Women and the ‘likeability’ trap

For many girls and women, throughout their lives, there is an emphasis on being “likeable”. “Likeability” seems to be regarded as a desirable trait, at least if you are female. Studies of workplace settings have found that using intimidation reduced the likeability of women significantly more than men, and hurt women’s performance ratings.

When women don’t conform to traditional behavioural patterns, they are often perceived negatively and seen as “unlikeable”. For example, a woman who is loud and outspoken may be labelled as “bossy”, while a man behaving in the same way is not.

From a young age boys and girls are taught to behave in certain ways and these behavioural patterns are reinforced as they grow. A study showed that children can start to understand gender roles as early as 30 months. The focus on “likeability” for girls continues into adulthood where it contributes to a range of other actions and behaviours such as women tending to apologise more than men.  Saman Shad says, ‘The reasons for why women over-apologise are usually because we don’t want to seem threatening – we don’t want to seem like we are offending, and we don’t want to come across as aggressive. In essence, we want to be liked and want to seem nice. Men are not fed messages from when they are boys that they need to be suppliant, likeable, and non-threatening. Men are mostly taught to win and achieve at all cost.’

This emphasis on not speaking up has far-reaching consequences and can be evident even in cases of abuse as Amy Gray writes. ‘In…Quarterly Essay, Anna Goldsworthy wrote on sex, freedom and misogyny – with every incident where a woman was verbally or physically abused, those who didn’t speak up were commended for being “tough”, “being a good sport” or “she gets on with it”. The message [is] that we reward girls and women for not speaking up…’

It isn’t just a question of women taking other people’s feelings into account. It’s about the damage that can be caused by constantly and consistently putting the opinions and perceptions of others, including men, before their own.

If women are always focused on being “likeable”, this prevents them from being true to themselves and their own opinions. One strong advocate for women remaining true to themselves is author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. At the Girls Write Now awards ceremony in 2015 Adichie said, ‘I think that what our society teaches young girls…is that idea that likeability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likeable, that you’re supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t quite say, don’t be too pushy, because you have to be likeable. And I say that’s bullshit.’

The negative impacts of focusing on being seen as likeable are particularly evident in professional life. As an example, women are less likely than men to ask for a raise and they are more likely than men to be perceived negatively if they do.

Another way a focus on being “likeable” can disadvantage a woman’s career in the long term is if women consistently back down from their opinions or avoiding saying things which others could disagree with. This may prevent them from advancing their careers and progressing to leadership roles, roles which may require giving leeway on occasion, but which are also likely to demand making unpopular decisions.

Even when women make it to executive positions, they are still suffering from the double-standards used to judge their behaviour. In 2014, Jill Abramson was fired from The New York Times. She was their first female executive editor and was fired ‘…because of complaints from employees that she was polarizing and mercurial’ rather than for her standard of work. As Alison Dahl Crossley writes, ‘Abramson’s firing calls attention to a familiar phenomenon: the likability penalty. The more competent a woman is, the less likable she is judged to be. The opposite also holds true: the more likable a woman is, the less competent.’

This focus on “likeability” and “being liked” is all about how women are perceived and judged by others, rather than being free to be true to themselves and behave according to their own character and opinions. It might seem that whatever way you behave as a woman, you can’t win. However, maybe it’s best to do as Adichie says, and ‘…forget about likeability…the world is such a wonderful, diverse, and multifaceted place that there’s somebody who’s going to like you; you don’t need to twist yourself into shapes.’

Image: Alondra Olivas


Jess - Bio PicJessica Sheather-Neumann is the organiser of a writers group in Canberra with over 50 members. She reads and writes young adult novels and has been published in First, the University of Canberra’s creative writing magazine. She has a Graduate Certificate in Editing and Publishing. You can find her on Twitter @ReadingJessica.


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