Are successful women less likeable?

UN Women - flickr

UN Women – flickr

In her book, “Lean In” COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg cites research that says that like-ability is positively correlated to men and success, and negatively for women.

Really? What the…?

Why are successful men deemed confident and inspiring and successful women intimidating and bossy?

Could this be one of the factors inhibiting women from taking on leadership positions? After all, being liked, being approved of, is a basic human driver. If it is true, what can we do about changing this paradigm?

I’ve been talking with aspiring women leaders and am surprised at how many cite this as an answer to “what’s getting in your way?”:

“I’m not sure I’m really a leader.”

This speaks volumes to the issues – know and unknown – that are holding women back from taking on leadership roles – and if they do, being liked for doing so.

We know the external blocks:

  • There are fewer women role models in visible national and international leadership roles, though this is slowly changing.
  • Those brave pioneers, having no role models, often relied on their male counterparts as a source of ‘how to lead’. This has resulted in many women leaders ‘leading like a man’. An unfeminine leader is a bit of a ‘freak’, repellent, and though admired, not very likeable. Think Margaret Thatcher – so unfeminine as to be labelled the ‘Iron Lady’. You don’t really want to cuddle up to that!
  • There is subconscious bias – in both men and women – towards seeing men as more competent. Sandberg quotes research done by the Harvard Business School. The study assigned a group of students to read a case study of real-life entrepreneur Heidi Roizen, a successful venture capitalist. They gave another group of students the exact same case study but changed the name to ‘Howard’ instead of ‘Heidi’. Polling the students with their impressions of Heidi and howard, the students rated Howard as a more appealing colleague. Heidi was seen as ‘selfish’ and ‘not the type of person you’d want to hire or work for.’ Exact same story, subconscious gender bias devalued the female leader.
  • Competing life roles – of wife, mother, friend – make the working woman an unattractive figure: pulled from pillar to post, constantly self-sacrificing, and tired. Very tired. Why step up for a leadership role if there is more of this, only double the pressure and twice the fear of failure?

And there are those dark secret thoughts:

  • “Am I good enough?”
  • “Do I have what it takes to b a leader?”
  • “Will they chop my tall poppy head off?”
  • “Will they like me?”

I contend there are things we can do to break this mountain of conscious and subconscious cac that is preventing good women from stepping up.

I believe women – and men for that matter – can embrace a mode of leadership that both celebrates AND transcends gender.

This is Centered Leadership.

It is a powerful combination of Ability, Purpose, and Presence.

Ability includes sound skills in team engagement, communication, emotional intelligence, time management, delegation, feedback, decision-making, planning, project management and spiritual intelligence, as defined by Cindy Wigglesworth: having the ability to lead with wisdom and compassion with inner and outer equanimity, regardless of external circumstances.

Purpose is your personal, deep conviction and desire to make a difference, using your best talents, and aligned with your deepest values. It’s having a Big Why that is greater than any ‘no’.

Presence is the energy that you emit when you are fully present, completely aligned with your values, and focused with love on the people and purpose around you. It comes from deep self knowledge, loving self-acceptance, rigorous and exquisite self-care, and taking yourself with grain of salt. A dose of humility, service, and a sense of humour add levity and grace.

Centered Leaders inspire others, connect them to each other and themselves, create and hold a safe space for collaboration, innovation, and risk-taking. They’re fun to be around, and you like them – for who they are, not what they’ve achieved.

If we’re going to change the story about women leaders being less likeable we need to focus on three areas:

  1. Leadership Skills
  2. Beliefs
  3. External Landscape

Centered Leadership can be honed in formal training by learning the key skills of management and leadership. Grab any opportunity you can to upgrade your leadership skills.

Individual beliefs need to be worked on with conscious awareness. Start by monitoring internal dialogue. What are you saying to yourself about your ability? About your potential? About what others are  thinking? Consciously choose to surround yourself with women leaders and colleagues who have a stronger mindset than you do – and be inspired and uplifted by them.

And the external landscape? If you are in a position of authority and influence, these are your key ares of responsibility:

  1. Actively sponsor women – on to leadership programs, in to leadership roles, advocate for them, encourage others to open up opportunities for women
  2. Work towards diversity of representation in leadership decision circles. The research is telling: businesses do better where there are diverse perspectives that include women.
  3. Openly celebrate the achievements of women leaders – locally, nationally, and internationally. Comment on them for their leadership qualities and ability.

This is the result:



When strong beliefs combine with an encouraging external landscape, courage is born and acted on.

When strong beliefs combine with skills, strength and centered leadership are possible.

When skills combine with an open landscape, opportunities for change and evolution are unleashed.

Only until we can recognise women leaders for being great leaders –and not for the fact that they are a FEMALE leader- will we have risen above the gender platform.I look forward to the day where we don’t need “Women in Business Awards”, or “Women of Influence Awards”; where we stand equal in recognition and opportunity to our menfolk.

In the meantime, any recognition is good recognition if we are going to change the success and like-ability connection for women.


Have an aspiring woman leader you want to support and encourage? Our exclusive and unique Women’s Leadership Program will offer breakthrough opportunities for women leaders, August 8-10, Canberra. Register now here.




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