Can we be competent and likeable?

Here’s the first sentence of a recent article in the THES:

The dearth of women in high office in the academy is down in part to a perceived lack of “likeability” among strong female candidates.

That might make you think that women just need to act nicer. But there’s a catch– the clash between competence and likability:

“While they are perceived as highly competent, they are also perceived as not highly likeable…The issue of likeability is why there are not as many women in senior leadership positions in higher education (as there should be).”

That’s why the author of a recent study makes this suggestion:

“If, in any situation where it is going to matter, women start by presenting themselves as likeable, this presents a buffer when they introduce information about competence,” she said.

“When they do it in the other order, the information about competence has already reduced perceived likeability and they can’t make up that ground again.”

Kinda creepy to think of it this way. But important to know I guess, if it’s true. Still, wouldn’t it be nice if there was also discussion of how to change the the social forces that position competence and likeability as incompatible in women?

18 thoughts on “Can we be competent and likeable?

  1. I thought this bit fairly high up in the creep-stakes too:

    “She added that she was “very disappointed” by her findings, and was particularly aghast to find that it was women rather than men who were most likely to retaliate against other women “violating” gender stereotypes.”


  2. I don’t quite understand this “buffer” since my experience has been pretty reciprocal:
    If I come off immediately as knowledgeable, the likelihood of being treated like I’m bitchy goes way up.
    If I come off immediately as nice, the likelihood of being treated like I’m an idiot goes way up.

    I’d bank on smart and bitchy getting me a job as opposed to nice and dumb. …But maybe the statistics say otherwise.

  3. It may be that being seen as bitchy is more of a disqualification for admin jobs.

    I think we should pick up on the topic of women retaliating against women. I’m not sure how to start it; I don’t think the blog needs to host a lot of comments on how women are really awful to women.

  4. jj- it reminds me of this: “When women are required to fit into tightly defined feminine roles in order to be accepted, those who are willing to act as expected often end up in opposition to those who aren’t. Women who behave in traditionally feminine ways may find women who behave in traditionally masculine ways off-putting, and vice versa. In this way, gender bias can create conflict among women.”– from the Gender Bias Learning Project, which Jender posted about here:

  5. Hi J,

    What’s Queen Bee Syndrome ? I’ve googled about and have found a few different things going by that label. What do you mean by it ?

  6. Cynofish – As I recall from those long ago days (I am 69), there were very few women in positions of power and/or authority, whether in business, academia, politics, whatever (things are actually better now but there is obviously a long way to go). These few women – often, say, only one in a company – had fought their way up tooth and nail, taken a lot of abuse along the way, gotten no help from anybody and made it on their own, by golly! They had proved themselves, BY themselves, and by gum any other woman who wanted to make it had to do the same. “If you think you’re worthy, prove it! I did!” No hands out to help. No networking. “I did it on my own and if you think you have what it takes, you have to do it on your own!” They were constantly proving that they were “better” and in power. And of course, since many of the males in power and with authority belittled and diminished women at every turn, the Queen Bee followed suit. They liked being the only woman “up there”, and wanted to keep that power and prestige. Of course, not all women who “made it” were Queen Bees, thankfully, just as all males in authority are not arrogant sexist jerks….

    Maybe sort of like the abused child growing up to be the abuser? or maybe not..

  7. A new pop(?) parenting educator, Rosalind Wiseman, has recently revived the topic with her book, Queen Bees and Wannabes. She’s a martial arts instructor who helps teenagers and their families deal with bullying according to “girl rules”. Her book was the basis for the movie Mean Girls, starring Lindsay Lohan.

    I watched the movie with my daughter, and I was pleasantly surprised. For a spoofy coming-of-age piece, the writing and the humour were more intelligent than I expected.

    Does this happen after high school? I like to believe that my experience with competent AND likeable women in positions of power is the norm. There may be a few embittered women who see their power as something that they need to lord over others, so as to keep it from being stolen. But I like to believe that women in positions of power are there because they deserve to be. Maybe that’s why I don’t recall ever meeting a female tyrant in a position of authority.

  8. Let’s not leave out the fact that positions of power can attract people with fairly deep problems. It might be possible for a woman to accept that a man is winning, but quite impossible for her to accept a woman’s doing so. In the latter case, it leads to questions about self-worth.

    I could also swear that a few women I know have being one of the boys’ club a really top priority, so if the guys feel unhappy and threatened by a woman, they get to work.

  9. J: Thanks for the term “Queen Bee syndrome.” I’ve always simply thought of it as the fact that some women – often the most successful ones – are more male than the men. Learning to identify these women is an important skill, one I’ve tried to teach my daughter but not one I’m sure I’ve mastered myself.

    Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn identify this same phenomenon in Half The Sky (2009). After pointing out that there is evidence to suggest that female participation in the oppression of other women is not an anomaly (specifically, female participation in sexual violence, the abuse of young women, and female infanticide), they remark: “women themselves absorb and transmit misogynistic values, just as men do. This is not a tidy world of tyrannical men and victimized women, but a messier realm of oppressive social customs adhered to by men and women alike.” (69)

    Surely the phenomenon of the oppressed identifying with and transmitting the values of the oppressor is a common enough phenomenon that it has a name outside fo philosophy. (In sociology, perhaps, or psychology?) Is anyone familiar with another name for this?

    These points aside, I think one of the more pernicious aspects of this particular THE piece is that it suggests that competence and likeability are easily separable. I worry that the very framing of the research question assumes a definition of competence that is firmly entrenched in a masculine world view. After all, shouldn’t one aspect of being competent be being likeable?

  10. A totally personal remark; it drives me nuts when people say that a general energetic attitude, in particular concerning work, is a ‘male thing’. I’ve often heard that I am ‘masculine’ in my ways, just because I don’t let myself be intimidated and pursue my (professional) goals with some stamina. I worry about what zenmind just said: “I’ve always simply thought of it as the fact that some women – often the most successful ones – are more male than the men.” Why on earth do we have to live with these binary oppositions? On the one side: male-competent-not likeable ; on the other side: female-softy (aka incompetent)- likeable. But I probably misunderstood something.

    This being said, it’s definitely true that many women like to be the only ‘Queen bees’ around and are actually quite aggressive towards younger women who they feel are taking up ‘their’ space. (I’ve experienced this fairly recently at a conference.) One could say they are being ‘more male than the men’; but hey, there are plenty of nice men too who are nothing like this. Why would this behavior be a ‘male’ behavior? It’s just poor behavior, I’d say.

  11. A different take on the Queen Bee phenomenon. I know, personally in fact, that there are some women, who for example, argue against parental leave policies because they did not have access to them and it seems unfair to them that they had to choose between work and family in ways that some women now do not.

    But, I have begun to wonder how much of this is related to implicit bias and gender stereotype enforcement. If women are as likely as men to be influenced by implicit biases and to react negatively towards those who violate gender norms, then perhaps there is a tendency to make cognitive errors that inflate perceptions of the magnitude and and frequency of ‘queen bee’ behavior.

  12. I just have one question: is the ‘niceness’ of a man considered, when considering him for a high office in the academy? Because I wonder who is deciding what ‘niceness’ means for a man. Most of the men I have encountered in these positions have been flat-out bastards. Maybe what we need to do is make people aware that they are–whether consciously or unconsciously–using a double standard in deciding who will be placed in these high offices.

  13. Catarina: precisely! I guess I didn’t communicate my thoughts particularly well, but it is the false dichotomy that I meant to question — both through the use of the phrase “more male than the men” (perhaps I should have put scare quotes around this to draw attention to the fact that it is a ridiculous phrase), and through the question about the separability of competence and likeability. Oh if only we lived in a world in which being “likeable” (approachable? friendly? kind?) were an essential part of our concept of competence.

  14. Alpha – those seem like important points.

    Another, more mundane worry with using the ‘Queen Bee’ label (and other similar ones): sometimes, conflict between people just results from the fact they don’t get on.

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