Likeability Bias: Why we don’t promote women

In the Netherlands, as in most countries in the world, women make up the majority of the population at 50.4% but only hold 11.7% of board level positions and 24.9% of management roles. This situation is reflected across most developed countries. There are many complicated reasons for this, and likeability bias is one of them.

We like successful women less.

We promote people we like. This makes sense – we want to get along with the people we are working with. The challenge is that when women display leadership skills, we like them less. A little girl who tells her friends what to do will be told off for being ‘bossy’. A wife who asks her husband if he was done a task is told that she is ‘nagging’. Both ‘nagging’ and being ‘bossy’ have strong negative connotations – but telling others what to do and ensuring action items are completed are necessary behaviours for leaders. And here lies the problem.

We are conditioned by society to expect women to display communal behaviours. They are expected to be sympathetic, sensitive, supportive, responsible, friendly, and nurturing. Male gender-stereotyped behaviour is based on displaying agency – being competitive, adventurous, forceful, dominant, and able to withstand pressure. Recent Pew research showed that both men and women perceive male stereotype behaviours in women as negative traits, whereas they are seen more positively in men.

We expect leaders to be self-confident, assertive, problem solvers who inspire others. These traits map more closely to male behaviours, and when displayed by women this cognitive dissonance causes us to evaluate female leaders more harshly than their male colleagues. In a now-famous example, Professor Frank Flynn of Columbia Business School gave out two variations of the same Harvard case study to his students. The case study explained how Heidi Roizen built an extremely successful career as a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Half the class were given the original case study with Heidi’s name on it, while the other half received the same case study – but with the name changed to Howard. Professor Flynn asked students to fill in an online survey after reading the case, and he reports that “Although they think she’s just as competent and effective as Howard, they don’t like her, they wouldn’t hire her, and they wouldn’t want to work with her.”

This is called ‘likeability bias’: when women assert themselves, they are liked less. Since we promote people we like, this can prevent women from progressing in their careers. If women don’t assert themselves, they are often seen as weak and not leadership material. In both situations women will find it harder to advance their career. And, it is important to remember that both men and women display this bias against women.

How can we overcome this?

Overcoming likeability bias involves changing our gender stereotypes, which could take several generations. In the meantime, our daughters and sisters are entering the workforce, so what can we do to improve the situation for women in our network?

Be your sister’s voice

One of the ways you can help your female colleagues is to tell others about their great ideas and work. Women pay a penalty for asserting themselves so they need they male and female allies across the organisation to speak for them.

When women talk about their achievements, their future vision, and their capabilities, they may simply not be heard. Self-promotion is not an expected female trait and our brains are great at ignoring things that don’t fit our expectations. However, women discussing others (‘gossiping’) is seen as normal female behaviour and therefore people ‘hear’ it. Women can take advantage of this by talking about the amazing results and brilliant ideas their female colleagues have delivered. Women can speak for each other.

And, as my mother always told me, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”. Negative gossiping between women will also be ‘heard’ in the organisation – your colleague has enough battles to face without you adding to her troubles.

Mind your language

Be aware of the words you use to describe the behaviour of a female colleague. There are many words that we only use in a negative context for women – words like feisty, bitchy, bossy, shrill, hormonal, and nagging. Consider whether you would use the same term to describe the same behaviour in a man. If you wouldn’t, choose another word.

Challenge your colleagues if you hear them using these terms, often they may never have thought about the implications. Ask them whether they would use that word to describe male behaviour. Be aware that your female colleagues are just as likely as your male colleagues to be guilty of this.

For more information about how to support women in the workplace, visit the lean-in website.

Share your experiences

Have you been affected by likeability bias in your career? What have you done to help female colleagues overcome likeability bias in your workplace? Join the conversation, and leave a comment below.

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