Do you always play the competent female when you need something? Or do you ever play the damsel in distress?
This question was on the table one night long ago, at an ordinary dinner with friends. That conversation has bothered me ever since, but until last week, I couldn’t have told you why.
I said that I used to always play the competent female, which is how I typically think of myself. But I’d found that in many situations–think negotiating bank charges, or pretty much any conversation with the mechanic–this approach didn’t get me anywhere. If I owned my competency, I’d get talked down to (if I got any help at all), and rudely.
I finally realized that I got a lot farther as the damsel. If I pleaded ignorance, the man (and the occasional woman) would carefully explain the situation to me, provide actual help, and be really nice in the process.
I wanted to be respected as a competent woman. But it didn’t work.
I hated it. But there it was.
My friend was aghast. She quickly shamed me (I recognize that now, thanks to Brené Brown) for betraying my fellow women. We’ll never get anywhere if people like you keep acting like that, she said.
(People like you? That hurts.)
But that wasn’t my experience. I didn’t advance womankind’s cause an inch by acknowledging I knew what a spark plug was, but I sure guaranteed myself an unproductive conversation with the mechanic.
I’ve thought about that old conversation a lot.
Over the past year or two, I’ve read that for women, competence and likeability are inversely correlated. I didn’t realize that’s what was going on in my own life, and I certainly didn’t realize that’s the topic we were dancing around in that old conversation.
But Sheryl Sandberg finally helped me see it. I read Lean In last week, and she discussed the phenomenon of women and power and likeability quite a bit. But it wasn’t until I watched her TED talk that it clicked: “Success and likability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women.”
That old conversation didn’t have much to do with success, but it had everything to do with being treated badly when I was perceived as competent. My competency made me unlikable. But I apparently made a very likable damsel in distress.
Sandberg makes clear that there are no simple solutions here: cultural change takes time, and fixing deeply ingrained perceptions won’t be simple. Things won’t change in her lifetime, yet she’s hopeful for the next generation.
As she says, “I want my son to have a choice to contribute fully in the workforce or at home, and I want my daughter to have the choice to not just succeed, but to be liked for her accomplishments.”
Yes. Me too.
Do you resonate with my experience, or are you aghast like my friend was? Talk to me about owning your competence and playing the damsel, about women and likability.