dilemma of the successful woman

I had an interesting conversation this weekend with a friend at Harvard Business School about a study they read about woman in business.  To completely dilute it, he basically said that all people fall into one of four categories in business:

1. Likeable and Capable

2. Likeable and Not Capable

3. Capable and Not Likeable

4. Not capable nor Likeable.

He then went on to say that very rarely is a top woman in business considered the ideal, #1, but rather is #3, also known as a bitch.

It’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard this breakdown, but never so formalized.  It also really got to me because for what’s it worth, I consider myself to be both likeable and capable (in business), and also successful.   Perhaps there would be a dramatic difference were I to be running a large organization in corporate America.  But, regardless, it was an upsetting reminder that strong woman who are in positions of power, in order to be successful, tend to be regarded as bitches or need to water their abilities down to be more likeable.  It’s no surprise, if you believe this, that attractive woman bank on their looks, or use flirtation as a tool since it seems difficult to be accepted as strong and simultaneously likeable.

I’d love to hear from successful woman who have faced this dilemma. I’d also like to hear from men who ‘answer’ to successful woman and learn about your perceptions of them.


  1. Great commentary Stephanie! I’d agree that it’s important not to let being likeable consume you. Yet, as you mentioned, I think it’s essential to be likeable in order to progress in many arenas of life, business included.

  2. That’s very interesting. My initial reaction is to say, does it really matter if people ‘like’ you? It’s clear that you need people skills to get to the top, but I don’t think you need to be everyone’s best friend. I’ve faced moments where I do what needs to be done, even though my self-awareness tells me it could be considered ‘bitchy’ by some. If you become too concerned with people liking you, it could cloud your judgement and start to interfere with your performance. That being said, there’s never an excuse to be rude or careless with others. People must be treated courteously and with respect. You should never burn a bridge, because you never know when you’ll need to cross it again some day!

  3. So many angles to view this from and points to touch on. But first, many things were discussed between you two that we didn’t hear. So please forgive us if a landmine is set off when we comment on this post. (Success is defined differently by people so I won’t touch on that.)

    Using the watered down version of your conversation, there are many in life/work that are in group 4, less in 2 and 3, and even less in 1. Regardless of sex, very few top dogs in business are truly a 1. However one could say men have had more opportunity and training than women in business to this point to be more like-able and more capable. So from this, the study your friend is referring to is already flawed. Apples and oranges are both capable of helping to sustain life and are liked by many. Which would you prefer today?

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