One of the most memorable pieces of career advice Kirsten Rota, a human resources executive who's worked at Credit Suisse and Citigroup, ever got was from a dear mentor. "She told me not to smile so much," recalls Rota, who's naturally chatty and friendly, "because it would make the executives at our bank take me less seriously."
Rota's mentor also recommended projecting self-assuredness and delivering all comments with an even voice and confidence. "She said that when I smiled while delivering my answers, it appeared like I was apologizing."
At another point in Rota's career, a different mentor counseled Rota to stop "sounding like a baby on the phone" and to "put some badass" in her voice. A third mentor proclaimed that "it's better to be silent and have people think that you're a fool than to speak, and have people be assured that you are."
While Rota believes all of this guidance was shared with her in good faith by senior executives trying to pass down their hard-earned knowledge, it put Rota in a bind. "As a Black woman, I was always taught growing up that I couldn't appear angry or people would hate me, and I'd never get anywhere," Rota says. "If you're not upbeat, you get pegged as an Angry Black Woman, and if you're too cheery, you don't get taken seriously."
Her takeaway: "There are a lot of rules for women to follow to succeed at work. And even more if you're a person of color."
Women can't win in the workplace
What Rota was experiencing is commonly called the Likeability Trap, the concept that women who behave authoritatively risk being deemed bossy or demanding, while those who are too nice risk having their competence questioned. It's a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" problem that many women find extremely hard to navigate.
Women might hold 51.8% of all management, professional, and related occupations and comprise 47% of the workforce. However, when it comes to career advancements, the unfortunate truth is we still have to worry about whether or not people like us.
Why? Well, no doubt being liked can help you go far. Everyone likes nice. Nice helps grease the wheels. Nice can make it easier to establish a rapport, making it easier to gain respect. But for women in the workplace, making yourself likable can be a bit of a booby trap.
Position yourself as being super approachable and pleasant, and you risk not being taken seriously by both higher-ups and the team that reports to you. Adopt a straightforward, no-nonsense approach, and you might come off as bossy or hard to work with and unpromotable. In short: For men, likability and success are positively correlated. For women, they're just not.
As a result, women often have to develop ways to survive and thrive in the workplace. Joan C. Williams, a co-author of "What Works for Women at Work," lays out in her writing how women have to engage in "Gender Judo," or perform masculine tasks (which establish competence) in a feminine way (to head off any backlash and remain likable). Another strategy women have been obligated to employ: Softening the language they use at work or adding emojis into official work correspondence to temper wording that might be interpreted as demanding or strident.
Some women have even gone so far as to hire professional coaches to help them be more likable. Indeed Susie Moore, a confidence coach and author of "Stop Checking Your Likes: Shake Off the Need for Approval and Live an Incredible Life," has worked with clients who worry that they've rocked the boat too hard, that their teams have lost respect for them, or who fear that employee departures reflect on their leadership style. And though she says that men deal with similar challenges, she believes the pressure to be liked plays out differently for women.
"Men simply don't feel the same need to be liked by others," says Moore. Women have a stronger sense of empathy and operate by creating emotional connections, which keeps likability front and center in our minds.
If you're wondering whether or not all this is changing, well, you're asking the right question — albeit one without a simple answer. According to Sydney Smith, 27, who works in e-commerce for top luxury fashion brands, young women in the workforce still worry about being likable as they consider their career trajectories and pathways to leadership. Though some male higher-ups have advised her against focusing on being liked, the risk of being labeled as "demanding" or "hard to work with" is a genuine concern. "Because then you'll be out there alone trying to get your work done without any support," Smith says.
However, on the flip side, young women are overhauling workplace culture to reflect today's collaborative, inclusive vibe better. For Smith, that's taken the form of training a younger member of her team to take over Smith's position eventually. And inviting a friend to shadow her at work and sharing career advice with strangers who have contacted her via LinkedIn. "We can upskill each other," says Smith. "There needs to be more of that."
Ann Shoket, former editor in chief of Seventeen magazine and creator of New Power Media, a community that aims to connect companies with the next generation's leaders, agrees. "In previous generations, there was only room at the table for one woman, and you had to fight tooth and nail to be that person."
But today, Shoket explains, women don't want to be alone at the table. Instead, they're interested in bringing their peers along with them. "Younger women don't see each other as competition," explains Shoket. "This generation of women is filled with changemakers."