A woman in a position of power is no stranger to being called a bitch but is this treatment less about her and more about how others think she should behave? This pressure to behave a certain way when rising in the ranks in the workplace is the subject of Alicia Menendez’s new book The Likeablity Trap. In the first chapter she confesses her own desire to be liked and that upon discovering the pressure other women felt to be likable, she set out to explore the consequences of this expectation.
“I care a lot about being well-liked. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that while that has value, it sometimes comes at a cost. Originally, I imagined writing a book about learning to care less,” she tells HipLatina. “But as I interviewed other women, I realized that even those who don’t give a damn still pay a price for being themselves. There’s still an expectation that they should care, and that became even more interesting to me.”
The MSNBC anchor and host of the Latina to Latina podcast — whose father is Cuban — poses the question: “If likeability matters, but I can’t be both likable and successful, then where does that leave me?” And that’s the question at the core of this 206-page book that she works to unpack through research and interviews with powerful women.
She breaks down the three “likeability traps” women face with the first being the “Goldilocks Conundrum” where a woman is either too warm (i.e. weak) or too strong ( i.e. aggressive), she’s never just right. She states in the book that factors including race and ethnicity also complicate this first trap, which leads to the second trap where she admits likeability can be seen as a luxury for women of color. She quotes a young girl from a workshop she was leading who says “likeability is something that white ladies care about to feel better about themselves.” Menendez shares how being a white, able-bodied Latina has allowed her to navigate being in white power structures in a way a black woman, for example, can’t. The third trap acknowledges the multitude of other traps women face as they rise in the ranks, the personal attacks in professional settings that women of color, in particular, are all too familiar with.
It’s important to note that she’s aware many women will say they don’t care whether or not they’re liked but she goes on to say that it’s still an issue that affects all women even if they’re not concerned with it. “Likeability at work benefits us tremendously. People like working and doing business with people they like. Fact. As I write in the book, that’s wildly subjective, and riddled with bias, but it’s what we’re up against. Knowing that, it’s made me in my non-work life, only want to surround myself with people who encourage my best, truest self to show up.”
The statistics speak for themselves showing the lack of parity in the workplace, especially in high-ranking positions. There’s no denying that stereotypes and access are two factors prohibiting progress. For every 100 men promoted to manager-level roles, only 79 women moved up into similar roles, while women of color make up only 17 percent of entry-level roles and 4 percent of C-suite positions (top-level executives), according to the 2018 Women in the Workplace report released by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org. Furthermore, the report found that in total, 64 percent of women reported encountering microaggressions at work and lesbian women more so at 71 percent.
What makes someone likable is undoubtedly subjective but history shows that the higher up the ranks a woman goes, the more pushback she receives. A recent and well-known example she writes about is Hillary Clinton when she ran for president in 2016. But Menendez also tells the story of Ann Hopkins who worked at a global accounting firm. She’d proven herself as a management consultant but when it came to making her partner, the firm took issue with her “overly aggressive” and “harsh” behavior. She sued for workplace discrimination after being denied the nomination for partner and after seven years the Supreme Court ruled in her favor citing sexual stereotyping. This happened in 1982 but could’ve easily been a present-day scenario with the lack of real progress when it comes to equality in the workplace.
But this isn’t an issue solely affecting an aspiring president or company partner, these traps affect all women, as they try to take up space where men have historically dominated. Menendez writes when likeability comes at the cost of authenticity, it’s the “biggest and the most all-encompassing pitfall.” She then cites one of the fiercest and most well- known women in entertainment as an exemption to that notion. Cardi B is famous for being blunt and some might describe her as “aggressive” and yet she’s one of the most successful artists and has made history while posting sometimes hilariously honest videos on Instagram with her nearly 60 million followers.
“Sidney Madden at NPR defined the ‘Cardi B effect’ as a ‘branding power rooted in specific authenticity.’ But can that idea apply to a woman of color in a non-creative field? Right now there is this big push to ‘bring your whole self’ to work, and yet so many of the women I interviewed feel that their workplaces have not done the work necessary to receive them,” she says. “So we’re being told ‘do you’ but for many of us, that can feel like a dangerous dare. Plus, so often there is a sense of how that ‘you’ is supposed to show up.”
The book is for all women but she does address specific issues Latinas and women of color face in the workplace that can make progress that much more difficult. “Latinas face two major stereotypes: we’re either perceived as hot-blooded and irrational, or too meek to be taken seriously. So we’re constantly negotiating those biases, especially if we want to lead,” she says. “I’ve spoken with many Latinas who were raised to be very mindful of what others think of them and to moderate their truest selves to please others. But I’ve also spoken with Latinas who were raised to be themselves and speak their minds no matter what.”
She cites the treatment Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor received during her confirmation hearing where she was called “angry” and “aggressive.” Menendez writes, “Calling a woman ’emotional’ is a great way to call her incompetent without having to use the word.” Throughout the book she discusses how emotion is at the core of the reason why women are judged as inferior or ill-equipped as opposed to a man who wouldn’t let his feelings get the best of him. This idea is further exacerbated for women of color who, Menendez points out, are regularly reminded that their competence is not assumed but rather they have to prove themselves worthy and their opinion is not valued. How then does a women of color, likely a minority at her work, remain authentic AND likable when the expectations are rooted in emotional stereotypes.
“So many workplaces encourage workers to ‘bring their whole selves to work’ but so few workplaces have actually done the work necessary to make that possible. For people of color, I want to affirm that covering, and code-switching can be exhausting. Again, if it feels hard it’s because often it is. For women, for people of color, there is so much workplace advice about how we bend ourselves to fit, and not nearly enough calling out of how the system needs to expand to let more of us in.”
Part I of the book addresses these problems while Part II provides solutions for how to change this restrictive system including, checking our own unconscious biases, finding a sponsor (unlike a mentor, they can provide a more concrete path for advancement), and pushing for more concrete and subjective feedback. This advice is particularly significant for women of color who lack access to mentors, let alone sponsors which is such a crucial factor when it comes to making professional progress.
She recommends doing the research to find a sponsor and do the work to connect with them and show them that the relationship can benefit both of you. She also reminds readers to pay it forward and advocate for others, as you make your way up the ranks. She notes that advocacy and unity in the face of these traps is essential to move forward because even though some may not feel the pressure to be likable, there are plenty who do.
“So much career advice purports to teach us how to thrive when at best it teaches us to survive. To empower women to lead, we have to stop asking women to reimagine themselves and instead, reimagine leadership,” she says. “If authenticity is critical to effective leadership, then we need to expand our definitions of what authentic leadership looks like so that more of us can show up, as we are.”