Chances are you have encountered double standards at some point in your life.
Ask for a pay rise? Pushy.
Take credit for an idea? Arrogant.
Admit a mistake? Weak.
Successfully juggle work and family? Unpromotable.
This excerpt from Sarah Cooper’s hilarious book How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men's Feelings (2018), is unfortunately still as relevant today as ever.
The success of the book is not just due to Cooper’s comedic chops, but also because of how painfully true and relevant it is. Her tongue in cheek view of paradoxes and double standards working women have to endure are intimately familiar and hugely validating for many (if not all) women that have set foot in a corporate office, or any office, for that matter.
So, what is a double standard? A double standard is a set of principles that applies differently (usually more rigorously) to some people rather than to others. Because of how ubiquitous and deep-rooted gender biases are, double standards have been prevalent in women’s professional lives. A woman needs to be friendly, but not too friendly; ambitious, but not too ambitious; successful, but not too successful… Society applauds men when they’re ambitious, yet when a woman is ambitious she is deemed unlikeable, ruthless, or abrasive.
In 2016, while in a rally campaigning for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama pronounced: “When a guy is ambitious and out in the public arena and working hard, well, that’s okay. But when a woman does it, suddenly you’re all like, ‘Well, why is she doing that?’”
In publicly highlighting this double standard, Obama was appealing to undecided voters and forcing them to do some soul searching and ruminate on whether their reluctance to support Hillary Clinton’s campaign was not perhaps due to society’s deep-rooted sexism. As The Cut’s Ann Friedman pointed out during Hillary’s first presidential run, Hillary is trapped in the catch-22 of ambitious women: “To succeed, she needs to be liked but to be liked, she needs to temper her success.”
This phenomenon is not just the norm for women in politics, but for ambitious women across industries.
As an undergraduate student, I remember the campus abuzz with the news that Jill Abramson would join the faculty, less than a year after her boorish New York Times ousting. Abramson had been the first female executive editor of the New York Times. During her tenure, countless articles were published deeming her too difficult, uncaring and unapproachable. A famous Politico article, “Turbulence at The Times,” full of sexist remarks, (including describing Abramson as “not a naturally charismatic person — not approachable,” and “unreasonable”), was published mere days after the NYT won four Pulitzer prizes under Abramson’s lead.
Whether or not the details on Abramson’s NYT dismissal are ever fully acknowledged as a result of sexism, journalist Kara Swisher noted on Vox.com that “Abramson’s toughness seems to be the central reason that Sulzberger decided to dispense with her.”
(Interestingly, according to many reports another big factor in her dismissal was the fact that Abramson dared to push back against pay disparity Vox uncovered that “the final straws [that led to her firing] was Abramson’s hiring of a lawyer over disparate pay issues”.)
In order to make a change on a societal level, we must admit and address this noxious double standard. Why is ambition in men rewarded, but in women reprimanded? Why is ‘ambitious’ conflated with words like bossy, pushy, excessively self-assertive when applied to women?
Women are stuck in an impossible situation, a double bind held tight by double standards: the more women succeed, the less likable they are. And as countless generations of gender social constructs have proven: women must be well-liked. Women fall into what journalist and author, Alicia Mendez, correctly calls “The Likeability Trap,” where even capable women feel they have to appear likable to successfully negotiate a salary or promotion.
Sociologist Marianne Cooper observed in the Harvard Business Review: “Success and likeability do not go together for women… if a woman acts assertively or competitively, if she pushes her team to perform, if she exhibits decisive and forceful leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she ‘should’ behave.”
How can we push back against systemic double standards?
1. Recognize the double standards and the traps that hold us back.
As the old adage goes: ‘the first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one.' Understand how to recognize these double standards to stop them in their tracks.
2. Create your own community and network of champions.
Develop and nurture a community where you can be visible, where you can share and celebrate your achievements. A community where people can advocate for their own success and share their accomplishments.
3. Focus on connection, not approval.
In her book “The Likeability Trap,” Alicia Menendez shares an anecdote of when she interviewed actor and comedian Mindy Kaling. “I don’t care about being likable so much as I care about being relatable,” Mindy opened up to the journalist, pulling on the notion that relatability drives connection. Think about how much effort you are wasting constantly looking for external approval or validation. Learn how to distinguish the opinions you care about from those you don’t. Your close community? Yes. Chad from accounting? No.
4. Change the narrative.
Alicia Menendez also recognizes how hard it is to break free from the likeability trap, from the social constructs that have been systemic for centuries. Menendez proposes changing the narrative: changing how we define our self-worth, untethering it from our likeability, and pinning our self-satisfaction on the things and the people that really matter most.
Change cannot and will not happen overnight, but by continuing to publicly call out this double standard, foster communities and workplaces that celebrate women’s ambitions, accomplishments, and successes, and by giving yourself the space to celebrate you for you, we can continue to push back on toxic gender hypocrisies for ourselves and future generations of women.
And finally, here is how we would suggest rewriting the script:
Ask for a pay rise? Pushy. Ambitious.
Take credit for an idea? Arrogant. Tenacious.
Admit a mistake? Weak. Courageous.
Successfully juggle work and family? Unpromotable. Heroic.