Aim for Ability, Not Likability

Brown haired woman looking at a computer screen, while her blonde haired colleague gives her advice, ability


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

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 that was conducted with a group of business students. They were given two exact case studies of a successful entrepreneur. Half the students were 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 even though students rated both Heidi and Howard as equally competent, they found Howard more likeable. Heidi, was, however, 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.”

“likability-versus-competence tradeoff”

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. 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, 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:

The Backlash Against High-Achieving Women: Challenging Gender Norms

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. When a woman acts assertively, competes, and leads decisively, she departs from expected gender norms. This deviation leads to pushback, as successful women challenge both feminine and masculine stereotypes. 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 is that Women challenging the status quo by striving for top positions face ongoing opposition, regardless of competence.

Positive Shift: Heidi/Howard Redux 2013 – Participants, though still untrusting of the female entrepreneur, found her more likable and desirable as a boss. Reasons included perceiving men as more genuine and women as trying too hard, leading to trust issues.

The answer?

As the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: “Forget About Likability”. There is something immensely liberating in letting go of likability altogether. By detaching Likability from Self-Worth: Societal expectations shape perceptions, not your abilities. Liberated from the need to please, express yourself confidently, pursue goals assertively, and strive for success. Because the answer lies not in altering ourselves, but in changing how the world views women. Instead of shrinking ourselves into the image, we should be painting the image. And we can only do that by showing them more and more examples of women leading and succeeding. 

About the author

Nour Gazarin

Nour Gazarin is a community development practitioner. Egyptian born and bread, Nour is passionate about research, writing, women’s empowerment, socio-economic equality and pizza. 


In this piece, Katy Gero discusses the benefits and setbacks of being a woman in a male-dominated workplace.