Nancy Pelosi. Mazie Hirono. Maxine Waters. Elise Stefanik. Elizabeth Warren. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What do these women have in common? They are all elected officials who have been called “unlikable” for one reason or another. In a political context, “likability” is a metric of perceived friendliness. It is a common polling question that gauges how much a voter might want to sit and have a beer with a political candidate, measuring how relatable they may seem. Yet when the candidate or official is a woman, questions about likability rapidly become a rhetorical trap. Much like being called “abrasive,” it seems that outspoken and unapologetic women in visible positions of power are often seen as “unlikable.” That label follows women who have the courage to voice strong opinions without regard for approval.
Though women continue to become more visible in positions of power, the ensuing debate around gender, leadership, and likability seem to perpetuate a cycle of defeat. There aren’t enough women in positions of leadership in any arena. When the brave few disrupt the conventional power structure, they are subject to relentless bullying by angry incumbents. Press coverage often compounds sexism. This cycle continues even though the 116th U.S. Congress represents the most historically diverse governing body our country has ever seen.
Beyond the cynicism, a closer examination of the unlikable label and how women chose to navigate aroud it can be instructive. What does it look like when power is shared by many new women leaders? How do they negotiate in these new roles? Women leaders in any industry engage in hundreds of negotiations: with the press, the public, colleagues and constituents, and most importantly, the internal negotiations that she has with herself. What lessons can unlikable women in politics teach women leaders in business?
It’s important to note that business and politics are distinctly different worlds. In business and the private sector, the ultimate metric is profit. The CEO answers to shareholders or investors. Running for office and governing is very different. At its core, it is an actual popularity contest because power is conferred by voters. The metric elected officials are judged on is legislative effectiveness. Yet both positions require the ability to navigate bias and criticism. I talked to dozens of women from varying backgrounds in public life to weigh in on what being called unlikable in the workplace really means to them. I also asked them about so-called unlikable women that they admire, and the tactics they have seen or used to displace and deflect the sting of being called unlikable. What surfaced were tactics that can be useful in any industry.
Vanessa De Luca is the former editor in chief of Essence Magazine and founder of TheEditorInChief.com. She thinks of the unlikability label as a clashing of expectations, but it can also be a competitive edge. “There are women that use unlikability to their advantage,” said De Luca. “Representative Maxine Waters is a great example of this. She knows that being unlikable grants her power, and her constituents embrace her contrarian approach.” The numbers bear this out. Representative Waters was re-elected in 2018 with 77.7% of the vote, leading to her seventeen term in Congress.
De Luca also attributes Representative Water’s success to her resiliency, including sharp comebacks and not caving to intimidation. Ultimately, De Luca sees that resiliency as an internal negotiation. “It’s up to you to decide whether or not you’re going to let the “unlikability” label seep into your consciousness. Successful leaders have a clear sense of purpose, know their own true north and stick to it, no matter what.” That ability to self-navigate is key to building strong professional confidence.
That inner resilience is also key when you challenge the status quo daily, like Sindy Benavides. “In the past month, I have been called unlikeable and even a dangerous woman for one simple reason: I am a strategic, pragmatic, outspoken millennial immigrant Latina CEO who gets things done,” said Benavides, who leads the League of United Latin American Citizens. Benavides is inspired by another unlikable woman, Senator Elizabeth Warren, because of her clear self-awareness around her decision-making power. Benavides believes that increased visibility around owning power is key to shifting the narrative for women. “We no longer have to ‘soften’ who we are to fit into a stereotype of who we are perceived to be as a gender,” she said. Benavides credits her grandmother for helping her develop an authentic balance in her leadership style. “She taught me that I don’t have to compromise who I am to fit a mold that society places on me.” Breaking out of the mold is important to Benavides’s leadership in keeping her 89-year old organization relevant.
Amber Hikes also opts to be more direct and visible when encountering the unlikable label. Hikes is executive director of the Office of LGBT Affairs for the City of Philadelphia, and as a queer, black woman, she has started to actively reject negative labels. “I’ve decided to stop deflecting and start challenging. It is no longer my responsibility to ignore that branding, change my behavior, or contort myself in different ways to be seen as more appealing to others,” Hikes said. Hikes draws inspiration from another unlikable woman, freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “There is something refreshing, raw, and familiar about her ability to crush the bigots and naysayers with her quick wit, light humor, and unmatched brilliance,” said Hikes. Hikes thinks that embracing the unlikable badge can be a source of strength, and Hikes encourages others to do the same.
While Ocasio-Cortez made history as the youngest member, two other Congresswomen made a different kind of history. Representative Sharice Davids and Representative Deb Haaland are the first two Native American women elected to Congress. Both these women inspire Kim Pate, who is Vice President of NDN Collective, a national Native American organization dedicated to building indigenous power. Pate also draws insight from another Native leader: Wilma Mankiller, who served as the first woman principal chief to the Cherokee Nation. Part of working towards that leadership position meant Mankiller had to take unpopular positions to advocate for basic needs like clean drinking water for her community. Pate mentioned that these efforts caused her to be called unlikable by some because of her tenacity in creating change. Like Mankiller, Pate found that when she was called unlikable in her own career, focusing on her values and the work was a clear path to success. It also helped her avoid conforming to ideas of likability. “I was able to be much more effective in the workplace because I connected with people on an authentic and deep level,” she said. Pate mentioned that being called unlikable often follows standing up for values, but that doing so has been a path to stronger trust with her teams and stakeholders.
Increased visibility also can lead to women being labeled unlikable. Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke, President & CEO of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, admires Senator Mazie Hirono. Senator Hirono was very visible and vocal during the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Mielke also notes that when understanding why women are called unlikable, there is often confusion between friendliness and influence. “Until society distinguishes between likability and respect, we have a long way to go,” Mielke said. Mielke stressed that you can respect people without liking them on a personal level, but this nuance is often ignored or misunderstood.
Mielke also notes that when understanding why women are called unlikable, there is often confusion between friendliness and influence. “Until society distinguishes between likability and respect, we have a long way to go,” Mielke said. Mielke stressed that you can respect people without liking them on a personal level, but this nuance is often ignored or misunderstood.
But even without that clarity, the process of owning power and personality – whether running for office or ascending within organizational ranks – can itself be an empowering process. “At some point, you have to deal with the critics,” Mielke said. Facing the critics and creating emotional distance from their reaction is a key piece of safely internalizing how you respond to the unlikable label.
“At some point, you have to deal with the critics,” Mielke said.
Sometimes critics might go as far as to call you names, even a ‘boogeywoman’. That’s what Jehmu Greene says Republican critics are calling Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, as she reclaimed the speaker’s gavel. Greene is a Fox News political analyst and founding board member of Vote Run Lead, a national organization that trains women to run for office. While Pelosi is known for smiling, Greene also has another “unlikable” favorite who had a famous poker face. ”Historically, I’ve looked to the example former Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan set,” Greene said. “She used her public speaking prowess and unwavering faith in the Constitution to inspire the nation. And she didn’t have to smile while doing it.” Whether smiling or not, both women leaders played to their strengths in how they choose to define their own likability.
Being called an unlikable woman is not a partisan dynamic, either. In fact, the formerly youngest member of Congress, Republican Representative Elise Stefanik, has had to face sharp attacks from her own party. Nancy Bocskor admires Representative Stefanik’s approach. A veteran Republican consultant, Bocskor is also the Director for the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at Texas Woman’s University. “There are only 13 women Republican members left in Congress, which is the same number of women representatives that we had in 1989. A lot of the women I admire are no longer there.” Bocskor knows that getting more Republican women elected is essential to the future of the party, and is inspired by Stefanik’s work to support more Republican women in winning primary elections. That same focus has also been very publicly criticized by Republican leaders. Bocskor points out the effectiveness of Stefanik’s quick response on Twitter. “She had the strength to say ‘I don’t remember asking for your permission,’” said Bocskor. Judging by the response on Twitter, Stefanik demonstrates the effectiveness of publicly opt out of seeking approval.
Research shows that there is a collaborative solution to closing the gender gap when it comes to representation, but you won’t find it on the national stage. While the national Republican party appears hostile towards their own female members, that isn’t necessarily the case for local and state parties. Dr. Jessica Robinson Preece is a researcher at Brigham Young University. Her research with Dr. Christopher Karpowitz and Dr. J. Quin Monson found that simple interventions by party leaders could significantly boost women being recruited and elected to leadership positions. “Voters respond to the cues that leaders send about whether having Republican women in office is a priority,” Preece said. Stefanik’s approach to early support of other women in primaries bears out what Preece found in her research – leaders need to actively support the idea of women being elected while also actively recruiting those same candidates. It’s a strategy that has been employed for decades by EMILY’s List, a Democratic organization that invests in pro-choice women candidates. It’s also the main mission of the dozens of new women-focused organizations that got started after the 2016 election.
So how does this relate to the business arena? Awareness, recruitment, support, and investment have all been game changers for getting more women elected, but it hasn’t immediately shifted our cultural views of women in power. The same could be said about women advancing into the C-Suite. It’s not enough to simply talk about building better pipelines to leadership. Once we get there, we need to bring others with us and get our male allies to support decisions beyond just praise. Whether in business or politics, the way forward is to build a new norm around women being in power. Reject the unlikable myth by starving the concept of oxygen. Stop asking for permission. Instead, we need to invite people to join us in completely rebuilding our notion of power. We’ve just got so much to do.