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#BreakTheBias – even the unconscious ones 

Reading time: 4 minutes

Break the bias was the official theme of the 2022 International Women’s Day. We have all heard about the biases we have towards women, and as young students in 2022, we might think that we don’t have them or at least are aware of their existence. Well, maybe it’s time to think twice about the biases we may hold. There are the old classics that we know of such as judging women more easily for the number of partners they have, how they dress etc. But what about the way we perceive women in power? Women managing to get to leadership positions clearly show that we made progress compared to the past, but we still judge them differently than a man who is doing the exact same job in the exact same manner.  

Have you ever found yourself thinking about how aggressive, cold, pushy, and self-centered you found a woman leader? Or alternatively thought that a warm, compassionate one simply does not have what it takes to lead because she is too emotional and not assertive enough?  

A professor got curious and made an experiment about it.  

Heidi and Howard experiment 

Heidi Roizen is a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist, one of the first women in a male-dominated field. Because of this, Professor Frank Flynn at Columbia University conducted an experiment with his class in order to test to what extent do his students hold biases and how does that bias manifest. He assigned the case study about Heidi Roizen to the entire class, but changed the name to Howard Roizen for half of the students while keeping the original name for the other half. The one and the only difference between the two versions was the name, thus gender. Students had to fill a survey about the reading before the class. When asked about their competence, the entire class found both Heidi and Howard equally competent. However, when asked about likeability and character traits the answers started to dramatically differ. Students said they didn’t want to hire, work with or work for Heidi because they found her too aggressive and unlikeable. They said that she is only looking out for herself so they wouldn’t trust her.  While on the other hand, they said that Howard was a very likable leader, a great man and they would love to hire or work for him. Both Heidi and Howard followed the exact same strategy and achieved the exact same things because they are the exact same person. Yet the way they are perceived by both male and female students is completely different. Why is that? 

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The Likability- Success Dilemma for women leaders 

The character traits that are often needed to be a leader such as assertiveness, directness and determination are perceived as being bossy, pushy, and stubborn in women. It is because feminine attributes are nurturing, kindness, being warm and approachable whereas masculine attributes are being confident, ambitious, and outspoken.  

It is the attributes that we deem “masculine” that are necessary to be a successful leader, it’s the ability to make tough calls that are needed to be on top. It’s not that successful female leaders’ employees or friends think that they are less capable than men, they are simply not likable because of the things that made them successful.  

So, when women are showing these unfeminine traits, unlike their male peers that get praised for them, they find themselves criticized for their leadership styles not just by men but by women too. It is a bias that exists in all of us, and we are not even aware of it.  

This is what the likeability/ success dilemma for women is: the more likable you are, the less competent you are perceived by others and vice versa.  

Do we need to be liked? 

One may ask “but do we need to be liked?”. If being respected does the job, being likable should be irrelevant. For what concerns the job, being liked is more effective. It is easier to influence people when they like you and it is in fact one of the primary characteristics of an influential leader. Again, your chances of getting that promotion or opportunity are higher if your boss doesn’t think you’re irritating. So, likeability is indeed an important asset to get to and stay at the top.  

Moreover, regardless of what role we may have in an organization, at the end of the day, we are all human and humans are social beings. We want to be liked and have friends. Perhaps more than wanting it – to a certain extent – we need it. Having to sacrifice that for your career is not easy nor fair. Are all leaders and successful people liked? No. However, the line between not being taken seriously and being seen as cold-hearted, and untrustworthy is a lot thinner for women than it is for men.  

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What can we do about it? 

Be aware of this bias and try to fight it. Check-in with yourself the next time you are thinking about how irritable your boss or successful friend is. Ask yourself and your surroundings if you would think the same if one of your male friends was doing the same thing and ask if it’s because they really are irritable or is it the bias speaking. 

Another perhaps harder thing we need to work on is this “feminine” vs “masculine” trait differentiation we make in the first place. Being warm or cold, decisive or indecisive aren’t being feminine or masculine, but simply human. A “strategic” move does not suddenly become “manipulative” just because it is made by a woman. And if this article wasn’t enough to convince you that our unconscious biases are not reflecting reality, here are some examples for you to think about. If women are more emotional, implying it would affect their decision making, why don’t we say the same thing about men and their anger, which is also an emotion? If being decisive is a solely masculine trait, why is it the case that in most households it’s the mom the one calling the shots?  

Perhaps it is time that we stop judging these human characteristics as feminine or masculine to use it against people – even unconsciously. A woman should not be less likable because she is rational, or a man because he shows emotions, something that all human beings have.  

Unconscious biases are harder to spot and fight. It takes introspection, self-awareness, and a lot of questioning. Acknowledging them is the first step to fight against it.  

Luckily our generation is already better at this than previous ones, but we still have a lot of work to do. 

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IG Caption: Would you prefer to be liked or be succesful? Hard decision isn’t it?  Gender bias is nothing new, however it is interesting to note the unconscious ones we have. In this article, we discuss the likeability – success dilemma women leaders face, and how this happens without us even realizing it.  

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Passionate about sustainability and social impact, I’m a BIG student who uses writing to take different perspectives on complex issues like climate change, social inequalities and the difficulties we face trying to navigate in this ever changing world. 

Raised in Istanbul where continents, cultures and cats meet.

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