“You Like Me, You Like Me Not…” The Paradox of Being Powerful and Well-Liked

Success-and-likeabilityI want to be powerful. And what’s more, I want to be respected.

Why is that such a crazy thing for me to say?

As a hard-working young woman in my late twenties, striving to shape my career, I’ve found myself mulling about ambition and likability a great deal lately. After attending a panel on female directors at the Athena Film Festival, where several respected directors mentioned how they had to make the decision that they would rather be respected than liked, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about being “liked” on the job. These women stated that, while directing a movie or an episode of a television show, they consciously made the decision that they would rather be respected than liked. Rather than being considered “nice”, they wanted to do the best job they could.

This begs the question: why does that choice have to be made? Why is an ambitious woman an unlikable woman?

Much has been written about women and ambition, and much of that has focused on women’s ambition suffering due to their desire to be liked. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, has expounded on the topic in several speeches, saying, “Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.” Numerous and varied studies have proven this disparity to be true, so I ask again, why?

Is it truly impossible to be an ambitious, powerful woman and to be seen as likable? Is it it possible to balance the two equally in one’s life, let alone strive for “having it all,” which Fox News has told us is impossible? Suzanne Venker stated recently that the opposite sexes are indeed opposite, and “little girls love their dolls and boys just want to kick that ball.” While I don’t believe this to be true, perhaps this idea as the norm can be partially credited with why women are reluctant to voice ambition or step into a leadership role. If girls are told to play with their dolls, to nurture someone else quietly and behind the scenes, while boys are told to play a competitive sport and play to win, and these ideas are ingrained in children at an early age, then it is not surprising that adult men and women find themselves playing these roles.

Jessica Valenti, the feminist blogger and author, wrote about women’s innate need to be liked for The Nation recently and brought some enlightening – and disturbing – themes to light. Stating bluntly, “…the more successful you are—or the stronger, the more opinionated—the less you will be generally liked,” and Valenti said that if faced with the choice between being likable or being successful, she would choose success.

Valenti also comments on how women, whether deliberately or automatically, women downplay their own ambition or accomplishments in order to seem more likable. Even Hillary Clinton, one of the most ambitious and successful women in the world, has done this; when President Obama asked her to be his Secretary of State, “I was stunned,” Clinton told a women’s magazine. “I really was very unconvinced…. I just really had a lot of doubts, and I kept suggesting other people. `Well, how about this person! How about that person!'”

Did Clinton really think she was not qualified for job, or was she merely doing what she thought a woman should do when such an offer is being made? Or perhaps she was trying to cultivate her public image more, given that, “When men are being tough, voters define it as strength, but when women show toughness, the voters think they’re bitches,” pollster and political strategist Celinda Lake was quoted in Elle magazine as saying. “The research shows parallel stereotypes of women in executive management.”

Valenti also commented on this habit of women, saying, “…living in a constant state of self-deprecation is no way to be. Humbleness does not protect you from sexism—it just makes the slights harder to see.”

One slight that has not been overlooked at all is the supposed “Oscar curse,” which many claim proves a woman cannot be more successful than her husband or partner. Seven out of the twelve recent winners of Best Actress at the Academy Awards have experienced a high-profile breakup or divorce after receiving the award. Despite extensive research, I could not find one article that studied the break-up rate of men who had won Best Actor. Henry Kissinger, who was known for dating extremely beautiful and young women, once observed, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Apparently that statement is not reciprocated by both sexes.

Why are romance and success – or even friendship and success – so frequently portrayed as incongruent? Even the character of Rachel Berry on the television show Glee spent much of her junior year of high school saying she could not date because she had to focus on being accepted to college in New York. Rachel was a polarizing character on the show, but one of the most irritating aspects I found of the storyline was that when she did decide she could balance ambition and love, her boyfriend Finn always acted like he was dating her despite her personality rather than because of it. The message seemed to be that he was doing her a favor by being with her, rather than loving and accepting his girlfriend.

Rachel was frequently called a “diva” on Glee, both as a term of affection and insult, and once or twice one of the more flamboyant homosexual male characters on Glee participated in a “diva-off” with her. But never once on the show was a heterosexual male character called a diva, nor have I heard the male equivalent of that term used in everyday – or specifically entertainment-related – language. This double standard is not limited to just fictional characters; it is mirrored in reality every day. In the ongoing awards season, Anne Hathaway has been criticized harshly for her seeming surprise or shock at the awards she has received as well as her eagerness to promote herself and the film she is being recognized for. Singer and songwriter Taylor Swift has also been raked over the coals for her acceptance speeches. Apparently a woman being recognized for her accomplishments can’t win no matter what she does or how she acts at the awards podium. She is either too sincere or not sincere enough.

Liking or not liking someone can sometimes be inexplicable. Perhaps it is instinctual, ingrained in our minds through our culture, and while that may make it seem excusable to some, I consider that an even stronger call to action to instigate change in our discourse. A woman should not be deemed unlikable simply because she is ambitious, nor should the word ambition be loaded with negative connotation and assumption. The discourse around our everyday culture needs to shift, and it is up to women to take ownership of and pride in their ambition, talent and leadership to make that happen.

2 Responses to “You Like Me, You Like Me Not…” The Paradox of Being Powerful and Well-Liked

  1. Arielle Hernandez says:

    So often when I help my fellow woman with career advice, I reply, “Of course! If women don’t help other women, then who will help us?” This flows forth naturally from my deeply feminist heart. The statement so often gets a wide-eyed, surprised response, as I am reminded of just how revolutionary the notion of woman helping woman as personal credo can be. Why can’t we all focus on support rather than derision?

  2. Thank you so much for writing this, Carey!