Rejecting likability

During my first week of lectures at UCL, I was intrigued by a concept raised in my Gender, the State, and the Law seminar. The accomplished Carol Gilligan conducted psychologic research in young children over a period and came to the conclusion that the ways in which boys and girls think, or are socially taught or conditioned to think, are different. Men were said to reason through an “ethics of justice” which put fairness and retribution at the centre of its priorities in responding to a moral conundrum. Women, on the other hand, allegedly reasoned through an “ethics of care”. This meant that they asked relational questions to understand the complexities of the situations in which the parties found themselves in, and thought initially wrong actions might be justified by situational factors. She concluded also that certain deviations in the sexes could be said to derive from being taught to reason like the opposite sex, for instance when children were raised with siblings only from the opposite sex or even single parents.


There is plenty of criticism I am sure you, the reader, have already thought of yourself while reading that: can we really say that girls and boys naturally or biologically reason differently? Doesn’t this enforce the detrimental stereotypes we are trying to free ourselves from? Isn’t this a dichotomy we cannot defend, because it is inherently exclusive of gender fluidity?

Trust me, I am not defending her work and I have pondered these criticisms myself a lot. But there is something to be said of the existence of a pressure on women to de-escalate situations, to minimise the negative impact of their actions on others, to take the burden of thinking of others’ interests.


If you’ve ever walked across some of the floors in the IOE, you will have seen a small leaflet stuck to some of the academics’ doors which show a black woman with a colourful and patterned headwrap on, and the words: “reject likability”. That writer is my favourite writer, the strong Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her contradiction of the “female” or “feminine” expectations that were imposed on her, whether by her culture or her close family and friends, is extremely empowering. Simultaneously, though, she does seek to give more power and strength to things that are often seen as “feminine” and therefore weaker. Yet, the need to be uncontroversial and agreeable is often the reason why women don’t speak up about what bothers them, and so fail to help themselves escape negative cycles.


I recently got into an argument with a close friend and a colleague of mine. And I found myself willing to simply suppress my feelings and seek reconciliation at the expense of my values and my stance. Now, I am not saying women should create conflict for the sake of it and only by virtue of being women. I am also not saying that this is limited to women: the effects of patriarchal dynamics and mindsets affect so many more people across the spectrum of gender. But the point is: why should I have to carry the weight of ensuring the wellbeing of all others, which, a very good friend of mine describes as “you did not give birth to”. To me, that is what rejecting likability means: being brave enough, to be honest with yourself and with others about your feelings and your principles. Being courageous enough to find ways to constructively solve problems without compromising on yourself. And if that can be controversial, let it be; it takes two to compromise in the middle of opposing stances, not one alone.