Shannon Kelley

Shannon Kelley
Santa Barbara, California, USA
June 11
Shannon Kelley and her mother Barbara Kelley are both journalists, and have just written a book called "Undecided". Together. (...Right??) This blog is a taste of what you'll find in "Undecided", a book about choice overload, analysis paralysis, grass is greener syndrome, longing for the road not traveled, and how the success of the women’s movement has left women stumped in the face of limitless options — and how to get over it. The book comes out on May 3: if you like what you're reading here, get the book here: And subscribe to our blog here:


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JANUARY 4, 2011 11:23AM

The Likability Problem

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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.



Tagged: Cameron Anderson, Deborah Gruenfeld, Facebook, Frank Flynn, have it all, Heidi Roizen, likability, Sheryl Sandberg, TED, what will people think?

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Interesting article Shannon. I also watched the TED Talk by Sheryl Sandberg and due to my experience in the likeability field, I came away with a very different conclusion.

Sheryl decided, based on the Heidi/Howard study, that women are "not liked" based on their accomplishments. I absolutely don't agree with that conclusion. I seriously doubt that Howard was seen as being more "likable" because he was more successful. He may have been seen as more "hirable" by an employer who was looking to hire a venture capitalist, but not more likable.

The reason for this is that we (both men and women) generally accept men as being more naturally aggressive and suited for a job as a venture capitalist. Please don't think that I'm inferring that men are more capable in this role, I sincerely doubt we are, but that's not the point. The point is that people are much more comfortable seeing a man in this role (if the role takes a higher level of aggressiveness) than we are seeing a woman in that role. Right or wrong, it's how the majority of both men and women see the world.

Let's change things up a little. Assume for a moment that Howard was a meek man who loved children. He enjoyed holding them and rocking them in his lap while teaching them to read and he was a very successful teacher. Now let's apply the Howard/Heidi scenario to this situation.

Who do you think would be perceived as more capable in the role as a kindergarten teacher? Who do you think would be perceived as more "hirable" by the school? Who do you think the parents would want teaching their children ... and just as importantly, who do you think would be seen as more likable? Is the world going to see Howard as more likable because he's a man? Is the world going to see Heidi as unlikeable because she's a successful female kindergarten teacher? That does not make sense to me.

If you took both Howard and Heidi, the venture capitalists, and described their "success" using gender appropriate words and phrases, you would find that they are both very hirable ... and likable.

I also believe that if you took Howard and Heide, the kindergarten teachers and use the same gender appropriate words and phrases, you would find that they are both very hirable ... and likable.

Again, likeability is much more closely related to other characteristics than it is to "success."

It is true that there is a correlation between accomplishments/success and likability, but it is a positive one. We do tend to like successful movie stars and sports heroes. However, my research shows that people are liked for 12 more powerful reasons, certainly more powerful than being successful. You can find them here

After studying likeability for the past 10 years, I think the conclusion Frank Flynn and colleague Cameron Anderson came up with is both inaccurate and dangerous. It's a shame to take their conclusion and teach women that they can either be liked or successful but not both! It's just not true!