The Likeability Trap: Combatting Sexism And Staying True To Yourself In The Workplace

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“You should smile more,” “Be nice but not too nice,” or “Be assertive but not mean,” – these are all phrases that are said to women in the workplace.

While society has come a long way in regard to gender equality and sexism, the truth is, we as women are still stuck in an impossible bind at work. Strong women are criticised for being cold and harsh, while warm and friendly women are seen as weak. This is known as the likeability trap. Originally brought to light by American journalist Alicia Menendez, the likeability trap is a form of gender bias.

According to Susan Dwyer, founder of Rise Up, a community of diverse female leadership talent: “It’s essentially the pressure put on women to be amiable at work, home or in society.” She adds: “A strong, assertive woman can often be criticised for being a bitch, and ‘nice’ women are seen as pushovers.” As far as why it’s referred to as a trap? “It’s an impossible double standard.” As many women can relate to, Susan has experienced this phenomenon more than once throughout her career, having previously worked as part of a very male-dominated leadership team, where for a while she was the only woman.

“I felt this insane pressure to conform in order to ‘fit in’ and so I would abandon my own femininity in these meetings – hold myself back from speaking my truth in fear that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a leader,” Susan tells me. She soon found herself adapting behaviours that weren’t authentic to her because she believed that was the only thing to do in order to progress within her team – but admitted that it was only a matter of time before it began to take its toll on her. “When you don’t feel comfortable enough to show up as your full self at work and are constantly putting on a front, it’s exhausting and the reason so many women burn out.”

So why does this happen? To put it simply, the likeability trap dates back to gender bias and the deep-rooted ideas about how we expect men and women to behave. “When a woman embraces her confidence or assertiveness which are often viewed as typical ’masculine’ attributes at work – she can be negatively judged for it, which is just ridiculous,” reveals Susan. “People really need to take ownership of their bias by building awareness around it and challenging their own assumptions and thoughts as they arise. “Truthfully, we all have biases. It’s part of being human, however, it’s when we choose to ignore our own biases that this becomes a problem.


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Challenging bias in yourself

When it comes to gender stereotypes and challenging bias in yourself, Susan suggests paying attention to who you are and what you stand for. “Pay attention to your thoughts, examine your beliefs and challenge your assumptions and those of others. A good example is, do you think showing your emotions – or crying at work is a sign of weakness? If so, sit with that belief – where did this come from?” she asks.

The same goes for others. If you recognise bias, it’s important to call it out in the moment. “Become curious as to why that person thinks that way – ask them why have they come to that conclusion – or what the thinking is behind that comment they just made.” Recognising our own biases can be hard as they’re deeply ingrained in us, meaning it’s just as important that we challenge ourselves and others.

Playing to strengths

Now that we’ve recognised and challenged our own bias, it’s time we as women stop apologising for our behaviour and instead play into our strengths and break free from sexist pressure. “As humans, we are all made up of feminine and masculine energy, we are not one or the other. And so if you are a woman – know that your femininity holds so much power in the workplace and to never hide it from anyone,” notes Susan.

Traits like vulnerability and empathy are critical leadership qualities and they make others feel psychologically safe to show up as themselves at work, Susan explains. “This is true leadership. If you are the only woman in the room, great, let’s stop looking at this as a negative – use this as an opportunity to standout, why conform to be the same as everyone else when we can be different?”

As well as embracing our femininity it’s also important to not shy away from our masculine energy either, whether that be confidence, assertiveness or whatever attributes are unique and authentic to you. “It’s about balancing the two and showing up as your full self. The same goes for men, embrace your feminine and masculine energy and I promise you will be a better leader for it,” adds Susan.

Whilst there’s still a lot of work to be done in regard to gender equality and bias in the workplace, we should never feel as though we have to change who we are in order to come off a certain way. Stay true to yourself and if you do feel like you are being belittled then open up that conversation with your colleagues. Have examples where you felt that you have been caught in the likeability trap and how this made you feel.

Call out their behaviour and see if you can work together to find a solution and discuss the next steps. If they’re not willing to hear you out, then know your worth and get out of there! There’s no reason to stick with an employer who doesn’t see your potential and inherent value.

As well as that, don’t be afraid to push back and stand your ground. Although the likeability trap delivers an essential examination of the pressure put on women to be amiable at work, at home, and in the public sphere, it also proposes surprising, practical solutions for confronting the cultural patterns holding us back – reminding us that while likeability is part of the game, it will not break us. It’s time to let go of old rules and rather than reinventing ourselves, let’s reimagine how we view leadership.