Performing “Gender Judo” on the Likability Trap

December 2, 2019

Ask any professional woman about navigating gender stereotypes and expectations in the workplace and she is likely to tell you a story about how she has been criticized for being “too aggressive,” “overprepared” or “demanding,” and yet when she adopts the “softer” traits traditionally associated with femininity, she is not taken seriously or considered to be competitive for the same opportunities as her male colleagues. (If you feel your eyes glazing over as you read this, I don’t know what to tell you. We don’t want to keep writing or reading this same article over and over again any more than you do.)

Law professor Joan C. Williams has dedicated her research on gender in the workplace to learning how women work around these frustrating and contradictory demands. While she agrees it is unfair that women face the extra burden of contorting themselves to fit unfair standards, she also says, “sometimes what women need to do to survive in the world is exactly the opposite of what they need to do to change it.

Here are some of the ways Williams has seen women flip gender stereotypes to their advantage:

-Be nurturing and compassionate 95% of the time so they can be tough when they need to be the other 5% of the time.

-Embrace a softer style while negotiating, countering with a questioning tone (“I wasn’t sure if this offer represented the top of the pay scale”) instead of a demand.

-Be tough in your work but embrace a feminine style in your wardrobe or accessories. The lone woman on a corporate board said she relied on pink lipstick to make herself more approachable.

What do you think? Is this tip-toeing approach to gender norms crazy — or crazy like a fox? After all, many of the tips Williams uncovered in her research come from highly successful women who have used these techniques to overcome bias and excel in their industries. “We expect women to be both highly qualified and likable,” whether that’s on the campaign trail, in the board room or in the first job interview a graduating law student has at the beginning of her career. That’s not going to change until at least fifty percent of the leaders in power are women. In the short term, the answer may be to accept the reality of the double standard and make the best of a bad situation.

At Page 2, because we focus so much of our work on supporting women law firm leaders and high potential young women lawyers, our consultants are adept at finding the right voice for communicating with authority and authenticity in these complicated times.