Aim for Ability, Not Likability

Why you shouldn't be apologetic about your ability, you should be proud of it.

5 min read


In a video entitled “Writing An Email As A Woman”, Buzzfeed pokes fun at the language used by a woman who is giving feedback via email on a presentation. Worried about sounding too “harsh”, the woman couches her judgement in a non-committal turn-of-phrase: “I kind of think the third slide felt sort of out of place-ish”, adding words like “maybe” and ending with “but that is just my opinion”, when suggesting the (male) presenter tries a different background. The email is also filled with smiley faces and precisely 12 exclamation marks, just so he doesn’t think she “hates him”.

In contrast, a male colleague replies without hesitation: “change the background on the third slide.”

The video – while intended as a joke – is sadly very relatable to many women and indicative of a trend that women fear sounding overconfident or assertive while voicing their opinions, so as not to be disliked. Alexandra Petri calls this “Woman in a Meeting” language, and most of us are guilty of it. This attitude tends to shape every interaction, especially in professional settings, which can have detrimental consequences for women. As Jessica Valenti puts it “women adjust their behavior to be likeable and, as a result, have less power in the world.”

Several powerful women recognise the issue of likability and have made inroads to counteract it. For instance, the idea of being or sounding “bossy” inspired Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg’s, Ban Bossy campaign and Beyonce’s infamous mantra: “I'm not bossy; I'm The Boss”. 

In her book, Lean In, Sandberg, declares, “success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.” This statement is heavily based on an experiment conducted with a group of business students who were given two exact case studies of a successful entrepreneur, with half the students given a copy including her real name Heidi, while the other half were given a copy with the male name Howard. Researchers then asked the students how they perceived the character in the case study. The results showed that, while the students rated both Heidi and Howard as equally competent, they found Howard more likeable while Heidi was described as “selfish” and not "the type of person you would want to hire or work for".  Sandberg goes on to claim that while most women are unaware of the result of such studies, we can all sense it: “in order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities and downplay our achievements, especially in the presence of others. We put ourselves down before others can.” Or as Ken Auletta puts it, "women internalize self-doubt as a form of self-defense."

Sandberg is not alone in her findings, Sylvia Hewlett highlights research that finds people prefer male bosses or leaders to female ones – not due their competency or abilities – but due to preconceived notions of the negative characteristics of female leaders. Hewlett attests: “[t]he likability-versus-competence tradeoff is arguably the most tenacious, as well as pernicious, double bind that women in leadership confront.”

One relatively recent example of this “likability-versus-competence tradeoff” is, of course, Hillary Clinton. Arguably the most qualified candidate to ever run for the position of president of the United States, she competed with and eventually lost to a less qualified man who was consistently spewing hateful rhetoric. Over the course of her campaign, Clinton had to defend her character on multiple occasions, rather than her professional abilities. The public was much less forgiving of Clinton’s personal shortcomings than those of her male counterparts, and the attacks all seemed to follow a similar trend: that she was not adhering to the gender norm. She was accused by Sanders’ campaign as trying too hard and being too ambitious, Trump called her ‘Heartless Hillary”, others accused her of being a workaholic with no hobbies; the list goes on and on. My personal favourite is how frequently she is asked to smile more by men on social media.  Because as Joanne Bamberger puts it: “after all, who can trust a commander in chief that’s all business, all the time?” Funnily enough, throughout her career, Clinton’s approval ratings amongst the public are never as high as when she is not running for office.

This Catch 22 is comically portrayed in this Saturday Night Live Skit:

Fake Hillary Clinton (played by Kate McKinnon) approaches two children while campaigning:

 HRC: Why don’t you tell your parents to vote for me, Hillary Clinton?

Kids: Aw, they don’t like you.

HRC: Why not?

Kids: I don’t know, they just don’t.

HRC: Well, what can I do moving forward to earn their vote?

Kids: Um, I think nothing cause they said they just don’t like you and, um, never will.

HRC: What a fun thing to hear for almost 20 years”

According to Marianne Cooper the lead researcher on Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In:

What is really going on, as peer reviewed studies continually find, is that high-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success – and specifically the behaviors that created that success – violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave. Women are expected to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing. Thus, if a woman acts assertively or competitively, if she pushes her team to perform, if she exhibits decisive and forceful leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she “should” behave. By violating beliefs about what women are like, successful women elicit pushback from others for being insufficiently feminine and too masculine. As descriptions like “Ice Queen,” and “Ballbuster” can attest, we are deeply uncomfortable with powerful women. In fact, we often don’t really like them.

The crux of the matter, then, is this: as long as women continue to fight for their place at the top, they are challenging the status quo of their expected behaviors, and as such will continue to face opposition regardless of their competence. While this might paint a grim picture, the good news is that when the Heidi/Howard experiment was repeated in 2013, the participants, though actually still untrusting of the female entrepreneur, they found her to be more likeable and preferable to work for. Some of the reasons cited for the lack of trust were that “men seem more genuine,” whereas women seem to be “trying too hard”, making them less trustworthy. However, an argument can be made that in the 10-year period between the two experiments, the world has increasingly seen women making it in top management and leadership roles and, as such, we’re becoming more familiar and receptive to the idea.

The answer? As the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: "Forget About Likability". There is something immensely liberating in letting go of likability altogether. By recognizing that the likability is in no way a reflection on your abilities or who you actually are, but more about society’s preconceived notions of who you ‘should’ be, you can free yourself from the burden of trying to be liked. Instead, state your opinion, assert your beliefs, voice your concerns, apply to that job, ask for the raise, fight for the promotion, run for that seat and work towards success. Because the answer lies not in altering ourselves, but in changing how the world views women. Instead of shrinking ourselves into the image they are used to, we should be painting the image. And we can only do that by showing them more and more examples of women leading and succeeding. 



Nour Gazarin is a community development practitioner. She holds an Msc in Urban Economic Development from UCL, and is currently working on a PhD exploring "The Impact of Transport Accessibility on the Socio-Economic Participation of Women Living in Informal Settlements in Cairo, Egypt". Egyptian born and bread, Nour is passionate about research, writing, women's empowerment, socio-economic equality and pizza.