Powerful Band-Aid for Women to Overcome the “Likeability Bias”

Words from a humble man

Right now, I wish I was a woman. I am about to write something that might not get heard because it didn’t come from a woman. Considering how the male mind works, and since I am a man, it may be perceived as male advice. The thoughts I am about to offer are pragmatic and specifically focused on the short-term.

By focusing on the short-term, the challenge to accept is that things aren’t going to change in that time frame – especially the bigger issues. Please see this as an honest attempt to share some pragmatic tools, given the world we are currently living in.

What is the “Likeability Bias”?

Sheryl Sandberg’s work with her ‘Lean In’ campaign inspired me to write this blog post. I have heard several of her speeches and it blew my mind just how present the challenges are that we are facing with gender inequality in our society. One thing that particularly stuck out was what I ended up calling the “likeability bias”.

Sheryl pointed out something very interesting. She says that while success and likeability are positively correlated for men, it is negatively correlated for women. It’s very simple: the more successful a woman is, the less she is liked by men and women. In contrast, when a man is successful, he becomes more liked.

The Journey to Change

According to Sheryl, that leads to situations, during performance reviews, where a woman is told she is good but maybe too aggressive or political. If a man was acting in the same way, they likely wouldn’t receive that type of feedback. I agree with Sheryl’s solution: people need to simply be aware of this.

If we raise awareness of this, we actually might be able to change how things are seen and through that process, achieve resolution for this likeability bias towards women. This of course will take time. Changing stereotypes in our society is a very difficult and long-term process. This is one of the reasons we have to thank Sheryl as well as all other women and men who embark in this journey. The more that join, the faster the change will come.

The Band-Aid Solution

In the meantime, I started to wonder what can be done to help women stuck in this situation, right now. Is there something that will produce instant results? Could there be a Band-Aid solution? I think the answer is yes.

The Band-Aid solution, in my opinion, is managing the microcosm of your surrounding relationships by learning more about how likeability works. How can we make people within our work environment like us more – with or without success – to overcome that built-in bias that Sheryl so eloquently points out? Is there a way we, as individuals, can shift the balance of this unhelpful correlation of success and likeability for women? Again, the answer is yes.

To do this, we need to understand the concept of likability a little bit better. Let’s take a look!

Likeability 101: Find Common Ground

We can learn from psychology how likeability works. We connect with people because we find things in common with them. When we do this, we inch closer to those people. In fact, something interesting happens in our mind. For example, since Sheryl and I share the passion of gender equality, my brain tells me ‘I am like Sheryl’. Likewise, if I have a conversation with Sheryl, she will think ‘I am like Patrick’.

Saying ‘I am like you’ is powerful because it’s no different than saying ‘I like you’. This at least is what science tells us. It makes sense as 40,000 years ago we had our brain process if a person belongs to our tribe or not. If he did we collaborated if not we fought. Through finding common ground, you get people to think they are like you, therefore, end up liking you. It’s a process that is somewhat hardwired into our brain and that allows us, to a certain extent, to manage our likeability. We can ensure people like us more just by finding things in common.

Now, in my view, likeability is one of the most under-utilized concepts in business today, despite the fact that mostly good things come from it. If people like you they will be the first to find reasons to forgive you when you make a mistake, they will cooperate with you much more effectively to get conflicts resolved, they will send you more opportunities and yes, they most likely will see your behavior as less aggressive or political.

Finding Common Ground to Drive Likeability (and shift the Likeability bias balance in your favor)

In most work environments, that is a path open to us and just requires a certain skill of finding those commonalities. In my view, these connections will not only be found on the professional front but also in your personal life (i.e. what personal interests or passions to you share?). It can be a sport, book, type of music, activity or organization of interest. This is how we can connect with people and drive likeability.

If this ends up really working for you, there’s a chance you can shift that balance quite dramatically in your favor, despite the likeability bias towards women. You just have to become really good about finding things you have in common with people and feed that knowledge with experiences. How to do that in detail might be a great blog post for the future?

While this doesn’t do much for the general negative correlation between likeability and success towards women, it may very well help you in your particular situation. This is clearly just a Band-Aid and we hope things will change in the long-run (I am certain it will). Nevertheless, working on this skill makes a lot of sense. Although it is a Band-Aid right now, it is a long-term skill that will help you in many life situations even after we fix the likeability bias for women as a society.


About the Author:

Patrick Ewers is the founder and CEO of Mindmaven, an executive coaching firm and educational platform focused on helping startup CEOs, executives and their team members achieve their fullest potential and generate game-changing opportunities by better leveraging the most valuable relationships in their network.


  1. Thea April 23, 2013 at 5:50 am

    I really liked your post. Particularly the inclusion of a “band-aid” solution since we are unlikely to change perceptions and bias any time soon. I can see how this approach would work for one-on-one interactions but I was wondering if you had any thoughts on using it in training and professional speaking situations? The same issue arises when part of the audience simply “tunes you out” because they don’t want to hear advice from a woman.

    • Patrick April 24, 2013 at 9:57 am

      Hi Thea, thank you for your comment and a good question to ask. It’s a hard question because my suggestion really only applies to the world of real, named relationships. When you are in a room full of people many of which do not know the female speaker it is much harder to apply the band-aid solution I proposed in the blog. However, it does remind me of Lincolns famous Cooper Union speech in Cooper Union (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooper_Union_speech). According to contemporary sources he also had a strong bias against him. His appearance and demeanor was akward at best and his accent was that of an very unsophisticated frontiers man. Many people in the audience waved him off as this is not going to go down with the intellectual New York crowd of the time. Yet, he was incredible successful in winning over the crowd and it was the pivotal event that secured him the republican presidential nomination, which subsequently led to him becoming the first republican president.

      Maybe we can learn from what he had done to overcome that strong bias against him and maybe it would be something useful for your question of women in front of the audience. Yes, Lincoln was a man, that is true but I wonder how different his challenges were from those modern successful women face today. He too, people turn away saying it’s just a frontiers hobo with ill fitting rough clothes.

      What he did well is that he picked a topic that many of the people in the audience had a common interest with. It was the subject of slavery as an institution that seems to be dividing the nation and could bring it’s down fall. Instead of delivering a political stomp speech he delivered a well researched historical account on what the founders must have thought in respect to slavery. He had spent night and day researching as much as he could about any historical account available about the founding fathers and their thought. Even while we was already in New York he spend every free minute researching and writing his speech. The result was that he became and absolute expert on this subject matter, and delivered and unexpected highly intellectual speech to an audience that defined itself in exactly that way. He had their attention captured and all of their preconceived notions had been erased.

      So to me, the only answer I can offer is to make sure (and this is true for women and man) to get on stage and make sure that

      – you are an absolute subject matter expert
      – Insure that you understand your audience very well
      – deliver content that 100% targets a common interest with that audience

      My hunch is that if a person great and achieving these points very soon the gender bias, or any other bias for that matter will fade into the back ground the better you win the audience over by understanding what they all have in common and what they care about.

      So admittedly it is a much weaker practical suggestion than in the blog post but at least a pointer to where to look for help. It always gets much harder when we enter the realm of weaker existing or non-existing relationships, as we when entering the public stage. Let me know what you think?

      Cheers P.

  2. Alexandra Gibson May 3, 2013 at 9:05 am

    As a professional woman, I see that the problem somewhat lies with us (as women); women who are ambitious and driven too often believe that the only way to achieve their goals is through acting like a man in both the workforce and the world. Subsequently, I see many of my very successful friends who struggle with their personal relationships because they have much trouble with accepting their great feminine qualities. As a consequence, they are usually not ultimately happy but they are professionally successful. To Sheryl’s point, people then think they are bitches in professional circumstances.

    My belief is that genders should be valued equally in the workplace but that we should not pretend that there are not great differences between men and women that should be celebrated.

    We have learned that there is one way to communicate, interact, and get ahead, and that way is the predominantly masculine way. Women come across as unlikeable in professional situations because they are not being true to their ingrained differences and that comes across as inauthentic and off-putting.

    I don’t know if I could offer a band-aid for this, but I know that as a professional woman I will only work with (and for) organizations that do not promote a “one-size-fits-all” leadership style and communication style. By refusing to play in that arena, and by encouraging those young women that I mentor to always lead authentically, I feel I am able to make a difference, albeit a small one.

    • Solidor November 14, 2014 at 9:10 pm

      well said.

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  4. Gty August 7, 2014 at 11:48 pm

    Good for you, and yes, I agree, often it’s more important to be there and be seen than to be ptriucodve frustrating, but oh, so true.I think as women we tend to spend less time thinking about “face time” than men. Generally speaking, men more quickly recognize things like posturing and politicking while women are thinking about the stuff that has to get done, so I do have to remind myself that playing the game is, in fact, also part of my job.By the way, I loved, loved, loved that interview, not because I agreed 100% but because she was so candid and thought-provoking.

  5. Marjorie January 21, 2015 at 2:00 pm

    Here’s another Lincoln anecdote. He was once heard to say, “I don’t like that man . . . I must get to know him better.” If we recognize that not many people are humble or thoughtful enough to have this attitude, then we should put ourselves in the position of the man whom Lincoln disliked–by finding ways to be “known better,” we have an opportunity to overcome biases and bland assumptions.

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