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Seeking Solutions to the Women’s Likability and Leadership Paradox

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at U Conn chapter.

Last week, I stumbled upon a TED Talk from Robin Hauser that left me intrigued and wanting more. So, I took the liberty to break down her inspiring talk and examine her solutions because every woman needs to hear her message.

Below are my thoughts as a young woman.

Introducing Quite the Likeable Leader

In the TED Talk entitled The Likability Dilemma for Women Leaders, Robin Hauser, a documentarian most known for her work on the gender gap and implicit biases, tackled gender thinking and unconscious bias.

Rising to the challenge seems to be in Hauser’s nature, as she discussed the dilemma of women leaders caught between valuing the pursuit of likeability versus leadership due to the distorted beliefs entangling what traits make a quality leader.

Hauser opened the talk by recognizing that she has struggled to contain her energy, passion, and enthusiasm to satisfy the societal norms that often dictate how a woman should act and behave. She regarded containing this candid side of her as “exhausting”— and understandably so.

Who would want to be expected to be anyone but themselves?

(This idea doesn’t even include the experience of women with overlapping aspects of identity, such as Black women or other marginalized groups).

After giving personal examples, Hauser stated, “Modern day sexism is different than it was in the past… Today’s sexism can be more subtle, [like the] little nuisances that might seem like no big deal to some, but their impact can have the effect of a thousand cuts.”

Hauser is referring to terminology of subtle sexism, which The SAGE Encyclopedia of Psychology and Gender defines as “discrimination directed toward women in elusive and abstract ways.” It can be behaviors like women being called “irrational” or “overreacting” for expressing strong opinions or feelings, which in some ways can be gaslighting as well. It can also be men interrupting women when they speak, or even ‘mansplaining’.

Expanding on her encounters with subtle sexism, Hauser discussed “the competence/likability dilemma, where women, unlike men, are rarely perceived to be both competent and likable.”

She elaborated that, “Our gender stereotypes show that women should be kind, nurturing, helpful, supportive, [and] deferential, while traditionally men are expected to be decisive, competent, assertive, and strong… So the dilemma for women is that the qualities which we value in leadership, such as assertiveness and decisiveness, go against societal norms of what it is to be a likable woman… As long as society continues to associate leadership with masculine traits, female leaders will be judged more harshly, even when they outperform male counterparts.”

Solution Or Mere Suggestion?

Hauser’s final remarks: “I wish I could offer you a cure to unconscious bias. I don’t believe there is one. But we need to disrupt stereotypes and redefine what it is to be a leader and a woman. Obviously, this is a long-term solution that could take generations, but it’s a vital step… Speak up when you witness gender bias… Reconsider your snap judgements… And forget about likability, ladies, women, if you can. Instead focus on being awesome. Be a smart, compassionate, effective leader that will redefine the stereotype of what a female leader is.”

My Reservations

I had one measly nitpick for her TED talk. Don’t get me wrong, I was incredibly moved by her articulation of an issue that for so long has patiently sat in the background behind subjects like finance, sports, and world politics. However, her solutions were too broad and vague. My mind kept wandering to ‘how?’. How do women question snap judgments when we seem to live in a world of unconscious bias? How do we muster up the courage to speak up when we see gender bias when we face retaliation for doing so?

This is definitely easier said than done.

However, please note: I realize Hauser only had several minutes to cover a lot of ground, and perhaps, she addressed these holes in her other documentaries. Moreover, she also claimed this would take generations and maybe I am being a little impatient here. (Patience is a virtue, after all). Just that, at this rate, it will take eternity if we don’t establish more specifically how to get there. Her final ideas were not fully-fleshed out, and felt more like minimal suggestions than solutions.

They were a start, but what if we needed to take it a step further?

As a result, I wondered aloud: How do we solve this issue? How do individuals escape being stuck in this narrative of having to choose between being a strong, competent leader and being liked as a woman and person when being liked gets you farther in this democracy and world?

I decided to investigate further.

What’s A Paradox, Anyway?

Hauser’s topic isn’t just a dilemma for many women and what they face— it’s also a paradox.

Paradox: “A statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.” —Oxford Languages Dictionary

Senseless? Logically unacceptable? Self-contradictory? Seems pretty accurate, but what I found absolutely engrossing was how other instances of paradoxes were successfully solved or how they sometimes weren’t. Would that prove useful for this likability and leadership paradox?

Let’s take a closer look at some interesting examples of paradoxes in history, entertainment, and literature to find out.

That’s Some Catch-22

A classic instance of a paradox in media is Catch-22, which spurred the coinage of the term of the same name. Catch-22 is a bestselling 1961 book by Joseph Heller about Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier in WWII Italy. If a man willingly flew missions, he was deemed crazy, so all he had to do was ask to be grounded. But if he didn’t want to fly anymore, he proved he was able to think rationally for his own safety and therefore was sane enough to fly all the missions assigned to him. Thus, he was forced to continue to fly missions after all.

The novel ends with Yossarian being forced into yet another paradox. He can either choose possible insubordination consequences decided by a court-martial, or be honorably discharged and safely sent home— if he gives his support to a new policy that forces airmen to fly even more missions than previously. This would force more men into the predicament that Yossarian only narrowly escaped himself.

What did he do? He ran. That was Yossarian’s solution to his dilemma. Certainly, avoiding and averting can work, but for how long? How long can you maintain this before running into trouble?

In regard to our likability and leadership paradox, this ‘solution’ is not really a solution at all. It is no more than a temporary fix to a long-term problem. Yossarian’s long-term problems were the war, the army system, and even his individual army supervisors, but at least he could physically distance himself for a while (presumably, since I have not read the sequel yet).

Unfortunately for us women, avoiding it is not an option since we face subtle sexism every day of our lives, if not on an hourly basis. Unless we want to start planning to migrate to Mars to live separate from men, this is not a wise move. And even if we moved to Mars, we’d bring the same unconscious biases and subtle sexism with us. What we can learn from Catch-22 is that averting conflict is never the answer.

Thank you, next!

Which Witch is Which?

During the Salem Witch Trials of the 1600s, women were accused of crimes they didn’t commit — and proving innocence was unfeasible. So, the only way to perhaps escape with their lives was to admit guilt, apologize profusely, and lay blame on others through scapegoating. For anyone with a conscience, this was an impossible feat.

Sadly, the Salem Witch Trials continued for roughly a year until finally being exonerated and resolved when, “On January 14, 1697, the General Court ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching for the tragedy of Salem. In 1702, the court declared the trials unlawful. And in 1711, the colony passed a bill restoring the rights and good names of those accused and granted £600 restitution to their heirs. However, it was not until 1957—more than 250 years later— that Massachusetts formally apologized for the events of 1692.”

The solution was to have society admit their wrongs and then alter the system accordingly. It took time for this fix to come about, but clearly individuals felt change was needed and acted on it. What I take away from this conflict and resolution is a lesson; not only should we not jump to conclusions so rapidly and carelessly, particularly when the consequences are so great as life and death for others or where their quality of life is at stake, but perhaps this is telling of a possible avenue of resolve for our own dilemma we have been discussing. Could challenging the system be the answer?

But let’s not stop the investigation there.

Prideful As Ever

Finally, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, two fascinating paradoxes developed, one even existing right in the title. Both Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist, and Mr. Darcy, the love interest, were self-contradictory in that they took pride in believing they were open-minded and far from bias or judgment, yet they were, in fact, prejudiced against the other in which they felt their opponent was prideful and prejudiced.

Further, Elizabeth had a personality that kept her from happiness (by carrying such stubbornness in refusing to marry men other than for true love), and yet in the end, her personality was what turned out to have won Mr. Darcy over.

She eventually lived happily ever after with him, but not without first having to realize she stood in her own way. Elizabeth admitted her faults and was able to change her narrative, thus escaping both these paradoxes. In the same vein, I think that a potential solution for the likability and leadership paradox is that individuals on a personal level have to reassess their judgements, their opinions, and sometimes even their entire perspectives. At the root of this is being more mindful of the ways in which our own experiences color how we perceive the world around us.

My Final Response

In these three examples, each situation was dealt with best by challenging the rules that governed these paradoxes and transforming dependent conditions into independent ones.

Through my research, I learned that the answer to the likeability and leadership paradox may lie in a mix of challenging the system and challenging ourselves. I suspect that this will require much more than just what is in my power alone, but I vow here and now to exercise the questioning of my own quick perceptions and judgements to the best of my ability.

Moreover, I suppose that in my pursuit of curiosity, I discovered that specific solutions are much more difficult to come by then at first glance. I can’t spell out how others should live their lives, but rather give suggestions and follow through with applying them to my own life.

Perhaps that is all I can reasonably ask. Or just maybe, there’s more within my power and I just don’t realize it yet. It is definitely something for me to ponder as I journey through self-discovery and watch more of Hauser’s documentaries on implicit biases.

That leads me to my final point. If I, a young woman, can promise my intentions of striving to do differently and change my thinking, then my question to you is: What can you do?

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Sammi Peters

U Conn '23

Sammi is a Digital Media and Design college senior with a concentration in Business Strategies at the University of Connecticut. She loves reading, creative writing, and a good cup of coffee, but has a passion to make a positive impact and help others. She is just figuring out the logistics still...