“I just don’t like her.”
If you’ve had any discussions about the U.S. presidential election in the past few months — and if you haven’t, please tell us your secret — you’ve probably heard someone say these words about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Maybe you’ve even said them yourself. The challenge, of course, is to figure out what they mean. What is it to be likable … and why do powerful women always seem to fall short of that mark?
Are Powerful Women Unlikable?
“As a man gets more successful, he is better liked by men and women, and as a woman gets more successful, she is less liked by men and women,” wrote Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In, and science backs up her assertion.
Research has shown that women pay a social penalty for attempting to negotiate salary or for being successful in stereotypically male careers. In fact, the very behaviors that lead to success — confidence, assertiveness, decisiveness — are often considered masculine. A woman who exhibits them might well find herself branded unfeminine and unlikable.
At Harvard Business Review, Stanford sociologist and lead researcher for Lean In Marianne Cooper explains:
…peer reviewed studies continually find … 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.
Of course, if women don’t exhibit leadership traits, they won’t become leaders. No one is going to hire a CEO who makes them feel warm and fuzzy, or elect a president who seems sweet. For women, it often seems that there’s no way to win.
When the Game Is Rigged, Play a Different Game
During the 2008 primary race, President Obama famously dubbed Hillary Clinton “likable enough.” That backhanded compliment became emblematic of Clinton’s problem winning over voters. Elections are, at least in part, a popularity contest — and Clinton wound up painted as 2008’s Tracy Flick.
Obama went on to win the election, offering Clinton the role of Secretary of State, which she accepted. Those who were surprised by her decision, which as The New York Times pointed out made her “the public face to the world for the man who dashed her own hopes for the presidency,” weren’t paying attention. It’s no accident that Clinton wound up being (in the words of the Times’ endorsement some eight years later), “one of the most broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in modern history.”
Hillary Clinton is not someone who’s ever wasted time feeling sorry for herself. She’s too busy building her resume. As a result, she’s now the first female major-party presidential nominee in U.S. history — and widely favored to win the presidency. This is despite the fact that she is one of the most disliked nominees in election history.
Hillary Clinton doesn't waste time feeling sorry for herself. She’s busy building her resume.
Clinton herself gave the best explanation of her approach during the Iowa Town Hall, when an audience member asked why millennial voters don’t have “the same enthusiasm” for her as they did for Bernie Sanders.
“You know look, I’ve been around a long time,” she said. “People have thrown all kinds of things at me. And you know I can’t keep up with it. I just keep going forward. They fall by the wayside. They come up with these outlandish things. They make these charges. I just keep going forward because there’s nothing to it. They throw all this stuff at me and I’m still standing.”
At the end of the day, leaders don’t need to be liked — they need to be respected. If you find yourself in Hillary Clinton’s shoes in your career, stymied by unconscious bias that says a woman can’t be likable and powerful at the same time, follow her lead. Keep going forward. Build your experience and your resume. Remember that being able to solve problems and lead the organization toward success is what matters.
Likability may follow, or it may not. Either way, you’ll be too busy to care.
Tell Us What You Think
Do you think likability matters? Tell us your thoughts in the comments, or join the conversation on Twitter.
Featured Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr