I’d like to take another look at the confounding problems that face women working in male dominated fields such as science, politics, entertainment, the military, by exploring the conflict between being likeable and having ambition.

Two cacti to depict likeablity.

Do friends and colleagues call you likeable? This is a description that cuts two ways: one is often seen as complimentary, the other is decidedly not. What do I mean? Consider: Is a likeable woman ambitious? Does a likeable woman speak up? Does a likeable woman persist? Does a likeable woman contradict? Is a likeable woman tough? Or is a likeable woman soft, compliant, friendly, easy to get along with? Can a woman be both likeable and ambitious? Or does ambition cancel likeability?

Let’s define ‘likeable’.

The dictionary definition of likeable is pleasant, friendly, easy to like. Do ambition, toughness, insistence make a woman unlikeable? Women are more often described as likeable. But not men. Why? It is, I think, because likeability implies docility, pliance, agreeability and that, most unfortunately, defines the acceptable woman, the likeable woman. Men are not like that, are they?

Strangely it is this likeability factor that makes it difficult for an ambitious woman to fine acceptance. The actor and producer Reese Witherspoon agrees:

“As moms, we have a unique opportunity to keep changing this attitude that ambition is an ugly quality in women. That it makes you unlikeable. What is likeable anyway? I’m allergic to that word. (Personally, I like to sit next to the most irreverent person at a party…that’s what I find likeable!) We have to do our part to change the idea that a woman with passion and ambition is out only for herself. “

Once again terminolgy hamstrings women. In a workplace, it is politically important to be liked. If you are liked you are included, invited, asked to take a seat at the table. In a business environment, ambition is often seen as a part of the strength of a team aimed at improvement. Who, in their right mind, wouldn’t want to be successful? What is the perjorative here? Unless you are a woman. Then suddenly things change. Do you have to choose between being liked or being openly ambitious? Men do not. This connundrum is just another hurdle for professional women. Something to think about if you want to be promoted or assured a position of greater power and leadership.