In Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, she devotes a chapter to the negative bias people express toward successful women. She cites a Columbia Business School experiment where students were divided into two groups, and shown identical profiles of a successful entrepreneur. One was named Heidi, and one was named Howard. The feedback on Howard was that he was appealing; the feedback on Heidi was that she was selfish and not the type of person you would want to hire or work for. (pgs. 39-40)

This was on my mind as I read a recent Harvard Business Review blog. Take a look at this illustration in the blog:


The HBR did a one-year research study that tracked chatter on the web about these women; sentiment toward them, and the intensity of that sentiment. The results: none of these women were liked, as the chart describes. Sandberg comes closest, but she also has the most people who dislike her passionately (hate). I might understand the sentiment about Mayer, given the recent news about Yahoo cancelling its telecommuting benefit for employees. But Sandberg and Slaughter? Sandberg is trying to help marshal a national conversation around women’s advancement. Slaughter’s points of view are different from Sandberg, but she, too, is engaging all of us in a dialog around balance in one’s work life and one’s home life. They have the platform to do it–which is rare for a woman–and they are taking action. Do we dislike anyone who acts to change our norms, or is our dislike reserved for women doing this? It really troubles me.

It especially troubles me because in a world top-heavy with men in senior management today, likeability is a foundational requirement for most women to make it into the senior ranks. Men network their way with other men into senior roles; women need to be liked. It’s unfair, but it’s true. In my upcoming book I’ve devoted a chapter to discussion and paths toward likeability. The topic may sound trite, but not so if you’re a woman aspiring to run an organization someday.

I can only hope that the reason Mayer, Sandberg and Slaughter were disliked is because they stand for change, and change makes many people uncomfortable. It’s less troubling than being disliked because you’re a woman who stands for change.

Susan signature


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