Work and Organizations

Women leaders: does likeability really matter?

Jill Abramson, the first woman executive editor of The New York Times, was fired in 2014, despite garnering eight Pulitzer Prizes during her three-year editorship and, according to Stanford professor Ann Grimes, being “one of the most distinguished journalists of our time.” Abramson did not lose her job due to editorial mishaps or ethical issues, but because of complaints from employees that she was “polarizing and mercurial.”

Abramson’s firing calls attention to a familiar phenomenon: the likability penalty. The more competent a woman is, the less likable she is judged to be. The opposite also holds true: the more likable a woman is, the less competent. Speaking to an audience at Stanford University, Abramson explored the topic along with Stanford professors Shelley Correll, Prudence Carter and Deborah Gruenfeld.

Pushy and brusque

Abramson lost her job because her leadership style was deemed incompatible with the daily operations of the newspaper. It was widely publicized that she was opinionated and outspoken. Women leaders who are assertive are often “seen as pushy and brusque,” she said, while “these same characteristics are seen as leaderly in men.” Reflecting on the previous male New York Times executive editors, who were known to throw phones across the room when they were angry, Abramson recalled, “I’m not aware that I ever even raised my voice in the newsroom.”

This vivid example highlights the vast differences between what is judged acceptable behavior for women and men.

Likable or competent: pick one

According to Prudence Carter, a professor of education whose research focuses on areas of inequality, women like Abramson are considered “pushy and difficult” when they violate shared cultural understandings of how women should act. Decades of research show that gender norms shape expectations of men’s and women’s competence, societal roles and acceptable emotions. These gendered expectations impact our own gendered behavior and expectations of others, and create our understanding of the differences between women and men. As in Abramson’s case, different expectations between women and men, even in the exact same job, can lead to gender inequality.

It is widely accepted that women should be nurturing, deferent, kind and warm. Men, in contrast, are valued for being confident, in control and outspoken. The problem for women is that the qualities essential to being a successful leader, such as assertiveness and directness, are contrary to predominant norms of femininity. Because of this, women leaders are often penalized. They may be disliked by their colleagues, or their communication style critiqued, which can result in their being fired or missing out on important promotions or assignments.

Intersectional invisibility

The likability penalty is not experienced in the same way for all women leaders. As an African American woman, Carter experiences “intersectional invisibility,” a term coined by psychologists Valerie Purdie-Vaughns and Richard Eibach. Black women leaders are not part of the dominant racial group nor are they viewed as the prototypical woman, so they may be overlooked or have their stories generalized in ways that do not reflect their actual experiences. These intersections are complex and may even shift as a woman progresses toward leadership.

In many ways, African American women leaders are not held to the same standards of femininity as white women leaders. In her research, Stanford professor and former Clayman Institute faculty fellow, Cecilia Ridgeway found that individuals from non-dominant groups might experience interactional freedoms. If a white woman, whose femininity is stereotypically viewed as gentle and demure, behaves assertively, she may be penalized for being domineering. But in the same situation, a black woman may experience less dip in regard because stereotypes of black women’s “aggressiveness” and “loudness” do not align her femininity as closely to submissiveness. Carter notes that as an African American woman herself, she may experience more freedom to assert her thoughts, since she is not held to the same standards of femininity as white women. For example, she may be more outspoken in a professional setting, without incurring as much of the likability penalty as would a white woman because she already has less to lose in terms of regard.

Clinton for President

Abramson recognized her own experiences in how presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has been treated by the media and general public. Clinton has been criticized for not being likable enough, for being bossy or abrasive and for her wardrobe choices—critiques that are largely about how she violates expectations of women.

According to Clayman Institute director, Shelley Correll, we may understand Clinton’s and Abramson’s experiences from the same perspective. There are fewer women in positions of leadership, so they are scrutinized to a greater degree than men in similar positions. When these high profile women do not follow traditional expectations, their critiques are amplified.

Cultivating a successful leadership style

Stanford professor Deborah Gruenfeld has been exploring alternatives to the narrative of the likeability penalty. In her work with women leaders in the executive program at the Graduate School of Business, Gruenfeld finds that too much focus on navigating the likeability penalty may limit women’s attention to the actions required to lead. The likeability penalty is only one aspect of the leadership conversation, and she encourages women to target what they can control: to be more confident in their abilities and leadership strengths. Instead of focusing on likability, women can find new ways to be successful as leaders, such as sharing what they know, “but in a way that is generous to the group.”

Although Carter understands the tendency for women to refrain from contributing to a meeting or work assignment for fear of the likability/competence double bind, she emphasized our obligation to future generations: “Once you have found your voice, you are doing no one behind you a service if you don’t use it.”

When asked by audience member and Stanford professor of law Deborah Rhode what she thought of the pressure for women to be “relentlessly pleasant,” Abramson said that it is crucial for women to ascertain their own individual leadership styles and to know whom they can count on for support . “Figuring out who your allies are as a leader is more important than finely calibrating how pleasant to be.”

Abramson also emphasized that it is important to be collaborative on the job—to champion and support other women, and encourage their success. As executive editor, she significantly increased the number of women working in leadership at The New York Times.

Abramson does not want her story to be about her departure from the Times, but instead about the many risks, accomplishments and contributions she made as a journalist and editor. At the end of the day, her contribution, in part, was in bringing to light the double standard facing women leaders, in order to help more women be known for their leadership successes, not just their leadership styles.