Re-framing how we think is the first step towards better experiences and outcomes.
Last weekend, The New York Times Sunday Review section featured an article entitled, “How Women Escape the Likability Trap,” by Joan C. Williams. Professor Williams is director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of Law.
The article outlines the “likability trap” that women often encounter in business as they rise through the ranks. As the theory goes, while a man is expected to be assertive, competitive, and demonstrate confidence — women still get pinged for exhibiting these traits.
Instead, we are expected to shine with traits traditionally associated with femininity… assuming the role of the office mom, focusing on the community we work within and thus neglecting ourselves.
To escape the trap, Professor Williams details her research on what successful women have done to climb corporate ladders without losing themselves along the way.
The solutions offered were disheartening to say the least.
Women reported that in order to have their voices heard, they leverage gender stereotypes. This “gender judo” essentially involves softening one’s presentation to fit the kinder, gentler expectations of a woman in business, whilst employing stronger tactics — assertiveness and competitiveness, for example — on an as-needed basis.
The author’s take on this strategy…
Isn’t this all a bit revolting? Here’s what works for men negotiating for a higher salary: I have another offer, and I need you to match it. Why should women have to do something different?
But we do. And such behavior tends to reinforce gender stereotypes and unfair treatment.
This made me think… What have I been doing all these years to juggle gender dynamics?
I am a lawyer by trade; have been for almost 20 years. So I have spent my fair share of time as the only woman in the room. Most of these experiences have been innocuous from my perspective. But I have certainly been told I am “too aggressive” when advocating for myself and denied opportunity because of it.
Years ago, after speaking at a conference, another lawyer approached me to tell me she had feedback on my presentation. In short, she told me I had better start wearing more masculine-looking business suits if I ever wanted a man to listen to me.
As I think back on how I have managed the gender paradox over my career, I am struck by memories of assuming that office mom role — being nice and helpful. Stifling competitiveness many times, wincing and retreating when I was punished for it.
(However I never gave in on the ridiculous man-suit advice. DVF wraps work just fine, thank you very much.)
This article was unfortunately a bit of a downer to my Sunday morning reading time. What’s more, the “likability trap” article in the NYT Sunday Review section was followed by pages of stories on gamer-gate, and the havoc wreaked on so many women's personal and professional lives in the wake of their successes. It was a troubling juxtaposition to say the least.
So what is the answer?
Smile pretty? Don’t sweat the small stuff? Be thankful that you’ve come a long way, baby?
Here are some suggestions on how to deconstruct the likability trap that so many of us face — based on the NYT article and my own experience:
- Behave “as assertively as comes naturally and see what happens,” Professor Williams recommends. Push yourself to advocate for yourself and your career.
- Maintain a positive outlook. If you approach every negotiation or team meeting feeling like an outsider, an outsider you will be. Despite the real or perceived challenges that surround you, never let it distract from your goals and emotional well being.
- Be collaborative and competitive. Think about who you are dealing with, their interests, and how you can best work together to achieve common goals. If they don’t play fair, move to a more competitive stance to demonstrate your own power.
- It takes a village. I have always maintained a personal board of directors — mentors and colleagues who I trust and who have my best interest at heart. And vice versa. This has been a tremendous asset to my career — in good times and in bad.
- Ask questions. In those sticky situations when you are uncomfortable or feel the decks stacking up against you, ask questions before reacting. Getting the other person to talk more, explain their stance, can clarify the situation and/or give you time to refine your response.
- Call it out. I have found this particularly helpful when being mansplained. “Sorry — did you just tell me what I’m thinking? What a clever trick.” Mansplaining can be awfully insulting but most of the time it’s done without awareness. So encourage awareness.
- “Another tried-and-true move is what anthropologists call gender display.” Wearing dresses demonstrates your feminine side, perhaps softening the blow of your assertiveness to the consciously and unconsciously biased around you. As I think more on this, I don’t love it… feels too much like we must be sexualized to be heard. But it’s an option that I have unconsciously leveraged for years.
- Walk. Maybe not far. And maybe not away forever. But every negotiation book worth its salt instructs the reader to take a break from difficult discussions when tensions are too high.Then return when you’ve had time to breathe.
In the end, it’s not fair. But…
Pretending you do not live in a society that still struggles with women and power is not going to help.
So you find what works for you as an individual and do your best. Remain positive. Celebrate the wins. Acknowledge and own your success.