Dismantling “Likeability”

This post is inspired by an article published by Natasha Quindlin, titled “The Mark of a Woman’s Record: Gender and Academic Performance in Hiring.” In her research Quindlin analyzed the outcomes for “high achieving” women and “moderate achieving” women (achievement was measured by GPA). She found that “moderate achieving” women were more likely to be successful in the hiring process.

“Employers value competence and commitment among men applicants, but instead privilege women applicants who are perceived as likeable. This standard helps moderate-achieving women, who are often described as sociable and outgoing, but hurts high-achieving women, whose personalities are viewed with more skepticism.”

Quadlin, N. (2018). The Mark of a Woman’s Record: Gender and Academic Performance in Hiring. American Sociological Review83(2), 331–360. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122418762291

This resonated with me because I historically tended towards the “moderate” in both my academic experiences and my career, and that moderation was an early strategic adjustment to inputs and experiences.

Image of piece of music titled "My Girl is a Winner"
Music Division, The New York Public Library. (1897). My girl is a winner Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47de-17ff-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Upon reflection, I recognize that as early as elementary school I had noticed the way in which many of my high achieving female peers were often perceived as aggressive and penalized for it, and I had moderated my approach in an effort to be more successful. At times when I pursued more achievement, I was often penalized. I think about how I asked to be put on the Science Olympiad team and pointed out my grades were as high as many of the team members (all boys) and was laughed at. Or how a mathematics teacher told me that sure I was good at math, but I was much better at art, and shouldn’t that be my focus? Moderate achievement was rewarded- high achievement was valued in male peers but never in the girls I knew. I made a tacit adjustment.

Let’s be clear that this is insidious, and a form of internalized misogyny, and I feel confident that there are probably many others like me. I have experienced the long-term benefits of “moderate” or, perhaps more accurately, socially acceptable accomplishment.

I know I have sometimes coasted on likeability in my work and professional development, and it’s something that recently I have been actively working to challenge in myself. I do so because I know that while I do enjoy social aspects of the relationship-building that facilitates collaboration and leads to more efficient and pleasant working environments, sometimes when I am focusing on making people comfortable, I reinforce systems of oppression.

Yeah, I said it.

At times, in trying to ease conversations or coalesce a group, I have not been an ally or advocate for the positive change making necessary to dismantling barriers in the workplace. I have not always advocated when I could have, because of the ease of pursuing what looks like middle ground but can be, functionally, retrograde solutions that failed to move discussions towards more just and inclusive outcomes.

I have also periodically succeeded- I have made efforts to push for hiring high achieving women, to support my high achieving colleagues. I am not afraid of being seen as high achieving anymore, perhaps a consequence of being midcareer af, or in my midthirties, or just my embrace of the opportunities to leverage my power and privilege. I am working on it. I also don’t see a real tension between meaningful relationship and trust building and achievement- so I see a lot of my role in this effort to be making that clear to leaders in the workplace who might be less open to the idea.

But this article was a reminder that there is so much more I can do, and that I want to stop the cycle of rewarding middling efforts and approaches rather than pushing through conflict and competition to transform where we desperately need to. It’s crucial work that has implications beyond libraries.

 

 

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