I just thought about Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer. Sheryl’s famous book Lean In has become a staple for motivational talks, encouraging women to go against societal expectations, become ambitious, work hard and take responsibility for their own success — or lean in.
Great book. It once helped me through a small professional crisis a couple of years ago.
But perhaps what we rarely talk about in that book is Chapter Three, in which Sheryl discusses success and likeability. She explains the biggest challenge that successful women often have to face: we just don’t like them. She gives the example of what is now known as the Heidi-Howard Experiment.
In 2003, two professors, Francis Flynn from Columbia Business School and Cameron Anderson from New York University carried out an experiment to investigate the perceptions of men and women in the workplace. The experiment involved students reading a real-life case study of Heidi Roizen, who had become a successful venture capitalist by leveraging her networks and personality to achieve business success. The professors divided the students into two groups and made the first group read the real story of Heidi. For the second group, they changed the names from Heidi to Howard and gauged how the students judged these two characters.
While the students expressed great respect for both Heidi and Howard, they liked the man better. They imagined him to be a pleasant, likeable, easy-to-work-with colleague. On the other hand, they viewed Heidi with an element of suspicion and mistrust, and many said they would not like to work with or for her.
Sheryl comes to the conclusion that “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.” She says when a man is immensely successful, society loves him because we tend to judge people based on stereotypes.
Men are supposed to be ambitious, high-achieving, leaders and therefore their success in the workplace is welcome and celebrated.
Women, on the other hand, are expected by society to be nurturers, sacrificial and helpful, but when a woman dares to be ambitious and exhibits “manly” qualities such as aggressiveness and assertiveness in the workplace, she is hated and punished for being successful.
This is so especially if the said woman is younger and is perceived to have not “come of age” for great responsibilities.
We are a society that not only likes to pull women down, but rationalise the success of women. We pin their success to other things like beauty rather than face the unvarnished truth, that perhaps she just worked hard for everything she achieved.
We like to do it to younger women in politics, in leadership and even in business. We vilify them for being ‘too ambitious’ and implore them to wait their turn, serve their time and earn their stripes. That they are too young to lead, too young for big responsibilities and too young to be that ambitious. I think there has never been a more flawed argument. All the people I personally admire started young, with the 16th US President Abraham Lincoln topping the list (he was 25 when he made his first break in politics in the Illinois State Legislature). Martin Luther King Jr was killed at age 39. My favourite British prime minister, Winston Churchill, became an MP at the age of 25. In my current read, Einstein by Walter Isaacson, Albert Einstein was barely 27 when he wrote those four seminal scientific papers that would make his career. Locally, we have the likes of Joshua Oigara, who was appointed CEO of Kenya Commercial Bank at the age of 37 in 2012.
I used the examples of men because somehow, our society is more accepting of young, high-achieving males than it is women.
I could go on and on, but my point is, we need to stop discouraging young people — young women especially — from going for gold by using their age as a stumbling block. Youth is a beautiful thing and it must not be used as an impediment for success.
We need to get used to seeing more confident, self-assured and smart women leading the way in different fields and be comfortable with ambitious women.
I will end with the words of my favourite feminist, former President Barack Obama, who tweeted this in 2014: “You can judge a nation, and how successful it will be, based on how it treats its women and its girls.”
The writer is the director of the Innovation Centre at Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications. The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own.