A respected writer asserts that men in power are liked and women are uniformly hated.
Let’s just stop and think about that.
My twitter feed is abuzz with comments on Jessica Valenti‘s article today in The Nation, “She Who Dies With the Most ‘Likes’ Wins?” The gist of the article is a feminist call to action that women stop trying to be liked so much, because it undermines their power, and accept the fact that their ambition may make them, by definition, unpopular. Ms. Valenti states: “When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave a TED talk in 2010, one of the issues she talked about—and later expounded on in her 2011 commencement speech at Barnard—was likability. ‘Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women,’ she said.”
She goes on, “the implications of likability are long-lasting and serious. Women adjust their behavior to be likable and as a result have less power in the world. And this desire to be liked and accepted goes beyond the boardroom—it’s an issue that comes up for women in their personal lives as well, especially as they become more opinionated and outspoken.”
I really try to stay away from these gender debates. Honest. And generally I feel like despite having founded The Good Men Project and been a passionate member of our community for four years now, I know very little about the essence of men (or women). But articles like Ms. Valenti’s and comments like Ms. Sandberg’s really stick in my craw because they seem to me to be moving the ball backwards down the field of gender enlightenment and equality rather than forward.
One of the things I have become crystal clear on, the hard way by running my mouth when in ways that caused a justified backlash, is that talking about gender in universal terms is problematic at best. There is something that theorists call gender “reductionism” that means that if you say that women are always X and men are always Y, any man who is not Y or woman who is not X will be left out of the sweeping generalization. Often this is used in reference to the way that sexism reduces women to a false stereotype. But I refuse to accept that it is a one way street. Both men and women come in a rainbow of shapes, colors, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. There’s no box big enough to hold them and say, that right there is a real MAN or WOMAN.
So let’s come back to this idea that women in some generalized way attempt to be liked at their own peril. I am perfectly willing to accept that we have a glass ceiling that we need to continue find ways to break. And that gender, racial, and sexual preference discrimination does still go on. But a flat comment like Ms. Valenti’s rallying cry:
“Women’s likability is something feminists use as proof of inequity—he’s a boss, she’s a bitch—but not something we’ve put on par with standard feminist fare like reproductive rights or pay inequality. Because there’s no policy you can create to make people like successful women. There’s no legislation to fight for or against, or even a cultural campaign that would make a dent in such a long standing double standard.”
…just doesn’t make sense to me. Do I view every woman in a position of power as a bitch? Do you? How is that possibly a fair comment to anyone who thinks carefully about what it means to lead effectively. I have had plenty of male bosses who were roving assholes who got none of my respect. I can think of ten women in power from Hilary Clinton to Indra Nooyi (CEO of Pepsi) who I like and respect. Hell, I think Mark Zuckerberg is a raving lunatic asshole who is out to take over the world. And for the most part I think the only good thing about Facebook is Sheryl Sandberg. She’s likable, tough, rational. She doesn’t walk around in flip-flops and pretend that the entire world is her inferior.
Towards the end of Valenti’s piece she quotes Sandberg again as saying that women need to “lean in.”
She was referring largely to professional ambitions, but I think it’s good advice all around. We need to lean in to who we really are—not who we think people would like most. We need to tell young women that not being liked, as hard as it may be, is often as sign that they’re doing something right.
I ask again, why is this a gender issue at all? Isn’t a core part of becoming an successful adult, and authentic human being, shedding what people might think of you and having the courage to take off down the path of “who we really are.”?
I’d appreciate your thoughts on this. As always that means not just men but women readers of the GMP. Whether I like you or not I will listen carefully. I promise.
Image of Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, by AP