How do we overcome this?

“Likeability penalty” is a term coined by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer and founder of the Lean In Foundation. It reflects how women in business are penalised when exhibiting qualities usually attributed to their male counterparts. That is, in a leadership position – one of authority, respect and high achievement – behaviours that are admirable in men, are viewed less favourably in women, or even disliked.

Leadership roles require self-assertion, decisiveness, passion, a proactive approach and confidence in one’s skill and ability, which are viewed as positive attributes in male colleagues. However, these qualities tend to be viewed negatively when demonstrated by female leaders.

While a man in authority earns the title of “leader”, a woman is seen as a “ballbuster”.

An ambitious male leader is “a real go-getter”, while a female leader is “aggressive” or “ruthless”.

A man who speaks up for what he believes in is “passionate” and “inspiring”, while a woman is accused of “rocking the boat” or of being “hysterical”.

These attitudes towards female leaders also affect how they themselves behave. Sandberg wrote in Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead: “As women get more powerful, they get less likeable. I see women holding themselves back because of this”.

In turn, this perception of women in authority as “not very likeable” further impacts how they are treated by higher- or top-level management; that is, in the way they are rewarded and recognised, and their opportunities for promotion to leadership positions.

So what can be done?

We need to expose that these double-standards exist and challenge them when they occur.

Next time you’re conducting performance reviews, be aware of how certain traits are being perceived; are qualities exhibited by some individuals perceived more negatively or positively when demonstrated by others? And this extends to the recruitment process. Are job descriptions, person specifications and interview questions (unconsciously) gender biased?

A consideration for qualities valued in job roles and the people who fulfil them is also key. Should the alpha approach be valued higher than the nurturing or compassionate? To create a truly diverse and inclusive workplace, the individual (their individual contribution and merits) needs to be what is valued, aside from their gender – or race, or sexuality, or religious belief, or age, or ability.


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