Likeability and Women’s Leadership

In late February, as Hillary Clinton embarked on her last ditch attempt to rescue her faltering campaign she decided to showcase her superior “leadership credentials.” In high profile speeches on foreign policy, which featured an impressive mix of hard-nosed realism and encyclopedic knowledge, she sought to differentiate herself from her soft-focused rival.

She fell flat on her face. For the umpteenth time, the press described her as hectoring, abrasive, and shrill. Toughmindedness and erudition don’t get women leaders high marks on the likeability scale. We seem to prefer our female leaders when they’re close to tears (think New Hampshire) or on the brink of throwing in the towel (think the closing moments of the Texas debate). Clinton’s approval ratings spiked after both these moments.

Clinton’s difficulties are all too familiar to female executives. The research shows that in corporate cultures strong females are often thoroughly disliked. In a 1990 study, D. Butler found that people respond negatively to assertive women. Assertive men, on the other hand, are admired as “managing for strong performance.” In a similar vein, M.E. Heilman (1994) found that when women speak out to defend their turf they are seen as “control freaks,” while men, acting the same way, are seen as highly committed. Much more recently, A. Eagly and L. Carli (2007) have found that self promotion is particularly risky for women. While self-aggrandizement in a man is seen as displaying confidence and competence, this is not the case for a woman. All too often, she is heartily disliked for her “boastfulness” and seen as much less deserving of support by bosses and subordinates. A particularly discouraging finding is that men and women share these negative takes on powerful females.

So what to do?

The good news is that leading edge corporations are beginning to take gender bias seriously. Cisco, for example, has rolled out a “microinequities” training program that seeks to tackle stereotype and stigma, rooting out the values and behaviors that causes us all to be complicit in the slights and subtle put downs that are the stuff of bias. The goal here is, of course, to create the conditions that let talented women explore their enormous strengths, without fearing that this will drive their “likeability quotient” into the basement.

And let’s not forget that Clinton won in Ohio and Texas. The American public does like winners, even feisty female ones.

Are you working to be a likeable leader? How’s that working out for you?

* * *See the original post here, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett @ Harvard Business Publishing