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Navigating the Success/Likability Paradox

Women must be liked to succeed but are seen as less likable when they do.

I woke up recently to an unanticipated, glowing book review. I was thrilled! My first instinct was to share it with my husband and family, but instead, I posted it on social media.

This was in reaction to two interactions I had had the week before: my dad wondered aloud if me sharing my accomplishments with our family might make my brother feel bad, and my husband suggested I was too self-focused and only cared about my book and podcasts (despite me constantly juggling work and home without allowing the book or podcasts to seep into family time).

The feedback hurt. A lot. Especially coming from the two most important men in my life. My dad was coming from a well-intentioned place: he’d been worried about my brother who had been going through a rough patch. My husband was frustrated about what should have been an unrelated misunderstanding, and he lashed out and then later apologized.

Maybe these two incidents were inconsequential, apropos of nothing. Or maybe they are examples of what Alicia Menendez describes in her groundbreaking book, The Likability Trap. Menendez, an award-winning journalist, examines the impossible catch-22 women find themselves in: to succeed, women must be likable, but likable women are seen as less competent, and the more successful and competent a woman becomes, the less she is seen as likable. Something about me grasping for the golden ring, possibly reaching it, and openly sharing it registered as problematic in the eyes of the men closest to me—though I’m quite sure they were unaware of it.

Source: Amazon

When I was in graduate school, a supervisor scolded me for laughing too loudly. I was in a back area with my fellow students, nowhere near the clients we saw in our outpatient anxiety clinic. Shortly thereafter, the same person admonished me for not smiling enough.

How often do you hear men receive feedback about their facial expressions or laughter? Or get asked to tone it down when they share their accomplishments? Women deal with this type of thing all. the. time. Menendez would call this the Goldilocks conundrum: that laugh is too hot, that facial expression is too cold—and for women, it’s nearly impossible to find the space that is just right.

I have found myself painfully aware of this conundrum as I’ve been navigating the complexities of launching my book Be Mighty: A Woman’s Guide to Liberation from Anxiety, Worry, and Stress Using Mindfulness and Acceptance. Authors are expected to do the majority of their own marketing and publicity. This means creating public author pages on Facebook and LinkedIn, joining relevant conversations on Twitter and Instagram, announcing upcoming podcast and bookstore appearances, and soliciting Amazon and Goodreads reviews from readers. Opting out means your book will be DOA—dead on arrival.

But many writers are introverted, and many of us live in cultures where women are encouraged to be modest, agreeable, and unassuming. Couple this with the research that unequivocally demonstrates that women are punished for being too assertive (especially women of color), and you have an unmistakable damned if you do, damned if you don’t dilemma.

When I really marinate on it, I can feel pretty helpless. How are we ever going to dull this razor-sharp, double-edged sword? While I by no means have all the answers, I do think there are steps we can take to try to move the needle in the right direction.

1. Become a keen observer.

Read Menendez’s book, follow female leaders and women who care about gender issues on social media, subscribe to blogs and podcasts that empower women. Notice your own behavior—where do you find yourself trying too hard to be likable at the expense of success? Where do you fall into the trap of judging women negatively as they become more successful? Where might you find opportunities to share women's successes?

2. Find your voice and start talking.

I don’t consider myself an expert and even questioned whether I’m the “right” person to write this blog. But I told my Inner Imposter to pipe down and I wrote it anyway. You can express yourself too, in whatever form works for you.

You might start by sharing posts and articles you encounter as a result of step 1 above. If you feel intimidated, consider talking with your kids, your nieces and nephews, or other young people. They are sponges who love to learn and what better way to change the future than by creating a generation of little people who care about gender equality?

3. Connect with and mobilize your tribe.

There is hope, inspiration, and power in numbers. Join or create groups with people who care about gender equality. I belong to the women’s SIGs (special interest groups) in two of the professional organizations I belong to and recently joined a local mastermind group of other professional moms. Interacting with these women in meetings, on listservs, and in social media groups makes me feel hopeful and brave. I learn SO much from them and my willingness to let go of likability in service of success increases knowing they have my back. They also give me the opportunity to celebrate the many successes of other women (and my own too!). We can all raise each other up and model what we want to see by sharing each other’s successes with the world.

4. Call people in.

When you see the success/likability paradox in real-time, consider pointing it out—but not by calling people out, rather calling them in. When we call people out, we risk alienating them if we cause shame. When we call people in, we are being more reflective than reactive and encouraging a compassionate conversation.

Calling someone out might sound something like, “Clearly you’re biased and think less of every woman who gets promoted,” whereas calling someone in might sound something like, “It seems like women are being evaluated based on different criteria than men; have you ever heard of the success/likability paradox or the Goldilocks conundrum? Can I tell you about it?”

It might feel unfamiliar and scary, but fear is what we feel, while brave is what we do. Remember, the first step to change is awareness and calling people in will help raise theirs.

5. Keep talking.

There’s a reason they say ignorance is bliss. The more aware we become, the more painful it can be. And when we notice, talk, mobilize our tribes, and call people in, and it still feels like nothing changes (or it changes at sloth speed), it can be tempting to stick our heads back in the sand. Keep talking! It matters.

If you’re on board and want to get (or keep) the conversation going, you might share this blog and this incredibly powerful video Be a Lady, They Said (words by Camille Rainville, directed by Paul McLean, narrated by Cynthia Nixon). Together, we can do this.