Women have of course been a hot topic in the press this week, US political decisions causing a resurrection for the equality to be discussed.
During my legal career, I made a subconscious decision that I could either be liked or taken seriously as a lawyer and professional business woman. This was never a conscious decision making process, but deep down ultimately I knew it would be one or the other. I decided success was more important to me.
It’s true to say, I was a force to be reckoned with inside the Court room and the board room. I joked that I wasn’t there to make friends, I was there to defend clients and be the best lawyer I could be. But I was also there to climb the corporate ladder for success which meant having a voice which was heard.
As I climbed the hierarchy and became more of a Woman who knew her own mind, this started to become a problem. An example of which is, during a disagreement about disclosure I remember reminding prosecution counsel, that his duty was to assist the Court which included not asking them to make unlawful decisions. I was interrupted by an older male lawyer who thought he ought to intervene, I told him it wasn’t his case and had nothing to do with him. Was I right? Yes. Did it go down like a lead balloon in terms of my likability – absolutely.
I was once asked what my greatest strength and weakness was as a Lawyer in a management role.
My response, ‘I’m direct, I speak my mind and it packs some punch’.
My greatest weakness, ‘I’m direct, I speak my mind and it packs some punch, some people don’t like it’.
I was aware of the anomaly, that my greatest asset was my biggest flaw. I never considered whether that may be the same for a man in my position. I’d grown up to believe in equality and always chose to see the world with that lens, that it would offering me the same opportunities as it did to men. But I never considered the sacrifices I might need to make to have them.
At the time, I was completely unaware of the 2003 study by Professor Francis Flynn who ran an experiment to test the perceptions of men and women in the work place. The study is nicknamed as the ‘Howard and Heidi’ experiment.
Sheryl Sandberg summarises this in her book ‘Lean in’ concluding that ‘success and likability is positively correlated for men but not for women. Women who stood up for themselves, negotiating on their own behalf tended to be liked less by both genders. They are seen as ‘selfish’, ‘aggressive’, ‘not a team player’, ‘a bit political ‘can’t be trusted’ and ‘difficult’. She confirms being named as all of those things during her extremely successful career and climb to the top with internet giants Google and Facebook. It certainly made me feel better as I’d also heard every single one of them said about me during my legal career but I was also deemed more ‘successful’ than many of my female colleagues.
As women, if we kick arse, it seems we are liked less by men and women as we are acting out of the stereotype that we ought to primarily care and nurture others. Instead, we are seen putting ourselves and our need for success first. This is despite, all the women I know intending to achieve success so we can make a real difference to everyone else, to have a voice and do things differently. Certainly for me, if success meant I had no voice or had to change who I was, I wasn’t interested in success for the sake of it and certainly not for the status or fancy car that might come with it.
Sandburg, states society struggles to see women as ‘nice and competent’ all at the same time. We have to choose to be one or the other and because of these unfair expectations women are ‘damned if they do and doomed if they don’t’.
For Men it’s normal for them to advocate for themselves but for Women we are far more comfortable and more accepted if we advocate for others which is fulfilling the role which is expected of us, to nuture and care. It’s perhaps no wonder so many women hold back from what they are truly capable of, choosing to be liked instead of successful.
As I said, I didn’t believe in inequality in the legal world until I left it but with two years of reflecting and reading ‘Lean In’ by Sandburg resonated so much that even as Women we are subconsciously unaware of the hidden inequalities that exist that we ourselves perpetuate by deciding whether we want to be liked or we want to be successful.
It even gives a more in depth meaning for my business coaching women, to advocate for success on our terms. Success without sacrificing our time, our identity and our likability. The truth is we can totally kick arse and be liked all at the same time, but it’s our job to advocate that to one another and not accept anything less than we deserve .
In what ways are you limiting yourself and success on your terms by accepting less than you deserve in the name of success? Once we open up as Women in having an honest dialogue about the subtle and subconscious beliefs we hold as a society about Women and success. I wholeheartedly believe changing this starts with us as women, once we change the perceptions about ourselves, one another and what is possible, we find our real strength and we change the world.