Today, I watched a TED Talk by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Entitled “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” Sandberg gets into it, leading off with the bleak facts:
Of the 190 heads of state, nine are women.
Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women.
In the corporate sector, women at the top, C0level jobs, board seats, tops out at 15, 16 percent.
Even non-profits aren’t immune: there, only 20% of the top posts are held by women.
Ugly as those numbers are, one of Sandberg’s explanations is infinitely more so:
What the data shows, above all else, is one thing, which is that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.
In other words, the more successful a woman, the less likable we perceive her to be. Sandberg cites one study that illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. In it, Columbia Biz School prof Frank Flynn and colleague Cameron Anderson at NYU offered their students a case study of a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Heidi Roizen. But she was only called Heidi in the case study given to half their students; in the other, Heidi became Howard.
And guess what happened?
While the students rated Heidi and Howard equally competent, they liked Howard–but not Heidi. In fact, according to a synopsis of the study,
students felt Heidi was significantly less likable and worthy of being hired than Howard. Why? Students saw Heidi as more “selfish” than Howard.
Is it any wonder we don’t want anyone calling us ambitious?
Naturally, I was irked by this. Subsequent Googling led me to a post on Stanford University’s website, about a talk given by Deborah Gruenfeld, of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, to a group of high-level women execs and entrepreneurs at the Silicon Valley Thought Leadership Greenhouse program. Gruenfeld cited the same study, adding this disturbing little nugget:
And the more assertive a student found the female venture capitalist to be, the more they rejected her.
In each instance, when Sandberg and Gruenfeld spoke of the study’s results, they noted all the heads nodding in agreement in the audience. And, truth be told, had I been in either audience, my head would be bobbing with the rest of them.
Both Sandberg and Gruenfeld have good, positive points to make, helpful suggestions to offer. But it all makes me wonder something: as much as these negative perceptions might be a hindrance to our success in the workplace, how might the mixed messages (You can have it all! You can do anything you want! … But you won’t be liked if you’re too successful, and be careful not to come off as too ambitious) screw with our decision making? When we’re overwhelmed by our options, how much of the overwhelm is attributable to the options themselves, and how much has to do with our concerns over how we might be perceived were we to choose Option A versus Option B? How quickly are we landed right back at the altar of What Will People Think?
Of course, it’s not just what people think–it’s what they do (and who they hire). But you know what? There is actually a bright side hidden within the actual study. Sort of. Call it the I’m Not Sexist; Some of My Best Friends Are Women! effect:
Flynn and his colleagues ran another experiment on the relationship between the students’ familiarity with their peers and how they rated them. When raters didn’t really know their classmates, they responded just as the students in the Heidi/Howard experiment. More assertive men were seen as more hirable while more assertive women were seen as less hirable. But when students were more familiar with the person they were rating, the “backlash” vanished. Assertive men and women were seen as equally hirable. And more assertive women were more likely to be hired than their less assertive female peers (just like men).
Interesting. And heartening. As are Sandberg’s final words:
I have two children. I have a five year-old son and a two year-old daughter. I want my son to have a choice to contribute fully in the workforce or at home, and I want my daughter to have the choice to not just succeed, but to be liked for her accomplishments.