“Lean in” and You’ll Be More Popular! That's Up for Debate

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New research from the leadership consultancy Zenger/Folkman revealed that a woman’s likeability and her success actually go hand in hand.By Rachel Lehmann-Haupt (Editor, Women 2.0)

Any woman who has been in business long enough has probably noticed that the more successful a woman is, the more she is criticized – or even disliked. I've heard words like “too aggressive," “too self- promotional,” and “out for herself.” As if anyone would put these labels on a man in a derogatory tone.

Apparently this perceived stereotype is changing. New research from the leadership consultancy Zenger/Folkman revealed that a woman’s likeability and her success actually go hand in hand. Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman found that male leaders’ personalities are perceived more negatively while women maintain their popularity as they rise in their careers. They even charted the rise to show that while both men and women’s popularity drops when they move into middle management, a woman's begins to rise again when she moves into upper management. This is clearly good news for those of us inspired to "lean in" to our careers.

Reacting to this research in another HBR post, however, Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, and the lead researcher for Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In, writes:

Wouldn't it be great if this one analysis could disprove decades of social science research — by psychologists like Madeline Heilman at NYU, Susan Fiske at Princeton, Laurie Reedmen at Rutgers, Peter Lick at Lawrence University, and Amy Cuddly at Harvard — which has repeatedly found that women face distinct social penalties for doing the very things that lead to success.”

Cooper calls the Zenger/Folkman report a “sweeping conclusion derived from a single analysis which used questionable methods,” and goes on to analyze their scientific approach. She concludes that “male and female leaders are liked equally when behaving participatively," which for example means that they include subordinates in decision making, and that this analysis is consistent with their studies. But, she writes, “when acting authoritatively, women leaders are disliked much more than men.”

Given the plethora of research that opposes Zenger and Folkman's research, I tend to side with Cooper's conclusion and think that women still have a ways to go when it comes to perceptions of their success. But it's good that more positive perceptions and studies are surfacing as well since these will help to change long held business gender stereotypes.

Women 2.0 readers: Have you observed that successful women become more or less popular?

Rachel Lehmann-Haupt is an editor at Women 2.0 and author and journalist interested in gender politics, working motherhood and the influence of science and technology on culture. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Daily Beast, New York, Vogue, Self, Outside, Wired, and MSN Money. She is the author of In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commitment and Motherhood (Basic Books, 2009). Follow her on Twitter at @rlehmannhaupt. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons