The Likability obligation

One thing about being a woman is that there’s more expectation of having an approachable personality. A woman who seems less approachable than the norm is off-putting. I’m pretty sure I have that feeling myself, which is sad and embarrassing, especially since I’m about as approachable as a rock. But that doesn’t make any difference, does it – we have these feelings of discomfort or ease, wrongness or rightness, independent of how well we conform to them ourselves.

Laura Bates wrote about this discrepancy in expectations in the Guardian last week.

A study by linguist and tech entrepreneur Kieran Snyder was published by in August, under the headline: “The abrasiveness trap: High-achieving men and women are described differently in reviews”.

“Described differently” was an enormous understatement.

Snyder’s study, which involved comparing 248 workplace performance reviews from 180 people at 28 different companies, revealed startling results.

Only 58.9% of the reviews submitted by men contained critical feedback, compared to 87.9% of those submitted by women. For male employees, the feedback tended to take the form of constructive suggestions for improvement, but for women it got a lot more personal. Snyder pulled out any reviews that contained what she described as “negative personality criticism”, including words such as “bossy”, “abrasive”, “strident”, “emotional” and “irrational”. Out of the 83 critical reviews received by men, just two contained such personality criticism. But it showed up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.

There’s a kind of Personality Duty that women seem to have, that men don’t so much. A chilly or irritable or forthright woman seems more so than an equivalent man. As I say, I’m pretty sure I recognize that in myself, despite being chilly and irritable and forthright (aka rude) my own self. What is that? A permanent mommy-image, or what? I don’t know, but it’s discouraging.

Bates goes on to give examples of women being belittled and reduced to their hairdos – a cosmonaut, a fighter pilot, a human rights lawyer.

These different cases reveal a pattern – successful women make people feel uncomfortable. They are seen as somehow unfeminine or unnatural and in need of being brought down a peg or two. And the best way to wrangle them back into manageability is to remind them of the fact that, regardless of their achievements, they will be judged first and foremost as women, and found wanting. Girls, after all, are supposed to be likable, pliant, polite, quiet and gentle. Be too smart, too successful, too accomplished, and risk facing a sharp reminder that you’ve done so at the cost of your feminine “appeal”.

I think the expectation of “quiet and gentle” is a lot less universal than it once was. I think that one is relatively superficial and easy to change by writing articles like the one Bates wrote, and by talking about it, and by making movies and tv shows with women who aren’t quiet and gentle. But the “likable” one is a much tougher nut to crack.

These sentiments are still more common than you might like to think: it was only this week that Stella McCartney said: “Strength on its own in a woman is quite abrasive and not terribly attractive all the time.” Doesn’t that word “abrasive” have a funny habit of popping up?

This is not a problem that will have a quick fix. It’s deeply ingrained in our societal ideas about what it means for a woman to be attractive and how successful we are prepared to allow women to be before feeling the need to tear them down. Getting more women into prominent business roles should help, because the more of them there are, the harder it will be to stereotype them as “ballbreakers” or “harpies”. We can all play a part by examining our own unconscious bias and watching the language we use, especially while in the workplace or speaking to young people.

Just so. It’s deeply ingrained – I think perhaps even more deeply than purely “societal” ideas. Then again maybe not, maybe it’s just that I too grew up embedded in media that featured Likable women.


  1. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    This is probably a huge element in the problem of workplace sexual harassment too. There’s an expectation for women to be friendly or cool even to the point of being okay with being constantly flirted with, asked out, subject to lewd jokes etc. A woman who tries to act professionally either to keep male co-workers from hitting on her, or just because she wants to be professional gets stigmatized and likely called all kinds of names. Don’t see that attitude towards men who do the same. A man would just be described and lauded for being focussed.

  2. says

    Good point. And then…it works the other way too. Women conform to what’s expected, and that can get misread as being ok with or even inviting the constant flirtation etc etc.

  3. Ariel says

    One thing about being a woman is that there’s more expectation of having an approachable personality

    I haven’t noticed it at work – which of course tells nothing (at best it may have something to do with the fact that at my workplace it’s not unusual for a woman to occupy a high position). But I notice this phenomenon quite clearly in my private life. I’ve been always choosing women – not men – not only for friends, but even for partners in all more intimate conversations. The idea of discussing private details of my life with a guy seems to me somehow … I don’t know. Out of place. Off-putting. Something not to be done. I’ve always preferred also female doctors, probably for the same silly reason: the “deeply ingrained” idea of a women being more approachable and likeable by default.

    And yes, it’s quite easy to say that it’s silly. I could even write a paper about it, sure. I keep saying to myself how silly it is. And it changes nothing.

  4. says

    I’m a man who is usually assumed to be gay- to the point people insinuate I’m lying when I mention I have a wife. I’ve noticed that the more people decide I’m gay the more they judge my ability on the job based on my ‘approachability’. People ask if I’m okay if I don’t continuously smile and charm them for example.

  5. luzclara says

    That approachability expectation is strong medicine. When I was a professor, students were angry and sometimes hurt, and always surprised at women faculty who were not nice and sweet and kind and sympathetic and easy pushovers. I was nice and sometimes kind but not a pushover. And they did not like it. On an evaluation one time a student complained that I acted “just like a male professor.” And not in a good way. At one university amongst women colleagues I was criticized for “talking back” to a mouthy male colleague at a faculty meeting, b/c it was “rude.” (Also it was the only way to participate with those men – they only recognized yelling and in your face business). I thought I could teach my fellow women how to do it but alas, they were not interested b/c they were not going to be rude on purpose. And I shouldn’t be either. Gawd it was a horrible social space to occupy all alone.

    I imagine “rude” is the same as “not likable.”

  6. ludicrous says

    IMHO The vast majority of behaviors that are required of women but not generally of men, the female norms derive, in the most basic sense, from and are enforced by three things; threat of violence, threat of violence and threat of violence. Women are required to maintain a posture physically and verbally of appeasement. A ‘likeable’ woman is one who does not deviate from that standard.

    In an elevator late at night, a simple “no thanks” will not suffice, a minimum appeasement is “I appreciate the invitation, but I ‘m dog tired and have obligations early in the morning, perhaps some other time.” .

  7. ludicrous says

    ludicrous @6,
    Oops, forgot the “I’m sorry” preface and a nice smile. Probably a lot more goes into it that I’m not aware of.

  8. mildlymagnificent says

    There’s another side to this. It often affects short men too.

    If they behave the way that taller men of the same status behave they’re often regarded as being abrasive or trying to compensate for this ‘deficiency’ or of suffering from ‘short man syndrome’. They’re also much less likely to be the same status in the first place because of this bias, but it’s worth mentioning.

    I’d really like it if researchers on things like this asked everyone to state their height as well. I have an entirely unsupported suspicion that there’d be all kinds of weird correlations with height and gender and perceived niceness, abrasiveness and willingness on the part of reviewers to make explicit judgments to different people in different ways. (Of course there’s an issue about women wearing high heels but it’d be worth a try.)

  9. Jeff Engel says

    Re 9 and short men – It occurs to me that the likability complex expected of women, if it’s more or less shared with short men and other social minorities, may come down to the expectation of submissive behavior from anyone in the ape troop in a lower position in the social hierarchy toward anyone in a higher position in it. We’re still ape troops – _sophisticated_ ape troops in some ways, certainly complicated ones, and in many ways unlike troops of other ape species. But having a hierarchy (at least one! usually many) and having patterns of submission to deflect violence from higher-ups is still a deep part of our make-up.

    It may be a useful privilege check – if you expect likability, or deference, or any such social asymmetry out of someone, you’re looking down on them. “Guys, don’t do that.”

  10. ludicrous says

    This is a true story, kidz, [This was a few days before this likeablity thread appeared. ]

    I am in a class at a senior community center producing the play, “Sylivia” (wikki: Sylvia is a play about a dog, the couple who adopts her, and the drama that results. It was written by A. R. Gurney and first produced in 1995.) It’s a very funny play a lot of it is on youtube.

    Husband, Greg meets a stray dog, Syliva, in the park and brings her home. Wife, Kate, is definitely not thrilled. At the first class I, Greg, had not read the entire play but sitting next to me was the woman who plays Kate who had read the entire play.

    Soooo, naturally, a most important question came to my mind. I asked my partner in the play if her character, Kate, eventually becomes likeable.

    Gosh, I could have forgotten about it but at the next class, “Kate” brought it up but in a way that it seemed she appreciated the question and had thought about it some. Now I am perplexed ,I don’t know if she really was pleased or if she might be continuing the conversation so she and I might think about it more. Has she thought about the requirement for women to be pleasing? She is married so I don’t think there is any flirtation.

    So what’s next? I think next week I’m just going to say something like: “that’s interesting that I wanted to know if Kate would become likeable isn’t it?

    Tune in next week.

  11. ludicrous says

    Ludicrous @ 11,

    BTW, Initially, “Kate” did not respond directly to my likeablity concern. Instead she commented on how Kate might feel seeing Greg lavish all this concern and affection on Sylvia that she, Kate, likely wasn’t getting enough of. That went right past me at the time. It’s funny how things can go right past you in the moment, but hang in there like unfinished business.

  12. ludicrous says

    I wish there was a special place to post or collect experiences of: “I Learned About Feminism From That”

    Here is one of mine:

    Referring to Ludicrous at 11, In the opening lines of the play Silvia, I viewed the situation from the husband’s point of view and wanted to know if the wife turns out to be likeable after all. It did not occur to me to wonder how the wife might feel about the situation. OK fair enough, I am a male and view the world thru male eyes. But the key thing is I did not have any awareness in that moment that I was doing that, that is, that I was attending only to a male view. And I claim to be a feminist. I don’t want to name what I did sexist. What are my other choices?

    So the next question for me is how might this little parable look to woman? Are women, generally, more likely to attend to the feelings of both husband and wife in the opening lines of that play? I would think yes since generally women are obligated in many ways to be more aware of what’s going on between people. But suppose a woman reading the play did as I did, ignored the other gender’s point of view, what could you call that?

    I think this is relevant to the situation of the Harris, Dawkins, et. al, Not only do they not pay attention to how women view things, but they…do…not…know… that they are not paying attention. How can you solve a problem if you won’t look at half of the equation?

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