In Sheryl Sandberg’s excellent book, Lean In – Women, Work, And The Will To Lead, she writes of an experiment done in 2003 by Columbia Business School professor, Frank Flynn and New York University professor Cameron Anderson. Their experiment was to do with workplace gender perceptions around success and likability. The experiment involved engaging two focus groups each having been given a case study that detailed the real-life success of an entrepreneur, Heidi Roizen. The case study detailed how Roizen had become a successful venture capitalist by using her outgoing personality and vast personal and professional network. The twist in the experiment was that one focus group were given the name ‘Heidi’ whilst the other group were given the name ‘Howard’.  The interesting finding was that both groups respected the accomplishments of their respective ‘case studies’ Howard emerged as the more likeable. Heidi was seen as selfish and “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for”.
ScaleTwo vastly different perceptions were created by changing only one variable in the research – that of gender. The conclusion to this (and several other such studies) reveals that when a woman is successful, people from both genders like her less.
The pathway to success and the results of success differ between genders. It is not a level playing field on the way to success nor is it a level playing field after success. That is the hard truth to the situation and one that escapes most men either because they simply don’t see it or they simply aren’t willing to see it. Most women know it as part of their reality and theirs is a choice as to whether or not to confront this reality or merely accept it. The context and culture in which they find themselves goes a long way to determining which of these two approaches they adopt.
Sandberg details how journalist Shankar Vedantam has catalogued some of the descriptors given to some of the world’s political leaders who were female. He writes that Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, was called ‘Attila the Hen’, Israel’s first female Prime Minister was described as the, ‘only man in the Cabinet’. Disgraced US President, Richard Nixon called India’s first female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi the, ‘Old Witch’. In more recent times German Chancellor, Angela Merkel has been called the ‘Iron Frau’. Women leaders, in politics as in business are not viewed in the same light as their male counter-parts. The reasons for this are both complex and layered but that does not excuse this differing perception and reality.
On the road to success, being liked – or being ‘nice’ seems to play out differently for men and women. It is something that needs to be discussed openly if a leader is to take seriously the organisational culture. Yet having such discussions in is not easy. Initiated by women, the discussions might be viewed somewhat cynically or patronisingly by their male counterparts; initiated by men, the discussions might be met with a deep-seated suspicion. It is often safer to ignore them, deny the need for them or just turn a blind-eye. And so the game gets played out with women left to carry the load and bear the brunt of the impact of such skewed perceptions and the resultant behaviour.
So what can one do about it?
I am not sure there is an easy ‘1,2,3’ step approach to such a matter. The embedded drivers to such perceptions could be entrenched in the depths of cultural and societal ‘norms’ all of which makes this complex territory. However, doing nothing is also not an option for any leader who wants to create an environment which brings out the best in others and who wishes to be an invitational leader.
A starting point might be to ‘test the waters’ – to quietly explore to what extent this perception is rooted in your particular environment and organisational culture. I wouldn’t recommend doing this is an open, stereo-typical manner but rather through making time to really listen to the stories (from both genders) and then look for patterns from which ‘points of departure’ in addressing this issue more formally can be identified. Creating a ‘safe environment’ for such discussions and the discussions to follow is important. It will take a high level of genuine curiosity on the part of the leader (initiating such discussions) and openness to hear things that might not want to be heard. In short, it will require emotional intelligence and a willingness to learn on the part of the leader.
It should be seen as a process and not something that can ‘be fixed’ in an instant. Challenging biases and changing behaviour is difficult and time-consuming work. Understanding that this is not something that can be ‘legislated’ but rather is something that has to be lived is important. Of course sometime we do ‘legislate’ or formalise ‘our values’ but this is meaningless unless our formal expressions of such find meaningful expression in how we live and go about our business.
Look to create small wins early in the process. These will send out encouraging signs and be strong indications of intent do actually do something about addressing the playing field. These can then be built on and a process that was initially initiated and driven by the leader, can then take-on a ‘life of its own’. It can grow into a self-directed drive that creates its own regulatory measures and accountability. When this happens, the message has been received, understood and embraced. The culture has shifted.
Conversations around success can be invigorating in any business environment. They can reveal what it takes to be successful and so provide a blueprint for the mind-sets and behaviours that are needed within the business. They can polish stories and exhibit role models that serve as signposts to future success. Hosting such conversations is important but there is a ‘BUT’ that needs to be understood before venturing into such territory:
BUT don’t assume that the pathway to success and dealing with success is the same for women as it is for men.
Remember that, and you are on your way.

TomorrowToday Global