Women and the Likability Thing

By Lucia Brizzi

When we were kids, my older brother seemed to have gotten a second helping of that most desirable quality: conviction. He dressed and acted without need for apology or explanation. Even when he was bullied, rejecting himself was never an option. He is now a highly successful restaurateur, beloved by his staff and customers, with his eccentricities making him a favorite among local food bloggers and magazine editors. His conviction, practiced from an early age, made leadership a natural development within him.

On the other side of the gender coin, I was an extremely well-liked child–nice, polite, and adaptable. Sometime in middle school, my brother interrupted me during some monologue or other about the social nuances of Phys Ed to say, “Lucia, you think so much about what other people are thinking of you, how can you have a thought of your own?” This simple, honest question, from the mind of a child, hits at the heart of women and the likability thing.

This is a tricky area for us. Women are much less likely to be promoted if not perceived as likable. Yet, success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. Women find themselves in the ‘double bind,’ needing to be likable to succeed, and not being liked for our success. And, so we find ourselves on the high wire, balancing perceptions of being too assertive or too gentle, in an effort to be respected, valued, and likable.

Malcolm Gladwell asserts that it takes 10,000 hours to master a field. By this measure, women, as a whole, are likability experts. From a lifetime of practice, we’re highly skilled at acutely perceiving social cues and adjusting behavior accordingly. As children, the strongest, fastest, loudest boy is crowned leader, while a girl displaying these traits is cast out as bossy, or, as they grow, another undesired ‘b’ word. This training by reward and punishment is also deeply embedded in family structures, defining the expectations put upon females. Males are often given more permission to be moody, aggressive, or reclusive, while girls are often expected to smile, keep peace, and caretake.

When women behave in ways that challenge societal expectations, we are met with resistance or rejection. We are disliked. Yet, in stifling our power in the name of acceptance, we sacrifice our well-being and hold back valuable contributions.

So, many women with whom I speak are having trouble moving to the next level of leadership because they have spent their careers in the service of others. They are great at making others shine, but have neglected their own leadership advancement. Women promote themselves less and ask less frequently for what they want. The consequences are dire. Women hold only 4.6% of CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies.

The B*tch Thing

Negative associations with women and power can cause us to take power in an inauthentic way. The stereotype of the tense, shrill-voiced, commanding female leader is born out of discomfort with our own authority. When we feel undeserving of our status, we experience tension that resonates outward. When we discover the joy in expressing our greatness, and the generosity of contributing our best, we can do so with an ease and clarity that makes for effective leadership. See Michelle Obama’s gracious and powerful speech at the 2012 DNC.

Every behavior feels uncomfortable until practiced. Practice loving your power. Take a ‘power stance,’ create and recite your value proposition, or journal to connect with what you love about your work. Your greatness is a gift. Share it as such.

Check In:

We may be so externally focused that we don’t check in with what we want. So many women with whom I work draw a blank when asked what they want. By giving voice to our wants, we make their manifestation possible.

Be your own consultant. One woman I coached came up with a tool to remind herself to check in with her own needs. She committed to asking herself, at various times during the day, “What does (her name) want?” This helped her build a habit of valuing herself more.

Build Body Awareness:

We love the metaphor “lean in,” but when it comes to holding status in your body, lean back. A simple way to calibrate whether we are in connection with ourselves is to notice the body. When solely focused on the other person, we often lean towards them, coming out of alignment. Some of us speak with our necks and heads jutting forward, as if we don’t trust our voices to carry. When in alignment, the pathway from inner experience, our guts and instincts, to our feeling center, our heart, to expression, through our throats and mouths, is clear. We not only appear centered and confident, we have access to the resources of our greatness. We are able to listen to our intuition and knowledge, as well as be available to new insight.

What We Can’t Control:

A mentor of mine told me, “You can’t control how we feel about you.” This simple truth was paradox shattering and met with great resistance. Releasing this effort meant accepting what is out of my control.

As more women and girls rise to positions of power, the stereotypes and expectations are shifting. When it comes to women and the likability thing, our work is to honor and value what we offer, and to share it with ease and joy. As we do so, we experience the fullness of our humanity, shifting old ideas, and indeed changing the world.

How would valuing yourself more serve you as a leader? What tools or rituals will you build into your day to practice loving your power? Leave a comment here!

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