Women are notorious people pleasers. We say yes to functions for which we’ve no time — and we somehow make the time to go to everything with everyone. We include everyone in plans to avoid hurting anyone, despite existing tensions they may have with each other. We take on tasks that aren’t at all in our job descriptions (read: mother-management syndrome!). We say sorry when someone interrupts us, even though we’re not at all at fault. We give everyone else credit for the work we did, sometimes, almost entirely on our own. And we seldom make moves with our own best interest in mind, at least not without considering how our decisions might impact those around us.
That’s why when people congratulate us on our accomplishments or thank us for our hard work, we’re quick to say: “Oh, I couldn’t have done it without the support of [fill in the name(s) of someone who offered some or even no real help at all].”
Sure, that’s not true for all women. But what is true for all women is the fact that, when we don’t please people, we’re perceived as less likeable. Studies show that when women aren’t so agreeable — when we stand up for ourselves, demand respect, ask for what we deserve — we’re deemed “abrasive,” and “out for ourselves,” and “bossy,” and “too aggressive” and a whole string of negative adjectives.
“The reason for this pushback lies in many of the unconscious assumptions we all hold about women and men,” Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and the founder of Lean In, writes for The Wall Street Journal. “We expect men to be assertive, look out for themselves, and lobby for more — so there’s little downside when they do it. But women must be communal and collaborative, nurturing and giving, focused on the team and not themselves, lest they be viewed as self-absorbed. So when a woman advocates for herself, people often see her unfavorably.”
It’s no surprise, then, that only eight of the 100 most-loved CEOs in America are women. In-N-Out Burger’s Lynsi Snyder, Wegmans’ Colleen Wegman, Taylor Morrison’s Sheryl Palmer, KPMG’s Lynne Doughtie, Enterprise Holding’s Pamela Nicholson, Progressive Insurance’s Tricia Griffith, Deloitte’s Cathy Engelbert, and GM’s Mary Barra were the only women to make the 100 most popular CEOs list.
Female CEOs aren’t the only ones under scrutiny, however. Women in all levels are deemed less likable when they speak up for themselves. It starts for female graduates right out of the gate. A Rutgers University study found that women who promote themselves are less hirable. In fact, when women seek their first jobs after college, likability is more important than their magna cum laude diplomas in interviews, research from the Ohio State University suggests. Hiring managers gravitate toward women who are moderate achievers described as social and outgoing, and they view high-achieving women with more skepticism. The same can’t be said for male candidates.
When they do step foot into the working world, little changes. According to research by McKinsey & Co. and Lean In, which surveyed 132 companies employing more than 4.6 million people, women do indeed negotiate for promotions and raises more often than men do, but they’re far less likely to receive them. They’re less likely largely because people like them less for it. According to the research, women who negotiate are 30 percent more likely than men who negotiate to receive feedback that they are “intimidating,” “too aggressive” or “bossy” — and they are 67 percent more likely than women who don’t negotiate at all to receive the same negative feedback.
Another study conducted by Heilman also suggests that successful women working in “male domains” are penalized when they are perceived to be less nurturing or sensitive. Why? They’re violating gender-stereotypical prescriptions of modesty. Another study conducted by Harvard’s Hannah Riley Bowles found that women were penalized more often than men for initiating negotiations and, ultimately, breaking the prescription that women are passive.
As Sandberg writes: “Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.”
So when it comes down to accepting thanks and applaud, women are quick to share the credit or pass it off entirely, not wholly believing that they’re deserving of it themselves.
When this happens for a woman who is indeed deserving of credit, it’s called “impostor syndrome,” which refers to the concept that an individual — usually a woman — internalizes their accomplishments due to the fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” The imposter syndrome that plagues women in workplaces across all industries is immensely damaging; the feeling of unworthiness can actually manifest self-fulfilling prophecies and perpetuate the false notion that women are indeed inherently less worthy of success than men.
“Women [give] more credit to their male teammates and [take] less credit themselves unless their role in bringing about the performance outcome [is] irrefutably clear or they [are] given explicit information about their likely task competence,” researchers Michelle C. Haynes and Madeline E. Heilman say of their study that found women to be less likely to take credit for their roles in group work.
Here’s the obvious truth: Women are worthy. Women are worthy of respect, of equal credit, of equal pay, of equal opportunities, and of equal futures as their equal counterparts. And despite the fact that women may be penalized to just say “thanks” when someone applauds their work, it’s necessary. The world needs to be reminded that, often (not always, of course), we could have done whatever the project was without help — we just wouldn’t necessarily have wanted to have done it without help. We could have because we often do bear the weight of projects, take on others’ tasks and handle duties that are not our own.
Of course, accepting thanks from an “I” statement is easier said than done given the potential penalties involved. And, of course, it’s wrong to put more burden on women to deconstruct the bird cage of oppressive barriers (thanks for the metaphor, Marilyn Frye!), rather than demanding that oppressors stop oppressing. But at the very least, women need not worry about being likable for likability’s sake.
“That idea that likability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likable, that you’re supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t quite say, don’t be too pushy, because you have to be likable… I say that’s [bull],” renowned feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in a speech when she was honored at the 2015 Girls Write Now Awards. “If you start off thinking about being likable, you are not going to tell your story honestly because you are going to be so concerned with not offending… And that’s going to ruin your story, so forget about likeability.”
We don’t need to necessarily drop our “we” mentality — it’s fair to give credit where credit is due. But we need to learn how to adopt the “I” mentality, too. It’s okay to accept thanks for the work we did. And it’s time that workplaces take on the responsibility for cultivating work cultures that encourage women to speak up and promote them for their hard work.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel-the-world”>travel-the-world”>travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog“>blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report,
A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits, and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards, and career advice.