‘Lean In': A look at likeability in the workplace

Posted on Nov 20 2013 - 10:15pm by Guest Writer

By Kelsey Hilmes, Guest Writer

It’s a strange moment when a professor sits in front of a room full of students and asks, “what makes a professor likeable?”

But sure enough, in the middle of the latest installment of the leadership series Lean In, that’s exactly what Mary Ellard-Ivey, associate professor of biology, wanted to know.

The event Monday night called on professional women to ask “does everyone have to like you?” It was based on “Success and Likeability,” chapter three of Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In.”

The panel-led discussion focused on the research-supported idea that successful women are liked less by people of both genders. This, Sandberg ultimately argued, can interfere with a woman’s willingness or ability to succeed in the workplace.

The event began with a short introduction of research about gender, business leaders, and leadership stereotypes from Women’s Center Project Administrator Jennifer Warwick. The first piece of research she explained indicated that the words used on the packaging of children’s toys supported gender norms.

On traditionally female toys, words like “mommy,” “magic” and “hair” appeared most often, whereas on traditionally male toys, the words “battle” and “power” appeared most frequently.

She explained the gender stereotypes reflected in the traditionally male toys are associated with words we believe to be qualities of a leader.

The long term effects of this could mean that women who are in leadership roles are seen as less feminine and therefore less likeable.

Panelists included Ellard-Ivey, as well as the Director of Multicultural Recruitment Melannie Cunningham, Senior Adviser to the President Kristin Plaehn and Director of Athletics Laurie Turner. They shared their thoughts on being “liked” as women in the workplace.
Cunningham suggested that while she didn’t need people to like her, she wanted to be considered likeable.

The rest of the panel generally agreed. Ellard-Ivey said she wanted her colleagues and students to like her, but she considered likability in the workplace a measure of effectiveness in her job, rather than her as a person.

“I know they must like me as a colleague, because they keep asking me to do stuff, and if I was ineffective at my job, they wouldn’t,” she said.
She then asked the audience if a likeable professor was always considered a good professor. A slew of students raised their hands to offer opinions.

Turner offered her own idea of what it meant to be likeable in the workplace. At the time she entered her job in the athletic department, Title IX, the law that demanded equity for women in school sports, had just been reexamined.

As the only woman in her department, and later the youngest athletic director in the country at a school with a football team, she said she knew that many of the changes for sports equity she went on to make wouldn’t always be liked.

“If everyone liked me, I wouldn’t make the progress that needed to be made,” Turner added.

After students broke off into small groups with an array of professional faculty and staff, they discussed their own ideas of whether or not they wanted to be liked in their future careers.

When the room regrouped, panelists asked students to think about what it meant for them to be liked as a professional and as a leader, and what they wanted to be liked for.