Women at Work: To be liked or to succeed?

Team IIBP Anveshan, Issue 6, Organizational Culture

The conversation around the experience of women in the workplace is not new. From being confined to the household walls to the rise of female-led companies, we have come a long way (and still have a long way to go ahead!). Despite the much-needed increase in representation, women are still a minority in most workplaces and face many challenges on their journey to success.

Belonging to a minority group makes one susceptible to psychologically act in certain ways and attempt to “fit in”. Research on social psychology and identities has revealed that authenticity is riskier when it deviates from what the majority assumes to be typical. This explains why women leaders at work often adopt mannerisms that have led to the success of their male counterparts. This manifests in hindering them to bring their true selves to work, downplaying their personal life, not bringing up topics that involve their children, wear more masculine clothes, show fewer emotions, and ‘toughen’ up when dealing with people.

Covering up a part of oneself is psychologically exhausting and is destructive to one’s sense of self. This distracts individuals from their professional goals. It results in the inability to maintain close relationships and build a supportive network, which is said to be essential for women’s career growth.

Nevertheless, it is disappointing to note that no matter how women behave at work, it is likely they will end up in a quandary. Alicia Menendez, author of the book ‘The Likability Trap’ intelligently captures this dilemma. If a woman adopts ‘’masculine’’ traits and succeeds, she is less likely to be liked and is perceived as too aggressive. This may even come at the cost of being the stereotypical definition of a “career-oriented woman”. If a woman is likeable and behaves ‘softly’, she is perceived to be incompetent when compared to her male counterparts.

To navigate this predicament, it is important to let go of judgment, embrace both masculine and feminine leadership qualities. Women can observe, discover, and express their own unique voices at work. Pointing out this success/likability paradox is another way to inspire change. Lastly, women should not need to censor their personal life to display the image of a productive and committed employee. Motherhood itself teaches leadership and communication skills that help women emerge as better leaders.

Recently, Anjali Sud, CEO of Vimeo, one of the largest video hosting platforms, posted a picture with her son just before she took the company public in a press conference. She steered through the challenges by being authentic, made unpopular and difficult decisions, and yet with her unique voice earned the team’s support.

support. Anjali and other women like Whitney Wolfe Herd, CEO of Bumble have made their children a part of their biggest career events, shifting the narrative and truly embracing their dual identity of being a mother and a career-oriented woman. They are strong examples of the fact that bringing your whole self to work is not a limitation.

About the author: Muskaan Gandhi, MBPsS is a psychology graduate from the City University of Hong Kong. She has a keen interest in understanding the why’s behind workplace dynamics and will be pursuing her master’s in Organisational Psychology from the Netherlands this fall. When she’s not deep-diving into this subject, you can find her obsessively watching and discussing TED talks, having conversations with diverse people, and baking.