My oldest daughter – let’s call her Marge – likes to be in charge. Aged 8, and with three younger siblings, you’d think she had ample outlet for her leadership ambitions. But no. She still likes to organise her friends, her Sylvanian Families collection, even her parents. She is often urged by her father and me to try to be a bit less bossy. But how, I sometimes wonder, would we feel if our second-born, a son, acted in the same way? Would we worry that he would be viewed as too domineering – or simply admire his leadership skills?
Sheryl Sandberg, the high-flying chief operating officer of Facebook, reckons she knows the answer. Back in 2013, Sandberg first asserted that natural born female leaders suffer a “likeability penalty” that begins in childhood – and in the five years since, we’ve been noticing and debating the phenomenon. “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader’,” Sandberg has said as part of a campaign to ban the word “bossy” from our collective vocabulary. “Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy’. Words like bossy send a message: don’t speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood.” Simply put, Sandberg’s “likeability penalty” asserts that women face social penalties for acting in the very way that leads to power and success. They may be applauded for delivering results, but then branded as “too aggressive”, “out for herself”, “difficult” or “abrasive”.
Professor Hannah Piterman, from Deakin University, says leadership and power are intrinsically linked: you can’t be an effective leader without power. Yet women who are seen as too ambitious or power-hungry have been pilloried by society throughout the ages. “Women are ‘bossy’, ‘pushy’, ‘shrill’ and ‘ball breakers’ if they step up to take on a leadership position, so they have to find a way of becoming a leader without being seen as trying to grab on to the power that is embodied in that position,” Professor Piterman says. “Then, of course, they are called ‘manipulative or ‘conniving’ when they try to navigate around this power issue.”
“The moment a woman steps forward and says, ‘I’m running for office,’ it begins: the analysis of her face, her body, her voice, her demeanor; the diminishment of her stature, her ideas, her accomplishments, her integrity.”
Take Hillary Clinton, for example. As Secretary of State – a role for which she was chosen by a man and served competently – she had an approval rating of 66 per cent. But as soon as she ran for President and embodied the combative nature of that pursuit, she was deemed more unlikeable and less relateable than Donald Trump. In her 2017 memoir, What Happened, Clinton laments the double bind facing female leaders. “If we’re too tough, we’re unlikable. If we’re too soft, we’re not cut out for the big leagues,” she writes. “If we work too hard, we’re neglecting our families. If we put family first, we’re not serious about work. If we have a career but no children, there’s something wrong with us, and vice versa. If we want to compete for higher office, we’re too ambitious. Can’t we just be happy with what we have? Can’t we leave the higher rungs on the ladder for men?” Over the past two decades, multiple studies have shown that success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. This means that as men get more successful and powerful, both men and women like them better. As women get more powerful and successful, people of both genders like them less.
The pre-eminent study occurred in 2003 at the Columbia Business School in New York, where half of a group of students was presented with the real-life case study of Heidi Roizen, a successful technology entrepreneur. It included statements like “outgoing personality … and vast personal and professional network [that] included many of the most powerful business leaders in the technology sector”. The other half of the students were presented with an identical case study, only with the name “Heidi” switched to “Howard”. When both groups were asked who they’d like to work with, Howard was considered vastly more appealing than Heidi, whom the students felt would not be “the type of person you would want to hire or work for”. Heidi was perceived as “selfish,” “out for herself,” and “a little political” – in short, not as likeable as Howard.
“There’s plenty of research now that people tend to correlate likeability and leadership in men, but tend to think of female leaders as pretty hard-boiled, and must’ve scratched and clawed to get there…and so they’re not very nice,” former Prime Minister Julia Gillard lamented in an exclusive interview with Fairfax Media in January. Hillary Clinton agrees. “It’s not easy to be a woman in politics,” she writes in What Happened. “That’s an understatement. It can be excruciating, humiliating. The moment a woman steps forward and says, ‘I’m running for office,’ it begins: the analysis of her face, her body, her voice, her demeanor; the diminishment of her stature, her ideas, her accomplishments, her integrity. It can be unbelievably cruel.”
Best Of Future Women
Your inbox just got smarter
If you’re not a member, sign up to our newsletter to get the best of Future Women in your inbox.