Can women be powerful and likable at the same time? I like to think most people would answer: Yes, of course! However, it seems that as women enter positions of authority and influence, they are held to a different standard of likability. This double standard acts as a glass ceiling for women and stands as an obstacle toward realizing the gender equality that is the goal of International Women’s Day.
The issue of gender and likability is making headlines now as a record number of women declare their candidacy for the 2020 presidential race. Female candidates are scrutinized for qualities like tone of voice (not to mention appearance) in a way that men are not. Research into voter attitudes shows that women perceived as ambitious receive less favorable ratings, while ambitious men suffer no such penalty.
Studies in a corporate setting report a similar pattern. When asked to evaluate the hypothetical onboarding of a new manager, volunteers evaluated a high-powered woman as more unlikable than a man with identical qualities and background. Interestingly, those biases are held by both men and women.
The competency double-bind
The likability catch-22 is closely related to a phenomenon that has received a good deal of study in the business world. Especially in male-dominated fields, perceptions of women pit likability and competence against one another as if they were mutually exclusive.
As an influential report by the nonprofit Catalyst summarized the problem, “Women leaders are perceived as competent or liked, but rarely both.”
We need to reset our attitudes about women, power, competence, and likability.
Likability and equal pay
These double standards have real consequences for women trying to bridge the gender pay gap. A wealth of research shows that women who assert themselves in asking for pay raises often incur a penalty or backlash for doing so.
Moreover, as the interview or promotion process proceeds—once their credentials have already been screened—women are evaluated more for personal qualities than for their competencies. The same does not hold for men.
Keep the focus on skills and strengths
As an executive coach, I believe firmly in the strength-based approach espoused by positive psychology. I also encourage my clients to incorporate that philosophy into their leadership style. You get the best results with employees when you start with their strengths and work to broaden and deepen them.
A strengths-based approach may be an effective strategy to overcoming gender bias in the workplace as well. When we focus on a person’s capacity and potential, we are less likely to lapse into gender-based assumptions.
Organizational procedures around hiring and evaluations can also be reshaped around skills rather than personality. Google found that structured interviews built on work sample tests went a long way toward eliminating gender bias.
The Center for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership at Stanford has used skills-based checklists and scorecards to improve pay equity. At one company, gender-based judgments (such as women being “too aggressive” or men being “too soft”) disappeared almost entirely.
The theme for International Women’s Day this year is “Better the balance, better the world.” We can make progress toward greater gender balance in politics and business by changing the way we talk and think about women and work.
When the conversation focuses on potential and capacity, on skills and strengths, we short-circuit unconscious bias. This approach is not only a path to gender equality, but a healthier way to interact with employees and colleagues. We are all evolving beings, full of promise. Our world is better off when we view one another through that lens.
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Published on Forbes on Mar. 8, 2019.