CHALLENGING THE LIKEABILITY-COMPETENCY TIGHTROPE
“I’m afraid people won’t like me.”
Overwhelming, the biggest barrier young woman share with me is the fear of not being liked, or, of being unlikeable. They don’t want to get people offside, don’t want to be pushy, and don’t want to be considered ‘full of themselves’. Of course, there is a place for diplomacy and humility, but women’s behaviour is heavily censored with the threat of social isolation and disapproval. We can be likeable, at the cost of our perceived competence. Or, we can be competent, but inevitably, unlikeable.
This is what we call the likeability-competency tightrope.
This double bind became well-known (to the rest of the world who were yet to experience it first-hand) through Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, citing the case of Heidi and Howard Roizen: Harvard Business School students rated Heidi as less likeable, even though Howard’s story was the exact same except for the pronouns. Interesting.
A few years ago, I had to choose whether I wanted to continue balancing on this tightrope. I was in the middle of my PhD and had been asked to work with my college’s Executive diversity rep. The rep once asked me to explain why people thought there was a gender issue in engineering, because he just ‘didn’t see it’. I could only describe him as a brick wall, he wasn’t just apathetic, he directly worked against any progress we could have made. One day, I was reflecting over my cappuccino, wondering why he was so resistant to my efforts, so of course, my thoughts immediately turned to what I could be doing wrong.
Is it me? Is it because I am not likeable enough?
Should I become more likeable?
For about 30 seconds I entertained the idea. It was only 30 seconds because when I actually thought about it, I realised I didn’t have the faintest idea of how I would become more likeable (ha!). I was also a little horrified because I had been raised to be an unapologetically strong and confident woman, and here I was worrying about being liked.
If I was going to worry about being liked, I would have wasted precious energy that could have been better spent advocating for gender equity in engineering. In this moment, I made a clear and active decision that I would focus on being good – actually, great – at what I did, because not everyone was going to like me for everything I did, and I had to be ok with that.
What strikes me is that if I hadn’t made that active decision at 24, I probably would have ended up on a very different path. I was lucky because I was well-equipped to have this conversation with myself: I had a clear vision of what I wanted to achieve, a healthy sense of confidence (which only wavered from time to time), and knowledge of this wobbly tightrope people would continuously push me on – and one that I knew, no woman could ever really master.
A few years later I found myself questioning not myself, but another woman. I was finding her unpleasant to interact with, and normally I would have escalated things to her superior. However, I couldn’t be sure of the source of my frustrations.
Was I unhappy with her behaviour because it was rude, or was it because I expected her, as a woman, to be nice and friendly?
If she were a man, would I be so offended by her communication style? To this day I am still not sure which one it was, so I never actioned my dissatisfaction, because the last thing I wanted to do was to force another woman to walk this tightrope.
This questioning has really changed how I perceive a lot of women. What was scary was how often I had to check my thinking at the start. Biased perceptions and expectations of behaviour are so insidious and subconscious that we think it is just natural, and it can be easy not to question.
But I encourage you to question this. Think about the women you live, work or play with. Who do you think are the difficult ones, the ballbreakers, the ice queens, the bitches?
Would you still think the same if they conformed to gender stereotypes of being warm, friendly, helpful and nurturing?
What about if a man behaved the same way?
Oftentimes our answers can be confronting, which is understandable. We are all the products of intensely gendered socialisation, which dictates our perceptions and resistance to women who are direct and assertive, or friendly and caring. Until we challenge these automatic (subconscious) perceptions, and share our journeys with others, women will continue to wobble (and fall) off this impossibly thin tightrope we have pushed them onto.
I look forward to the day where likeability is not the number one fear holding young women back. It is up to us to make that happen.