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 fortune.com 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.