How Women Can Escape the Likability Trap

Powerful women know how to flip feminine stereotypes to their advantage.

There has been a lot of talk recently in the political arena about the likability trap for women: Women who behave in authoritative ways risk being disliked as insufferable prima donnas, pedantic schoolmarms or witchy women.

What you haven’t heard about much is the way successful women overcome this form of gender bias. I have interviewed about 200 women over the years in my research on gender and the workplace, and they all employ a similar set of strategies for escaping the likability trap. One former chief executive described hers this way: “I’m warm Ms. Mother 95 percent of the time, so that the 5 percent of the time when I need to be tough, I can be.” She embraced a stereotype that typically holds women back — the office mom — but flipped it around, using its momentum to propel herself forward. I call it gender judo.

Why do women need to do this? Even as women have moved into traditionally male domains, feminine mandates remain. More than 40 years of research by social scientists have shown that Americans define the good woman as helpful, modest and nice. In other words, as focused on her family and community, rather than working in her own self-interest. Meanwhile, the ideal man is defined as direct, assertive, competitive and ambitious.

This version of masculinity maps perfectly onto what we expect from leaders, in business and politics. Women in leadership need to display these “masculine” qualities, but when they do they risk being seen as bad women, and also as bad people. So savvy women learn that they must often do a masculine thing (which establishes their competence) in a feminine way (to defuse backlash).

Other research finds that women make a similar finesse while negotiating. Women who negotiate as hard as men do tend to be disliked as overly demanding. So they use “softeners” in conversation. (“It wasn’t clear to me whether this salary offer represents the top of the pay range.”) When Sheryl Sandberg negotiated for what no doubt was an outlandishly high compensation package at Facebook, she told Mark Zuckerberg: “Of course you realize that you’re hiring me to run your deal teams, so you want me to be a good negotiator. This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table.” She turned a salary negotiation (competitive and ambitious) into a touching testimony of team loyalty.

Isn’t this all a bit revolting? Here’s what works for men negotiating for a higher salary: I have another offer, and I need you to match it. Why should women have to do something different?

They shouldn’t.

When women embrace feminine stereotypes like the office mom, they reinforce both the descriptive stereotype that women are naturally nurturing and communal, and the prescriptive stereotype that they should be. But sometimes what women need to do to survive and thrive in the world is exactly the opposite of what they need to do to change it.

For women who want to master this strategy, the first step is to behave as assertively as comes naturally and see what happens. If you find your effectiveness jeopardized because you being yourself triggers dislike, then you need to decide whether overcoming the backlash is worth the sacrifice.

If it is, try doing something masculine in a feminine way. Think of femininity as a tool kit, and choose something that feels authentic to you. But don’t choose deference. One study found that women who used a submissive conversational style, apologizing and hedging, just undercut themselves.

The most common anti-backlash strategy I found in the women I interviewed was to mix authoritativeness and warmth. “I got feedback I was intimidating, so I would make sure that I got to know people, and before a meeting I would share something personal to make myself more approachable,” one woman, who is now a chief executive, told me.

Some women use metaphors to recode behavior that is coded as masculine. A woman responsible for winning new clients at a major consulting firm, where rainmakers were called “hunters,” told me she rejected that label. “I always said: ‘No, no, no, I’m a gardener. I grow things,’” she told me. Just another dame who loves to nurture.

Another tried-and-true move is what anthropologists call gender display. “For me, it’s pink lipstick,” one woman told me. She is the lone female member of the board of a public company.

In the most sophisticated form of this strategy, powerful women create an entirely new narrative, softening their hard-driving personas by highlighting that they are also communal, selfless mothers. A brilliant recent example is M.J. Hegar’s 2018 congressional campaign video. In it, a battered door — all that’s left of the helicopter she was shot down in while on an Air Force rescue mission — is tucked behind her dining table, where she sits contentedly with her family.

This is all a lot of hard work, and it’s work that men don’t have to do. Men, to be successful, just need to master and display masculine-coded traits; women, to be successful, need to master both those and some version of feminine-coded traits that do not undercut their perceived competence or authenticity. That’s a lot trickier.

What’s the solution? Organizations have to be vigilant about challenging the biases that force women to do this in the first place. The workplace is often structured in ways that reward behavior that’s considered socially appropriate in white men but socially inappropriate in women and people of color. This provides an invisible escalator for white men.

The goal is not to empower women to be as emotionally tone deaf and grabby as men are sometimes encouraged to be. Instead, we should work to make sure that both men and women are rewarded for displaying empathy or a willingness to put the common good above self-interest. These qualities have long been undervalued in work and in political life because they have been coded as feminine, and the world needs much more of them.

Jared Kushner, a Confident Negotiator, Finds Immigration Deal to Be Elusive

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, was confident in his ability as a good-faith negotiator who could find a compromise to end the government shutdown.

His pitch to Democratic lawmakers was simple: He told them he was the person who could “land this plane.”

Buoyed by his success in helping pass a criminal justice bill, Mr. Kushner, a senior White House adviser, agreed to take the lead when the president asked him to find a way to end the monthlong stalemate. He hoped his experience winning over Democrats skeptical of the Trump administration during negotiations for that measure would produce a similarly successful conclusion.

But negotiating a broad immigration deal that would satisfy a president committed to a border wall as well as Democrats who have cast it as immoral proved to be more like Mr. Kushner’s elusive goal of solving Middle East peace than passing a criminal justice overhaul that already had bipartisan support.

For one, Mr. Kushner inaccurately believed that moderate rank-and-file Democrats were open to a compromise and had no issue funding a wall as part of a broader deal.

“If Jared Kushner thinks there is any daylight between House Democratic leadership and rank-and-file members on this issue, then the extent that he lands this plane it will land in the Alamo,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York.

And Democratic leaders like Senator Chuck Schumer, party officials said, did not believe that Mr. Kushner had the power to circumvent Stephen Millera senior policy adviser to the president. In meetings, they also noticed, Mr. Kushner appeared to prop up Mr. Miller as an expert on immigration, noting that Mr. Miller’s reputation as a hard-liner was out of sync with his reasonable nature.

On Friday, President Trump did what Mr. Kushner had privately insisted was not an option on the table: He folded.

In Business and Governing, Trump Seeks Victory in Chaos

Three decades ago, Donald J. Trump waged a public battle with the talk show host Merv Griffin to take control of what would become Mr. Trump’s third Atlantic City casino. Executives at Mr. Trump’s company warned that the casino would siphon revenue from the others. Analysts predicted the associated debt would crush him.

The naysayers would be proved right, but throughout the turmoil Mr. Trump fixated on just one outcome: declaring himself a winner and Mr. Griffin a loser.

As president, Mr. Trump has displayed a similar fixation in his standoff with Congress over leveraging a government shutdown to gain funding for a wall on the Mexican border. As he did during decades in business, Mr. Trump has

  • insulted adversaries,
  • undermined his aides,
  • repeatedly changed course,
  • extolled his primacy as a negotiator and
  • induced chaos.

He hasn’t changed at all,” said Jack O’Donnell, who ran a casino for Mr. Trump in the 1980s and wrote a book about it. “And it’s only people who have been around him through the years who realize that.”

..Mr. Trump was expected to sign off on the deal, but then came the suggestion from conservative critics that he had caved in to Democrats — that he was a loser. It was a perception Mr. Trump could not bear, and he quickly reversed course.

He also reverted to lifelong patterns in business. People who worked with him during those years say they see multiple parallels between Mr. Trump the businessman and Mr. Trump the steward of the country’s longest government shutdown.

His lack of public empathy for unpaid federal workers echoes his treatment of some construction workers, contractors and lawyers whom he refused to pay for their work on his real estate projects. The plight of the farmers and small-business owners wilting without the financial support pledged by his administration harks back to the multiple lenders and investors who financed Mr. Trump’s business ventures only to come up shortchanged.

And his ever-changing positions (I’ll own the shutdown; you own the shutdown; the wall could be steel; it must be concrete; then again, it could be steel) have left heads in both parties spinning. Even after his televised proposal on Saturday to break the deadlock, Mr. Trump has no progress to show.

That book, published in 1987, was intended to be an autobiography of Mr. Trump, who was 41 at the time. Mr. Schwartz said that he created the idea of Mr. Trump as a great deal maker as a literary device to give the book a unifying theme. He said he came to regret the contribution as he watched Mr. Trump seize on the label to sell himself as something he was not — a solver of complicated problems.

Rather, Mr. Schwartz said, Mr. Trump’s “virtue” in negotiating was his relentlessness and lack of concern for anything but claiming victory.

If you don’t care what the collateral damage you create is, then you have a potential advantage,” he said. “He used

  • a hammer,
  • deceit,
  • relentlessness and
  • an absence of conscience

as a formula for getting what he wanted.”

In a brief telephone interview on Sunday, Mr. Trump was not specific in defending his tactics, but he described himself as successful in his chosen fields of real estate, entertainment and finally politics. “I ran for office once and I won,” Mr. Trump said.

The president’s supporters say he gets an unfair rap as a poor negotiator, saying that his style and unusual approach — and unwillingness to accept defeat even in the worst situations — have often had positive results. And in a Washington that doesn’t like outsiders, he has clearly forced his adversaries out of their comfort zones.

“President Trump’s success in business has translated into success as president,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said. “He’s

  • ignited a booming economy with
  • rising wages and
  • historically low unemployment,
  • negotiated better trade deals,
  • persuaded our allies to contribute their fair share to NATO, and
  • secured the release of American hostages around the world.”

.. The bank eventually settled with Mr. Trump, saving him from having to pay the $40 million. Mr. Trump expressed his gratitude to the lawyer who fought on his behalf by not fully paying his bill. “He left me with some costs,” said the lawyer, Steven Schlesinger.

From the time he built his first Manhattan apartment building, Mr. Trump left a string of unpaid tabs for the people who worked for him.

The undocumented Polish workers who did the demolition work for that first building, Trump Tower, eventually won a $1.375 million settlement. Since then, scores of lawyers, contractors, engineers and waiters have sued Mr. Trump for unpaid bills or pay. Typically, he responds by asserting that their work did not meet his standard.

That might sound familiar to furloughed federal workers. Mr. Trump recently retweeted an article, attributed to an anonymous senior official in his administration, arguing that 80 percent of federal workers do “nothing of external value” and that “furloughed employees should find other work, never return and not be paid.”

Mr. Trump has claimed, without evidence, that “maybe most” federal workers going without pay are “the biggest fan” of his use of the shutdown to fund a border wall. In ordering thousands back to work without pay, he has put the pain for the shutdown on them.

Mr. Trump has also embraced his business practice of giving the most latitude and trust to family members, no matter their prior experience.

He put his first wife, Ivana, a model, in charge of an Atlantic City casino and the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. He put his younger brother, Robert, who had some background in corporate finance, in senior positions at the casinos. Not long after three of his children graduated from college, he vested authority in them over golf courses, hotels and licensing deals.

.. In the White House, Mr. Trump has increasingly leaned on his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, for guidance on dealing with Congress amid the current stalemate. Mr. Kushner, who like Mr. Trump is the son of a wealthy real estate developer, has not always impressed old hands on Capitol Hill.

.. With Democrats now in charge of the House of Representatives, Mr. Trump also has a new set of adversaries, and other old habits from his years in business have re-emerged.

Through his Twitter feed, he has verbally pummeled Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, and tried to drive a wedge between Mr. Schumer and his fellow Democrat, Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

.. Barbara Res, who said she enjoyed much about working for Mr. Trump as a construction executive in the 1980s and 1990s, sees in Ms. Pelosi a new challenge to Mr. Trump’s lifelong tactics. One blind spot she observed was that Mr. Trump “believes he’s better than anyone who ever lived” and saw even the most capable of women as easy to run over.

“But there was never a woman with power that he ran up against, until Pelosi,” she said. “And he doesn’t know what to do with it. He’s totally in a corner.”

In the interview, Mr. Trump described Ms. Res, Mr. O’Donnell and Mr. Schwartz as disgruntled workers whom he had shunted aside, who had experience with him for relatively brief periods and who were simply using his name for attention.

During his years in business, Mr. Trump rarely displayed an interest in details or expert opinions that might have informed whether his plans would actually work. That pattern has also emerged in the shutdown dispute.

Thirty years ago, his claimed defeat of Mr. Griffin turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory.

Within months of completing construction on his third casino, the Trump Taj Mahal, he could not pay interest to the bondholders who had financed the project. Having overpaid and overleveraged himself on other deals, banks forced him to turnover or sell almost everything.

His wealthy father helped bail him out. But Mr. Trump blamed everyone else. He fired nearly all his top executives and stopped paying contractors who had built the casino.

In describing the border wall, Mr. Trump has expressed unending confidence in its efficacy. Others, including Representative Will Hurd, a Republican whose Texas district includes part of the border with Mexico, have described it as a tall speed bump, nearly useless without technology to spot illegal crossings immediately and dispatch border agents to quickly respond.

Mr. O’Donnell, the casino manager, said long-term consequences never concerned Mr. Trump. He was always willing to pay too much in order to get a deal signed so he could declare victory, he said.

“He just wants to get the deal,” Mr. O’Donnell said.

Trump Threatens Shutdown in Combative Appearance With Democrats

President Trump on Tuesday vowed to block full funding for the government if Democrats refuse his demand for a border wall, saying he was “proud to shut down the government for border security” — an extraordinary statement that came during a televised altercation with Democratic congressional leaders.

“If we don’t have border security, we’ll shut down the government — this country needs border security,” Mr. Trump declared in the Oval Office, engaging in a testy back-and forth with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California.

“I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it,” Mr. Trump added, insisting on a public airing of hostilities even as the Democrats repeatedly asked him to keep their negotiating disputes private.

“It’s not bad, Nancy; it’s called transparency,” Mr. Trump snapped after one such interjection by Ms. Pelosi, who appeared to trigger the president’s temper when she raised the prospect of a “Trump shutdown” over what she characterized as an ineffective and wasteful wall.

.. “The American people recognize that we must keep the government open, that a shutdown is not worth anything, and that we should not have a Trump shutdown,” Ms. Pelosi said.

“A what?” Mr. Trump shot back.

.. It also showcased the interplay of two politicians playing to very different bases: Mr. Trump appealing to his core anti-immigration supporters and Ms. Pelosi to the young liberal lawmakers she needs to keep in her camp ahead of next month’s speaker election.

Outside the West Wing after the meeting Mr. Schumer said Mr. Trump had thrown a “temper tantrum” over the wall, saying: “The president made clear that he wants a shutdown.”

.. Mr. Schumer and Ms. Pelosi said it was up to Mr. Trump to avert the disaster he had promised, by embracing their proposals to essentially postpone the dispute for another year, either by passing the six noncontroversial budget measures that are outstanding and extending Homeland Security funding for one year at current levels, or passing one-year extensions for all seven remaining spending bills.

“We gave the president two options that would keep the government open,” they said in a statement. “It’s his choice to accept one of those options or shut the government down.”

Mr. Trump had begun the day appearing to soften his stance somewhat on the wall. In a series of morning tweets, he falsely stated that substantial sections of the “Great Wall” on the southwestern border that he has long championed have already been completed, and he suggested that his administration could continue construction whether Democrats fund it or not.

That would be illegal, but it suggested that he was looking for a way to keep the government funded past Dec. 21, even if Democrats balk at wall funding.

It quickly grew personal for Mr. Trump, who aides say respects what he sees as Ms. Pelosi’s strength as a negotiator and toughness in the political trenches, but who sought on Tuesday to publicly undercut her position by raising questions about her job security.

.. Mr. Trump’s approach to Mr. Schumer was initially friendly, but it soon turned sour... 

“It is called funding the government, Mr. President,” a stern-faced Mr. Schumer said, going on to point out that Mr. Trump had made false statements about the effectiveness of the wall and how much of it had been built.

.. a brief shutdown in January when Democrats insisted that protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children must be part of any funding measure. “The last time that you did, you got killed.”

.. The president has suggested, repeatedly, that a shutdown might be necessary to compel Democrats to swallow $5 billion in wall funding. But on Tuesday morning before the meeting, he had appeared to be softening his stance.

.. the administration has yet to spend much of the $1.3 billion Congress approved for border security last year.

.. Under restrictions put in place by Congress, none of that money could be used to construct a new, concrete wall of the sort the president has said is vital.

The president does not have the legal authority to spend money appropriated for one purpose on another task, such as wall-building.

.. The president’s conservative allies in Congress have urged Mr. Trump to hold firm to his insistence on wall money, and use all means necessary to include additional immigration restrictions in the year-end package.

.. “Securing the border isn’t going to happen in a Pelosi-run Congress,” Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio and Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the co-founder and chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said in an op-ed Tuesday on the Fox News website. “We still have three weeks. That’s more than enough time to do what we said.”