Women’s News: Are Successful Women Really Less Likable Than Successful Men?

Clinton bids farewell to the State Department in Washington

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is full of quotable lines: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”; “As women must be more empowered at work, men must be more empowered at home”; and so on. There’s one line in particular that jumped out at me and I felt compelled to follow up on: “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.”

It feels true. The ruthless, friendless lady-in-charge is a tired trope in pop culture and politics: c.f. Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada and Tracy Flick in Election, or President Obama’s infamous “You’re likable enough, Hillary” line from the 2008 primary.

But I wondered how true it actually is. After all, it’s easy to point to anecdotal rebuttals. Despite Obama’s primary-race condescension, Hillary Clinton’s approval rating when she stepped down as Secretary of Statewas higher than Obama’s. And there are plenty of wildly successful men whom many people cannot stand: Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, and Decision-era LeBron James come to mind.

Sandberg bases her claim on a variety of studies, especially an experiment conducted in 2003 with business students. The researchers presented the students with a story of a successful entrepreneur. They told half the students that the entrepreneur’s name was Heidi; they told the other half that it was Howard. Then they asked students their impressions of Heidi or Howard and discovered that though the participants rated them both as competent and worthy of respect,

Howard came across as a more appealing colleague. Heidi, on the other hand, was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” The same data with a single difference–gender–created vastly different impressions.

So, a bunch of relatively young people who were not members of the full-time workforce at the moment reacted skeptically to a theoretical successful female. Does that really mean that in practice, most workers object to real-life, flesh-and-blood female leaders?

Maybe not. A 2011 study published in Human Relations surveyed 60,000 full-time workers on their attitudes toward male versus female managers. At first, its conclusions seem to bolster Sandberg’s claim that people are more accepting of successful men than successful women: Of the 46 percent of respondents who expressed a preference for their boss’s gender, 72 percent said they wanted a male manager. But another aspect of the results highlights a flaw in the Heidi/Howard study: People who actually had female managers did not give them lower ratings than people who had male managers. That is, though many people preferred male managers in theory, in practice those gender biases did not play out.

There’s a precedent for this, of course. Humans tend to be opposed to changes in the status quo until they are forced, through experience, to see that change isn’t such a big deal. Marriage equality advocates have learned this lesson well. Before last fall’s string of ballot victories, pro-gay marriage groups ran ads depicting happy, committed gay couples and testimonies from “straight, respected people from unexpected corners of the community, like a firefighter in Maine,” as theNew York Times put it. These ads reflected the understanding that for some people, same-sex marriage may be scary in theory, but once they get to know real gay couples, it’s not scary at all–it’s actually desirable.

It looks like this is happening, and will continue to happen, with female leaders. Yes, we’re all probably conditioned in some way to expect men to be calm, stable, and competent and women to be shrill, mean, and emotional. But as soon as we experience an inspiring female boss (or a deadbeat male one), we see stereotypes for what they are.

Read More:  http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/03/are-successful-women-really-less-likable-than-successful-men/273926/?utm_hp_ref=women&ir=Women


  1. I think that women need to create a new kind of success that isn’t based on the patriarchal model. With that old model, everyone, both men and women comes across as smug when they achieve success. It’s as if they lose their hearts along the way or forgot why they wanted success in the first place. I think we need to redefine success and instead of having success as an individual experience, support success for the collective. I’m talking the Aquarius Age and getting ahead of myself.

    • I totally agree with you. We sometimes forget who we are when we become successful and start treating people differently. Thank you so much for your comments, they are appreciated.

  2. Reblogged this on Pdlyons's Weblog.

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