27 September 2023

Please like me: Why do women have to play ‘gender judo’?

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Jessica Bennett* says leadership stereotypes continue to plague women, most notably through the ‘likeability trap’ and the need to play ‘gender judo’.

“Women who behave in authoritative ways risk being disliked as insufferable prima donnas, pedantic schoolmarms or witchy women.”

— Joan C. Williams, Professor of Law

I was recently asked if I could recommend a “likeability coach” for a woman who’d received feedback at work that she was a bit too brusque.

A likeability coach, really?

The question sent me into a rage (which was probably not very likeable of me).

But men don’t hire likeability coaches.

They don’t pepper their emails with exclamation points (!) to sound nicer.

They don’t ask each other for tips on how to appear less threatening or — if they happen to be running for President — get asked about their likeability prospects.

They certainly don’t have to smile when they ask for raises (something that’s been shown to help women appear less aggressive).

In fact, they don’t have to smile at all.

The idea that a “likeability trap” exists for women has been well documented.

It’s a phrase used to describe how women who behave in authoritative ways risk being deemed difficult, brusque or bossy, while those who are too nice risk having their competence questioned.

It exists because of stereotypes about how we expect women and men to behave — women as nurturing and collaborative, men as authoritative, and seemingly no rubric for those who identify as neither — so when people exert characteristics outside of those expectations, they face a penalty.

But as the workplace scholar Professor Joan C. Williams has written in her book What Works for Women at Work, there is an effective way to combat that penalty, and it involves a delicate balance of competence and warmth, of taking those feminine stereotypes and turning them on their head.

She calls it “gender judo”.

There is ample evidence to show that gender judo can work: Venture capitalists are more likely to fund female-led companies if they are framed as being about social good (because women help people!), while women who use “softeners” in conversations about money are less likely to be perceived as crass or demanding.

In her interviews, Professor Williams spoke with women who said they effectively embraced the stereotype of the “office mum” — being helpful around the office (because women are helpful!), taking on the administrative tasks, bringing the coffee — in order to offset the times she was firm.

As one former chief executive told Professor Williams: “I’m warm Ms Mother 95 per cent of the time, so that the 5 per cent of the time when I need to be tough, I can be.”

And yet, reading all that brings me back to the likeability coach.

What if you, like me, just don’t have the energy to engage in all that judo all day long — or the funds to hire someone to teach you how to do it?

As the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett once told me, it’s not women who are the problem.

It’s that we still define leadership in male terms.

What if we tried to change the system, and not ourselves?

* Jessica Bennett is the Gender Editor of The New York Times. She tweets at @jessicabennett.

This article first appeared at www.nytimes.com.

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