Tuesday, March 5, 2013

"You're likeable enough, Hillary," and other thoughts on women holding women back



Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, is receiving all kinds of attention and reviews—and it’s not even out yet.  I’m blogging about it and I haven’t read it yet.  But I think it has something important to say. Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and regularly listed as one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in the world.

She argues that the women’s movement has stalled. Women today stand on the shoulders of those who fought for suffrage, reproductive rights, child care, flextime, and won victories in these battles. We take them for granted, but now the progress of women has stalled.  “Of 197 heads of state only 22 are women,” and women make up only 18% of the U.S. Congress. [The previous statement is my weak link to being relevant to this blog.]

Why has feminism stalled? She acknowledges structural disadvantages, inflexible work places, discrimination, and sexism, but these things are already known, if not accepted, and they are not her big contribution to the question of what’s holding women back. Sandberg argues that part of what holds women back, is women.

Women hold themselves back from achieving success in part because people (men and women) tend to see success as a likable characteristic in men, but an unattractive characteristic in women.  A successful man tends to be seen as charismatic and having leadership qualities that are appealing. A successful woman tends to be seen as being bossy, selfish, and all together unpleasant to be around. She cites studies, using compelling experimental design, to make this point.

Then, remember this?



“You’re likeable enough, Hillary,” Barack Obama said in Clinton’s defense when she was accused of being unlikable. Apparently, she wasn't quite likeable enough. The likeable-deficiency that Clinton experienced in 2008 may have held her back from winning the primary, and the presidency. If people tended to like successful women more, might she have become president?  It’s hard to know. We may find out in 2016.

Clinton had a likeable and human response to the question of her likeability: “It hurts my feelings.”

Sandberg has some direct advice to women that may help to overcome the stalled progress women have made in achieving success in parity with our numbers.  First, she suggests that women should be more assertive about their attributes and successes, promote themselves more, ask and negotiate more.  Second, she suggests that women should ask more of their partners when it comes to household work and childcare. Women can’t be equal with men in the world until men are equal with women at home. This is a message women and men need to hear. Third, she recommends that women work hard for their achievements, really hard. And that they should not slow down, or make conscious (or unconscious) strategic choices in favor of a family-friendly career path for children that may not yet exist.  Work hard, until you have children, then accommodate.

What’s not clear to me is whether any of these suggestions affect the likeable factor. If women are still reticent to work hard, sit at the table, and ask more of their partners because if they do they may be liked less, then it likely won’t happen. But perhaps this is a sort of collective action problem. Perhaps when there are a small minority of women who are high achieving and somewhat unlikeable (see youtube clip above), success is still unattractive in women. But if all the women are asking more, believing more, and asserting more perhaps as a group we redefine what is appealing in women.

I think Sandberg may be subtly making this point by presenting her work in a very appealing way to an audience that seemed at first skeptical of her sincerity and value.

2 comments:

  1. Also witness the vitriol being aimed at Anne Hathaway (by more women than men, to be sure) because "she comes off as too rehearsed" or "she's an attention whore".

    Seems to me that 1) women have deeply internalized notions of humility and sincerity and all these qualities incompatible with modern-day aggressive success, and 2) groupthink works more with women than men (perhaps because there was defense in numbers at one time?).

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