This weekend, I binge-watched “The Morning Show.” For those who might be late to the party, like me, the show is about a massively popular TV anchor being exposed as a sexual predator — and how the #MeToo wave exposes a culture of silence in elite New York media. It’s a well-written show, but the most compelling thing about the show isn’t its plotline. It’s Jennifer Aniston. She plays Alex Levy, longtime co-host of the disgraced TV anchor Mitch Kessler (played by Steve Carell); but really she’s playing a woman who’s done with everyone’s shit. She’s angry, frustrated, and struggling to break free from the power-games of the men around her. So, she bristles, rarely smiles and — in a terrific scene — yells at her entitled teenage daughter, “F**ck you, kid.”
Now, I am not endorsing swearing at children. But I have to confess that there was something deeply satisfying in watching Jennifer Aniston grimace her way through a crisis. Jennifer Aniston — Friends star, America’s sweetheart, star of our favourite rom-coms — deciding that screw everything, she’s not playing to the gallery anymore. Watching her, I realised just how much pressure women constantly have to be...likable. Or at least, desirable. Even in contexts, like a workplace, where she doesn’t need to be!
And, it is a pressure unique to women. A 2020 study in The Economic Journal says that “likability” is a huge factor which influences interactions between women, and between men and women. But not, among men. If you’ve ever been asked to “smile thoda, yaar” or are known to have a “resting bitch face,” you’re probably nodding along in agreement. Likability — that vague quality which doesn’t even have a clear definition — is considered to be a skill women have to learn if they are to succeed. Or you know, want people to take them seriously.
Marianne Cooper has done extensive work on social science research on likability. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, she writes that women are often “applauded for delivering results at work but then reprimanded for being “too aggressive,” “out for herself,” “difficult,” and “abrasive.” In fact, an “index of likability” shows that men and women can be seen as equally competent, but have different likable scores. Which, as any working woman will tell you, is something we all know too well.
Especially Hilary Clinton. The greatest example of how “likability” is real and hinders women’s success was her presidential run in 2016. She was as qualified for the job as they come and yet, her presidential campaign was dogged by just one question — is she likable enough?
So, what do you do? If you’re an ambitious young woman who really wants success, do you go ahead and include some likability lessons in your arsenal? (“Smile more.” “Laugh at jokes.” “Don’t come across as too intimidating!”)
As someone whose first impression is always “intimidating,” let me offer how I tackle the “likability” question. I don’t care. That doesn’t mean I am a rude ass to work with! I am polite, firm, and believe — like everyone who works at Vitamin Stree — that kindness at the workplace is utmost. But I don’t hold back from giving my opinions, or try to sugar-coat them with smiles. I certainly don’t worry if I am coming across as too intimidating.
The reason why I have come to this place though, is a personal journey. In my career early on, I did try to be likable. But there are two things I realised. One, that it’s exhausting. And two, there is no end to the hoops you have to jump through as a woman to appear “likable.” Because despite my best efforts, my first impression remained “intimidating.”
So, I’ve decided to wear that impression with pride. When someone asks me, I joke that I am too old to worry about being likable; which to be fair, I 100% am. But the truth is, I am also too tired to jump through those hoops because I know I can make better use of my time.
So, when it comes to likability, I am #TeamJenniferAniston. Only difference is, I am not yelling swear words at my (hypothetical) daughter. Yet. Do check back in twenty years though.