When I started blogging in 2004, I responded to every comment no matter how nasty the reader was. I was generally polite, believing that these critics would be so charmed by my professionalism that they would see the error of their misogynist ways and swifty run out to read a bell hooks book. Ha!
When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave a TED talk in 2010, one of the issues she talked about—and later expounded on in her 2011 commencement speech at Barnard—was likability. “Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women,” she said. This isn’t news to feminists, so what I can’t figure out is why—despite deep knowledge of this pervasive double standard—so many women still insist on being likable, often to their own detriment.
For me, it was wasting countless hours arguing with people on the Internet—giving equal time to thoughtful and asinine commenters—because I thought somehow it would show me to be fair and open-minded. It pains me to think of what I could have achieved if I had that time back.
Women’s likability is something feminists use as proof of inequity—he’s a boss, she’s a bitch—but not something we’ve put on par with standard feminist fare like reproductive rights or pay inequality. Because there’s no policy you can create to make people like successful women. There’s no legislation to fight for or against, or even a cultural campaign that would make a dent in such a long standing double standard. Besides, being likable seems like such a small thing compared to larger injustices—why would we spend a lot of time thinking about it?
But the implications of likability are long-lasting and serious. Women adjust their behavior to be likable and as a result have less power in the world. And this desire to be liked and accepted goes beyond the boardroom—it’s an issue that comes up for women in their personal lives as well, especially as they become more opinionated and outspoken.
One of the questions I get asked most often from young women who are just discovering feminism is how they can maintain relationships when the people in their lives see feminism as so confrontational. How can they talk about the issues that matter to them when they are constantly seen as the bossy bitch at the family dinner table? How will they ever have a boyfriend if they object to the sexist movie he wants to go see on Saturday night? How can they get their roommate to stop telling jokes about man-hating and Birkenstocks? What they’re really asking is how is it possible that they will be understood, liked and loved when the world is telling them that they’re actually a huge pain in the ass.
My answer generally consists of tips on how to strategically talk with people without putting them on the defensive—ask them their stories, meet them where they’re at, find entry points in a conversation that will resonate. I still believe this advice is helpful, but I wonder if I’ve been doing these young women a disservice by not telling them the full story. Because if I had to choose between being likable or being successful, I’d choose the latter every time.