ~ Work has always been a series of opportunities for me. Irrespective of what our role description says, at the end of the day, it’s what we make of our role that matters the most, even to the boss. It feels more efficient and effective to see chunks of work as opportunities to do what we love to do, or what we have to do on some days, to get to what we love. Opportunities make it easier to get through a day that could easily have become tedious, slowing us down and taking more time than it deserved. Opportunities also feel finite and exciting, so one day doesn’t mindlessly roll over into another. Each day is a set of new opportunities. I don’t mind if this is just a mental game, it’s a game that works!

4. Be a connector ~ I have some amazing connectors in my life to learn from. Every day, I think about what and how I can help create connections that are gratifying for me, and those around me. This can involve a simple act of returning an email on time or asking how someone’s day was, and then listening. Maybe, offering to have a cup of tea or coffee with a person who can do with a conversation or if I could do with a conversation, either way, it helps to connect. I find joy in providing people information that can help them find something or point them in a direction that provides hope and energy. I need that too, and I always appreciate it if someone connects me to clarity and hope on days I need it the most.

5. Be where it is most important to be ~ This is a tough one for most of us. We can’t be everywhere, which is where work-life balance takes a bad turn; being absent causes feelings of guilt, of being inadequate or selfish and careless. Strong and negative emotions sweep us further away from any sense of connection and wellbeing. Which means, saying no, and gently letting people know why that great idea isn’t my priority right now and they might be able to find someone much better than me. This frees up time that would have otherwise got locked in a false sense of obligation and fear that I might lose that relationship if I said no. I still end up saying yes more often than you might imagine with this strategy.

Some days, I need to connect with myself, and that becomes my top priority. I know connectedness begins within and with oneself, and so must balance, I believe.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also find these useful. If you want to be notified of my newest articles, then Follow me here on LinkedIn and on Twitter.