What’s the Likeability Penalty?
Repeated studies have shown that women who appear to be overly confident or assertive are frequently judged to be less likeable than women who conform to a more stereotypical, traditional feminine archetype. Our bias against women at work, based on deep rooted assumptions channeling stereotypes we’ve absorbed growing up, comes through because we expect men to be assertive and women, especially Black women and other women of color, to be compliant and amiable.
The prevalence of the likeability penalty is deeply concerning. In the Rutgers University study conducted by Phelan et al. in 2008, actors were instructed to play the role of interviewee firstly as self-confident and ambitious, then as competent but modest and cooperative. The majority of the 428 participants in the study, who believed the actors they were interviewing real job candidates, deemed the confident female candidates less employable due to their social skills.
What’s its impact?
Researchers at Harvard and Carnagie Mellon found that the likeability penalty has a huge impact on women’s salary negotiations. They found that female job candidates who advocated for better salaries were judged less favourably than men candidates who applied the same behaviour. The study also found that women are significantly less likely to negotiate when facing a male manager, compared to male candidates facing a male manager, suggesting we women are all too aware of the penalty we are at risk of facing.
I can recount a specific incident from my own career, where I copied my straight, white male friend’s “playbook for negotiating a new startup offer” to a tee, showing him my draft emails before I replied to a prospective employer, only to have the plan blow up in my face. While my friend’s negotiation playbook landed him a significantly bigger offer, it landed me a shouting from the startup’s senior leader who accused me of “not believing in the founders’ vision or the team if I was not satisfied with their first offer.”
- In your next team meeting or all hands. Ask folks to recall if they were ever called intimidating or aggressive by a colleague or manager at work. Ask folks to raise their hands and compare the gender ratio and race ratio of people affected.
- Re-framing constructive feedback through the lens of bias. Ask women especially Black women to recall the example of the time they were labelled intimidating or aggressive. Discuss what type of specific feedback would have been more helpful in that moment, if any.
- In your next candidate evaluation written response. Consider carefully all the adjectives you use in reference to their personality and behavior during the interviews. Be mindful of the likeability penalty and how stereotypes impact our judgements. Are you aligning with the stereotype that men should be assertive but women should be humble and sweet?
- In your next 1:1. Push for evidence to back up feedback about your behavior or other social skills. Remind your line manager that research shows women, especially Black women, are less likeable the more powerful or assertive they become.
New Habits to Make a Difference
- Diversify your recruitment process so that folks with different identities – and therefore privileges – each have an opportunity to assess potential new candidates joining in your team. Especially if you’re a mostly male team assessing a female candidate, ensure women in your team have a valued equal say in the process.
- Consider removing words like intimating, aggressive and bossy from your team’s vocabulary altogether. They are limiting descriptors that don’t provide a helpful way to move the conversation forward. Rather, they make the conversation feel adversarial.
- Create space for your team to regularly discuss bias and discrimination while not putting the onus to lead these conversations on the underrepresented people only. Show leadership and allyship by sparking these conversations regularly from a place of informed empathy.