The XX Factor

What Kirsten Gillibrand Got Wrong About Women and Likability

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand struck a bewildering note at the Shriver Report summit on women and poverty last week. As the Atlantic’s Emma Green reports, Gillibrand fielded a question from a man in the audience about women who “hold themselves back with the way they present themselves to others” by illumining what she felt to be female “nature.”

“This issue of likability. For a lot of young women, they want to be well-liked. If they’re too aggressive, or too pushy, or too declarative, they won’t be well-liked,” she said. 

But Gillibrand also encouraged young women to be more aggressive: “To meet those standards, you have to speak less like a young girl and more like a young, aspiring professional.”

Then she repeated an interesting word choice: nature.  

“It’s part of our nature. It’s not a bad part of our nature. [But] it’s a choice every young woman is going to have to make about how she wants to be and how she wants to be received.”

A curtain of skin cells fell softly over the land as a bunch of women simultaneously scratched their heads. Some guy asks Gillibrand about ladies who sabotage themselves by adopting feminine mannerisms and, instead of slamming a broader culture that looks down on feminine mannerisms, she accepts his premise? And says that women alone are afflicted with a damning desire to be liked?

You could sum up much of the cultural conversation of the past few months by repeating Gillibrand’s phrase: “This issue of likability.” The question feels so multifaceted, subjective, and context-dependent that it’s hard to get a handle on it. But the problem with painting likability as a peculiarly feminine concern seems twofold. First, everyone wants to be liked (or almost everyone: Some humans apparently feed on ire like those microbes that live in lava). Second, studies show that what people “like” often turns out to be conformity to gender roles. As Marianne Cooper observes in the Harvard Business Review, “High-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success— and specifically the behaviors that created that success—violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave.” 

In other words, Gillibrand shouldn’t focus on women’s wish—innate or learned—to be liked; she should point out that the things women must do in order to attain likability are sometimes self-abnegating (because femininity can still mean tractability and softness). She should decry the vicious cycle by which some women pursue social approval by acting meek, and then are penalized for adopting behaviors associated with women, the less powerful and respected sex. It’s as if the culture were telling us we only looked attractive in a frock called “niceness”—but applied a scarlet W to the thing the moment we bought it, simply because we bought it. Not fair.

And yet—to embroider this metaphor further—femininity itself has withdrawn to the changing room. Womanhood is trying on all kinds of new clothes! As we infiltrate unfamiliar industries and spheres, perhaps the ideal of the docile, unaggressive lady is morphing, so that questing after likability will soon be less of a burden. In the Cut, Ann Friedman challenged the binary between success and social approval: “I refuse to accept the fact that my options are to be a successful bitch or a well-liked failure,” she wrote. “You can be successful without shutting down your emotions and ignore all external feedback. You can be liked without being a doormat. And it’s okay to want it both ways.”

It is more than OK; it is an indicator of progress. Now let’s get the women of the U.S. Senate onboard.