Embracing My Inner Honey Badger


Four days after graduating from college, I headed to a prominent national magazine to test my chops as a paid journalism intern. Like most recent college grads, I initially had no skills and no clue what I was doing. However, in time I gained my footing and began to pitch stories more often and more thoughtfully. Eventually I was hired full time and made friends with a few senior editors, who started saving me a seat at their regular Friday night dinners. I soon discovered the key to being low on the totem pole in the workplace: have people in power like you… regardless of your professional experience.

After a year, I was restless with the job and decided to continue on to my next adventure. On my final day at the magazine, the editors threw me a big party. As it was winding down, an editor with whom I hadn’t had much contact came over to me and said, “You know the only reason you got that party is because one of your editors is attracted to you, right?” I froze. I pretended not to hear, rushed to my desk and immediately emailed the cabal of three other women I had bonded with at the magazine. Responses came in – he’d drunk too much tequila, no one likes him, he is an idiot. These were all true. But, still. The party had been big, I thought. Bigger than my job warranted. And so many senior editors had attended. Why? I left the job wondering if it had all been a ruse. Had I been perceived as a whip-smart up-and-coming journo? Or just a cute chick with some funny stories?

I recently reread the letter of recommendation I received from that magazine job. In addition to a discussion of my objective abilities, there was a lot about my soft skills: “strong interpersonal skills,” “a delight to work with,” “an easy rapport with…people, who loved to work with [me];” the Editor in Chief and Managing Editor “loved” me.

As a twenty-something in my first job, I was very likeable and completely nonthreatening. I remember one meeting where I challenged the Managing Editor on a topic that he was an expert in and turned out to be right. It didn’t ruffle feathers, though. In fact, it tickled people. Because it was a surprise. I was a likeable underdog, not because I was stupid, but because I had low power and status. For a while it was an easy place to live; likeability was comfortable. I was taught to be likeable; I knew to focus on building rapport in conversations with superiors instead of “flaunting” my past accomplishments. I noticed that when I directly challenged my likability, there were consequences.

I now realize that this cultivated likability came at a cost. First, it came with a perceived competence penalty (e.g., you didn’t deserve that party) and second, it was conflated with my sexual desirability (e.g., you only got that party because someone high up wanted to bone you). I had fallen (and continue to fall) prey to the infamous “double bind,” which shows that that while men can be perceived as both likeable and competent, women often experience a tradeoff and must sacrifice one for the other. In other words, women are often punished for their success by being viewed as unlikable, or deprived of success by being viewed as incompetent.

Today, ten years later, I have some perspective. I’ve worked in lots of different contexts, industries, and a couple of different countries, and as I’ve gotten older and more skilled, I’ve consciously sacrificed some of my perceived likability in exchange for perceived competence.

As I’ve transitioned from a twentysomething to a thirtysomething, I’ve found that growing up in the workplace has created a new set of challenges and opportunities for both personal and professional growth. In other words, it’s gotten harder. And better.

Why harder?

  • Age: Age has really complicated this likeability thing. There is, I would bet, an inversely proportionate relationship between women’s increased age and perceived likeability in the workplace. As we age and potentially become less, um, “likable” to potential suitors, we also hopefully gain competence (e.g., power and actual skills). Therefore, it’s pretty tough to disentangle the way in which age confounds or moderates the effect of increased competence. I would love to see some experimental research that tries to do this.

  • How Many Women? How Long Have They Been There? Throughout my career I’ve moved in and out of about twelve different jobs, several of which contained more men than women and included work that is historically and traditionally male-dominated. The double-bind’s intensity can vary with these factors. At times, this variation has been a little crazy-making – how likable and how competent I am perceived to be fluctuates depending on the environment. While my hunch says that age has complicated my likability at work, it is equally likely that my decisions to enter different work contexts have complicated my likeability.

So yes, things have definitely gotten harder. But – weirdly – things have also gotten better:

  • This is real! I’ve learned that this likability-competence tradeoff thing is a thing. I’m not crazy and I am not immune. While it’s a huge bummer, it’s a massive relief to know this is pervasive and not pathological. Now that I recognize it, I can do something about it. For one thing, I have started a women’s career group. It’s amazing what shared validated experience will do. Even if it just boils down to a version of:

Group Member 1: I’m not crazy, right?
Group Members 2-10: Right. You’re not crazy. This is a thing.

  • Self-monitoring works: I have learned to self-monitor (or manage my “masculine” traits). It’s annoying to constantly wonder whether I am portraying aggressive or communal behavior, but it’s a helpful tool to integrate into the way I approach professional situations. I am psyched to be a woman and recognizing both the benefits and cultural expectations that come with that are part and parcel to this arrangement/construction we call gender.

  • Authentic impostor syndrome: I have become friends with my imposter syndrome. I used to fake it til I became it. I still do, but I find myself doing it in a more authentic way. I am learning when to fake it and when to share my vulnerability, which can invite others to be more honest in their own work.

  • Increased competence: I’ve acquired some hard skillz. Yes, I pay a likability penalty for them, but I also do a lot more these days than writing punny headlines (not that I don’t still do that – there is nary a chapter heading in my Ph.D. dissertation without a pun). I recognize this increased skill-base complicates some things for me in the workplace, but it also provides a sound foundation for me to work from.

All this adds up to embracing my inner honey badger. I don’t need to be likable all the time. My mom always told me her thirties were emancipating because she just started giving less of a shit what people thought of her. When she first told me that, I remember being horrified. Now I am inspired. I won’t always be “a pleasure” to work with, but I can live with that. This is not to say I have stopped valuing kindness, warmth, and gratitude (and, yes, I still recognize being perceived as likable has some serious work perks). However, I am less likely to think twice about sacrificing my likability for perceived competence at this stage of the game. I don’t abandon myself when something doesn’t sit quite right, when I disagree, or when I think it’s appropriate to assert my power and offer knowledge. I am a recovering validation junkie.

As a thirty-three year old, I’ve rewritten the story from my first job that began this piece. The editor wasn’t threatened or being bitchy or trying to knock me down a notch. He was ineloquently showing me something. The young woman who froze and scurried back to her desk afterward is still in here. But so is another one who would engage him in a discussion on gender and practice using potential conflict to connect – to hear my voice, to listen, not to capitulate. I have started consciously doing this voluntarily in more contexts – on Facebook, Twitter (hey, it’s a start), and doing things like writing this blog post. My voice may not always be likable, it may not always be competent, but it’s mine and I want to keep hearing it.

Image: Supine woman by Wayne Thiebaud (1963).

Salary Negotiations in Four Acts


My first salary negotiation was for my very first paying job. I was 22. I had already been an intern at the organization for a few months, and the executive director called me into her office, where we sat on uncomfortably high stools around a very small table. She said that she was happy to offer me a full-time, salaried position and told me the salary. It was not much money, but it was a salary and a title (my first other than “intern”) and I was thrilled. I knew that I was supposed to negotiate, probably from listening to my family talk about work. But had no idea how to do it, and felt extremely awkward. I think my boss did too. I remember feeling like we were dueling with our eyes closed, both too scared to look at the damage we were causing.  I remember saying something about how I had expected the salary to be higher and she agreed, offering a slightly higher number. I readily agreed. We could uncover our eyes. I had increased my salary by a couple thousand dollars.

Lesson: Negotiations are not comfortable. It’s ok that they aren’t comfortable, just be prepared for it. Sitting through awkward silences is a killer tactic.


When I left that job for my subsequent job, I didn’t negotiate. At all. I remember standing in an empty private office at the job I was leaving, speaking on the phone with the president of the company at my future job. He was very matter of fact. “You will be paid this per hour, which comes out to this annual salary. Including benefits, it comes out to… which is a very good amount for someone with your level of experience.” I knew that I wasn’t supposed to accept on the spot, but I had no idea how to ask for more, especially since his offer was already a lot more than I was making and I was desperate for a new job. I told him that I needed to think about it, and he said that I should get back to him as soon as possible so that he could let other candidates know. I called him back the next day to accept. I later learned that there were no other candidates and that he doesn’t like negotiating and really does think his offers are fair.

Lesson: Different people have different attitudes about negotiation, but it never hurts to ask.


My next negotiation was more of a freak out than anything else. I had been working at this company for over a year and was I was enjoying the work and my level of responsibility. The company had regular annual raises and promotions, and my boss had pulled me aside beforehand. As we walked around the block in the residential neighborhood where the office was located, he let me know that I wasn’t going to be promoted because I hadn’t been in my position for long enough, and that I could expect a promotion in another 6 or 12 months. This sounded reasonable to me when we talked about it, but when I got the email that listed all of my coworkers who were getting promoted, I was upset. I felt that everyone around me was being promoted, while I had just taken over a big project and had gotten nothing. Instead of dealing with this calmly, I exploded when my boss later stopped by my desk to tell me what my raise was that year. I don’t remember what incoherent words tumbled out of my mouth, but it definitely involved something about how I would have been making more if I had been promoted. To his credit, he didn’t get defensive. He recognized that I was upset and said that he would follow up with me later. We exchanged a few emails (where I explained myself more rationally), and he ended up giving me a slightly bigger raise (and I was promoted six months later).

Lesson: Don’t freak out. Or do, it works sometimes, but I can’t say that I recommend this tactic in a professional environment.


When I was hired for my current position, I had some advantages over my younger self. I was older and wiser than I’d been in the past; I had read quite a bit on negotiation (some favorites are listed below), and I’d taken a negotiation class in graduate school. The class was actually on consensus building for public policy, but it was full of negotiation strategies that can apply to salary, too. More than age, what made me really wise was that the organization posted a salary range with the position description, so I knew what numbers were reasonable. To prepare, I watched some videos from Ramit Sethi, borrowed my friend Rebecca’s book, and talked strategy with friends. I made some notes about why I thought I should be paid more, writing down some specific phrases that I could say. I found the phrases “I would be more comfortable if…” and “it would make this a really easy decision for me” very helpful.

The negotiation was with an HR person, and ended up being a few nerve-wracking rounds of phone tag and two conversations over a couple days. I really wanted this job, but decided in advance that I could go through two round of negotiations. She first offered me the bottom of the salary range, and I countered with some reasons that I thought I deserved a higher rate, while also affirming that I was really excited about the job and the organization. I didn’t give a specific number, but generally asked for a higher salary.  I also asked about vacation, hoping for more paid time off, but this wasn’t up for negotiation. She returned with a slightly higher value, and I again said that, while I was really eager to take the position, that the salary made it a hard decision for me. I was prepared to sit in silence on the phone or to defer, but wasn’t going to accept the amount on the spot. I think I was pretty repetitive in this conversation, but I didn’t budge. She went back to confer with others to see what the budget would allow, and in the end, she offered me $10,000 increase in salary over her initial offer, which put me in the middle of the salary range for the position. I was thrilled, and still am. Since joining the organization, I’ve learned how hard it is to get a raise or promotion, so I’m very glad that I negotiated when I joined.

Lesson: Preparation is invaluable. I got so nervous (read: sweaty) during this negotiation; it was extremely helpful to have a few arguments and phrases written down that I would go back to, including a delay tactic. It’s alright, and sometimes even advisable, to postpone and give yourself time to regroup.

I’m sure Small Answers will write more (much more) on negotiation, but in the meantime, here are some of my favorite resources:

Image: Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky’s duel (1899), illustration by Ilya Repin

Job History in 10 Questions
An Independent Game Developer

"I'm a good example of 'follow your passion,' but I think it's bad advice."

“I’m a good example of ‘follow your passion,’ but I think it’s bad advice.”

Name: Tim
Age: 31
Industry: Video games
Title: Independent game developer (self-employed)
Location: San Francisco, CA

Most interesting job you’ve ever had?

I would say the most interesting moment in my recent career was when I was hired at my previous job and got the opportunity to design and develop my own game. I happened to join at a good time when they’d just received a lot of investment money and were looking to create interesting content for a new online world. Every new hire was asked to pitch and build a game. I had a few ideas I’d fleshed out a little bit, and there was one was the most obvious choice. That idea became Corpse Craft. It was totally unexpected and exciting.

Least interesting job you’ve ever had?

Working as a dishwasher. That was torture.

Any role models or mentors?

I wish I did have a mentor; that’s been something I’ve felt is lacking in my career. I’ve had a couple of role models at previous jobs – both were the heads of the company I worked for at the time and I respected and admired them. My biggest role model is my dad. He started his own non-profit organization when he was thirty one – the age I am now. He just retired from that job this year. (read more…)

My Mad Men Memories
On Being The Only Woman In The Room

A girl who wore glasses, circa 1970.

A girl who wore glasses, circa 1970.

When the show Mad Men first premiered, I couldn’t watch it – not because I didn’t think it was well done, but because it captured a little too perfectly what it was like for women working at a large New York corporation in the 1960s. I began my career in 1967, and watching the show brought back memories of my own years of internal struggle, of learning how to be assertive and not defer to men. It was a difficult time to be a woman in the workforce.

I attended Barnard College, in New York City, where I was a math major. This was very unusual for a woman at that time. My advisors wanted me to get a PhD in pure math in order to teach, but I wasn’t interested. I’m too people-oriented. I wanted to go into business, but I didn’t have any role models of women in business positions. “Girls,” as we all called them, became teachers or secretaries if they chose to work. They did not have professional jobs. I decided I wanted to become a computer programmer; I had to get special approval to take computer courses at the Columbia School of Engineering while I worked toward my degree.  I was 21 years old when I got my first job working in a research laboratory at Columbia University. It was 1967. I was the only woman in the office. (read more…)