Are Successful Women Really Less Likable Than Successful Men?

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It feels true—but is it?

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Hillary Clinton was merely "likable enough" in the 2008 presidential primary, but she retired from her position as Secretary of State with sky-high approval ratings (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In is full of quotable lines: "What would you do if you weren't afraid?"; "As women must be more empowered at work, men must be more empowered at home"; and so on. There's one line in particular that jumped out at me and I felt compelled to follow up on: "As a man gets more successful, he is better liked by men and women, and as a woman gets more successful, she is less liked by men and women."

It feels true. The ruthless, friendless lady-in-charge is a tired trope in pop culture and politics: c.f. Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada and Tracy Flick in Election, or President Obama's infamous "You're likable enough, Hillary" line from the 2008 primary.

But I wondered how true it actually is. After all, it's easy to point to anecdotal rebuttals. Despite Obama's primary-race condescension, Hillary Clinton's approval rating when she stepped down as Secretary of State was higher than Obama's. And there are plenty of wildly successful men whom many people cannot stand: Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, and Decision-era LeBron James come to mind.

Sandberg bases her claim on a variety of studies, especially an experiment conducted in 2003 with business students. The researchers presented the students with a story of a successful entrepreneur. They told half the students that the entrepreneur's name was Heidi; they told the other half that it was Howard. Then they asked students their impressions of Heidi or Howard and discovered that though the participants rated them both as competent and worthy of respect,

Howard came across as a more appealing colleague. Heidi, on the other hand, was seen as selfish and not "the type of person you would want to hire or work for." The same data with a single difference--gender--created vastly different impressions.

So, a bunch of relatively young people who were not members of the full-time workforce at the moment reacted skeptically to a theoretical successful female. Does that really mean that in practice, most workers object to real-life, flesh-and-blood female leaders?

Maybe not. A 2011 study published in Human Relations surveyed 60,000 full-time workers on their attitudes toward male versus female managers. At first, its conclusions seem to bolster Sandberg's claim that people are more accepting of successful men than successful women: Of the 46 percent of respondents who expressed a preference for their boss's gender, 72 percent said they wanted a male manager. But another aspect of the results highlights a flaw in the Heidi/Howard study: People who actually had female managers did not give them lower ratings than people who had male managers. That is, though many people preferred male managers in theory, in practice those gender biases did not play out.

There's a precedent for this, of course. Humans tend to be opposed to changes in the status quo until they are forced, through experience, to see that change isn't such a big deal. Marriage equality advocates have learned this lesson well. Before last fall's string of ballot victories, pro-gay marriage groups ran ads depicting happy, committed gay couples and testimonies from "straight, respected people from unexpected corners of the community, like a firefighter in Maine," as the New York Times put it. These ads reflected the understanding that for some people, same-sex marriage may be scary in theory, but once they get to know real gay couples, it's not scary at all--it's actually desirable.

It looks like this is happening, and will continue to happen, with female leaders. Yes, we're all probably conditioned in some way to expect men to be calm, stable, and competent and women to be shrill, mean, and emotional. But as soon as we experience an inspiring female boss (or a deadbeat male one), we see stereotypes for what they are.

In a recent segment for his show, CNN's Anderson Cooper had New York University's business school repeat the Heidi/Howard study, now ten years after it was originally conducted. This time around, students rated the female entrepreneur as more likable and desirable as a boss than the male:

In the 10 years since the original Heidi/Howard experiment was conducted, we've seen two female Secretaries of State and a record number of women elected to Congress. Women have become nearly half the workforce. It's no surprise, then, that today's students are more receptive to the idea of a successful woman. In their minds, female leaders are transforming from a scary concept to an appealing reality.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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