Embracing My Inner Honey Badger

Wayne-Thiebaud-Supine-Woman-1963.-Oil-on-canvas-36-x-72-in.-Courtesy-Sothebys

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).

9 Comments

  1. Oyeoro

    I don’t think this is so much a woman vs. man thing as it is a young vs. older more mature thing. While I understand that the workplace politics for women are filled with land mines and other potholes compared to men, I (in my 30s) have reduced my need for validation. When you are younger your insecurity is abound… versus having had success and feeling fulfilled by your own actions.

    • leda

      Thanks for your comment. Some of this is definitely related to age, maturity, and experience. But I do think there is a gender element to, in that women who are thought of as more competent are penalized on likability (and vice versa). This isn’t universal, or course, but it’s common. Sometimes it’s expressed in subtle ways – not necessarily through direct confrontation, but in back room gossip (“she’s such a bitch”), career advancement, and perceived “niceness” as a person.

  2. Mary Bralove

    Excellent, interesting and well thought through piece. I wish I had had a career group. I think it would have saved me a lot of angst and sharing problems so lightens the load.

  3. Meredith Watts

    I see echoes of my own experience coming up through the world of work in this “other Meredith’s” post, but mine was about thirty-five years earlier. The pressure then to be likable (and bangable) was much, much stronger. As a new lawyer, I observed that my male superiors reflexively wanted me, as a young woman, to be cute and feminine, someone they could mentally store away in the wife/daughter/mistress/secretary box. It was hard as the devil to break out of that. To their credit, some of them also wanted me to be competent, but everyone was confused as could be from one minute to the next. Put into this mix the fact that I personally am very invested in having people like me (I know, I know), and it was grueling to be trying to fight the gender battles and lay down new ways of working with those guys while also actually working and keeping up my self-esteem.

    Anyway, I don’t think Hilary Clinton gives a fig whether anyone likes her. If she’s going to be President, that will help a lot.

  4. leda

    I know the experience of a young working woman is very different today than it was 35 years ago – at least in some ways – but in this way, it feels miserably the same. Penalized if you are likable, and penalized if you don’t care. Meredith Watts, how did you finally break out of the wife/daughter/mistress/secretary box?

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