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.

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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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My top 6 TED Talks for Women on the Path to Being Themselves


I’ve watched most of these TED Talks more than once, at times on my own and sometimes in company of those around me. I’ve always found a new perspective or an epiphany that hadn't come to me earlier. I’ve applied ideas and insights from each of these, and in turn, the new behaviours have helped me on my path to becoming more myself and of being in service to what I love to do. Success and influence follow from there.

Confession: Shed a tear while watching almost all of them, sometimes out of sentimentality and because it touched a sore spot. At times because it was so profound that the sheer joy of being able to comprehend something I hadn’t been able to articulate, even to myself, was so great. And at times because it was just a happy thing to watch someone else share a part of them so candidly.

Would love to hear your suggestions on what more we can listen to that left an impression on you. Do leave a comment if you find the time.

Click on each title below to view the TED Talk video.

1. Why Should You Talk to Strangers | Kio Stark

Sneak Peek: "When you talk to strangers, you're making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life - and theirs," says Kio Stark. In this delightful talk, Stark explores the overlooked benefits of pushing past our default discomfort when it comes to strangers and embracing those fleeting but profoundly beautiful moments of genuine connection, of being seen, of being worthy of being listened to and taken notice of. 

My take away: Loved this talk and found it profoundly moving. It’s been liberating to not function out of my innate human and social fear of talking to strangers. Most times, I realise that I can’t find a solid reason to shun the person and not talk to them. These fleeting conversations have been reciprocal and connectedness and mutual benefits have arisen when I least expected - all because I questioned my hesitation to say hello and smile and the other person was generous enough to respond.

2. Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are | Amy Cuddy

Sneak Peek: Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Could it be so significant that what our bodies say to us could change the direction of our life? Social psychologist Amy Cuddy thinks so and shows how "power posing" or standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don't feel confident, can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success. The talk grows on you and becomes more meaningful as it progresses.

My take away: I do believe what we say to ourselves is far more important than what anyone else in the whole wide world could say to us. Yet, which one of us has lived a life and not dealt with negative self-talk and fear. I loved the idea of ‘fake it till you become it’. As women, feeling like the fraud in the room is a fairly common feeling. Even for the most accomplished, the 'I-don’t-really-belong-here' feeling creeps up on us. Confidence has little to do with intelligence, street smarts or education. It’s the irrational thought of being found out that often keeps us away from where we belong and what we absolutely deserve to have. I am becoming whom I believe I am meant to be.

3. The Power of Vulnerability | Brene Brown

Sneak Peek: Brené Brown studies human connection — our ability to empathise, belong and love wholeheartedly. To love and open ourselves up to others in spite of having gone through tragedy, heartbreak and suffering in our lives. In a poignant, funny talk, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity. A talk to share.

My take away: This one had deeply affected me. I grew up knowing and learning that what happened at home was to stay within the family; even friends were not supposed to know if we were in need or worried about our future. I grew up to be very protective, therefore, and sharing my feelings came to me much later in life. Being vulnerable is liberating, scary and also opens up avenues to connect with our world in ways that would otherwise have stayed out of reach. I am so much better now at letting those who care about me know that I am not okay and I need help or I am in pain. It’s still scary sometimes, but I am getting there.

4. Teach Girls Bravery, not Perfection | Reshma Saujani

Sneak Peek: We're raising our girls to be perfect, and we're raising our boys to be brave, says Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code. Saujani has taken up the charge to socialise young girls to take risks and learn to program — two skills they need to move society forward. To truly innovate, we cannot leave behind half of our population, she says. "I need each of you to tell every young woman you know to be comfortable with imperfection."

My take away: As a recovering perfectionist, this hit home for sure. Was amazing to listen to someone articulate this so beautifully and powerfully. We may know this, but we don’t talk about it, much less practice it. I’ve cared for perfectionism even more than I have cared about looking beautiful – and that’s saying a lot being a woman! I am so much more comfortable with being imperfect and letting those around me know and realise that. I ask for help, therefore, and accept it more gracefully than I would have some years ago. I know I am whole and fulfilled; I don’t need to be perfect to feel that way. Those are two different things.

5. My Year of Saying Yes to Everything | Shonda Rhimes

Sneak Peek: Shonda Rhimes, the titan behind Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, is responsible for some 70 hours of television per season, and she loves to work. "When I am hard at work, when I am deep in it, there is no other feeling," she says. She has a name for this feeling: The hum. The hum is a drug, the hum is music, the hum is God's whisper in her ear. But what happens when it stops? Is she anything besides the hum? In this moving talk, join Rhimes on a journey through her "year of yes" and find out how she got her hum back.

My take away: I had posted this to my LinkedIn profile early this year. And this year indeed has been one of saying ‘yes’ for me. I’ve said yes to things that an older version of me would never have. I’ve taken chances, questioned my own beliefs and challenged my likes and dislikes to include more of this world and its people. The results have been most gratifying so far. I’ve met people I never would have otherwise. I've received opportunities I never would have otherwise. Most importantly, my world is so much more inclusive now than before.

6. Your Elusive Creative Genius | Elizabeth Gilbert

Sneak Peek: "Eat, Pray, Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses - and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person "being" a genius, all of us "have" a genius. It's a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk. She also talks about how success affects us in ways that flings us further away from the creativity that put us in the spotlight to begin with, and how to get back to that grounded place which serves as the wellspring of all our genius and creativity.

My take away: Surprisingly enjoyable. For the longest time, I had avoided clicking on this TED Talk because I’d never finished the book ‘Eat, Pray, Love' and didn’t much enjoy the movie version of it either. I am so glad I got over my reservation and watched this talk. Loved the idea of how success can be its own worst enemy, and that irrespective of brickbats or bouquets, our supreme responsibility is to come back to our core competence, our creative genius – one that keeps us grounded. It helped me understand why success in my career had at times left me feeling a bit flat when I should have been most clued in and upbeat. Insightful and touching.

Hope you enjoy this compilation and gain from it as I have. Would love to hear your suggestions on what more we can listen to that left an impression on you. Add to the list!

*Sneak Peeks and TED Talk links picked from Youtube


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