It is a popularity contest, sisters

Likeability, not competence, is the key to women assuming top posts. Sarah Cunnane reports

October 7, 2010

The dearth of women in high office in the academy is down in part to a perceived lack of "likeability" among strong female candidates.

The claim is made by a professor of management at Melbourne Business School, whose research into gender stereotypes in the workplace concludes that men are expected to be competent but not necessarily likeable at work, whereas it is more important for women to be perceived as likeable than as competent.

Mara Olekalns, deputy dean at the school, said that her findings were as applicable to higher education as to any other sector.

"It is a universal problem," she said. "When women display the behaviour that we associate with good behaviour in the workplace, it violates society's expectations of how women behave. This is what creates a problem."

She added: "For women, it is a trade-off between whether they are thought of as likeable or competent. Men, on the other hand, can achieve the holy grail of being perceived as both likeable and competent."

Professor Olekalns cited an example from her own department, which has recently appointed a new female dean.

"One of her staff said to her: 'I used to really like you before you became the dean. Now I can see that you are competent, but I don't like you at all.'"

She said that the effects of gender stereotyping applied to women in the academy were usually more subtle, such as being overlooked for promotions or underrated in appraisals.

"I have sat on promotional committees at my university where I have seen outstandingly good women being held back from promotion," Professor Olekalns said.

"While they are perceived as highly competent, they are also perceived as not highly likeable...The issue of likeability is why there are not as many women in senior leadership positions in higher education (as there should be)."

Professor Olekalns said that one way for women to "help themselves" in the workplace was to emphasise "relational aspects" of character by starting work-related conversations that detail skills such as cooperation and team building - effectively "reminding people in general that you are nice" - as a prelude to more difficult discussions of competency.

"If, in any situation where it is going to matter, women start by presenting themselves as likeable, this presents a buffer when they introduce information about competence," she said.

"When they do it in the other order, the information about competence has already reduced perceived likeability and they can't make up that ground again."

She added that she was "very disappointed" by her findings, and was particularly aghast to find that it was women rather than men who were most likely to retaliate against other women "violating" gender stereotypes.

"We are decades on from Emmeline Pankhurst and nothing has really changed - it has just moved underground," Professor Olekalns lamented.

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