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.
Yes, the more successful you are—or the stronger, the more opinionated—the less you will be generally liked. All of a sudden people will think you’re too “braggy,” too loud, too something. But the trade off is undoubtedly worth it. Power and authenticity are worth it.
And in a world where women are told to be anxious about everything—that we can’t “have it all” but will forever be searching for it—saying that ambition and success are actually pretty great can be a radical message.
Besides, being liked is overrated. Wanting to be liked means tempering your thoughts as to not offend. Wanting to be liked means not arguing vociferously with a female peer—something that could improve and add to your ideas—for fear that they’ll be insulted or that they won’t want to be friends. Wanting to be liked means agonizing over every negative comment in an online thread, even if they’re coming from people you don’t care about and don’t think much of.
Wanting to be liked means being a supporting character in your own life, using the cues of the actors around you to determine your next line rather than your own script. It means that your self-worth will always be tied to what someone else thinks about you, forever out of your control.
And truly, living in a constant state of self-deprecation is no way to be. Humbleness does not protect you from sexism—it just makes the slights harder to see.
Asking women to do away with being liked may seem like a small sacrifice, but it’s not an easy sell. We’re brought up to believe that our worth is tied to what others think of us. This is especially true for younger women today, whose every thought and action is made public on social media—literally waiting to be “liked,” commented on, reblogged and affirmed by the world. Telling women to push all that aside—even if it is for long-term success and happiness—is no small thing.
The truth is that we don’t need everyone to like us, we need a few people to love us. Because what’s better than being roundly liked is being fully known—an impossibility both professionally and personally if you’re so busy being likable that you forget to be yourself.
The answer, of course, is bigger than the individual—we need to shift the broader culture so powerful women aren’t automatically seen as bitchy or undeserving. There are structural inequities that impact how realistic abandoning likability is for different women depending on their identity and circumstances. But we can’t change the culture if we’re not changing ourselves, too.
In her Barnard speech, Sandberg told the audience of young women to “lean in,” a term that’s also the title of her soon-to-be-released book. She was referring largely to professional ambitions, but I think it’s good advice all around. We need to lean in to who we really are—not who we think people would like most. We need to tell young women that not being liked, as hard as it may be, is often as sign that they’re doing something right. That letting go of “likable” frees them up to focus on who they want to be, and where they want to be, in their lives. And that getting to that place is infinitely better than anything a “like” could bring us.
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