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It’s a question for the ages: How on earth is a woman supposed to prove her leadership abilities without coming off as too aggressive? Too passionate? Too . . . anything?
Answer: It’s hard. Exceptionally hard. Fortunately, there are Latinas such as Alicia Menendez to help guide us—the MSNBC anchor and correspondent and host of the podcast Latina to Latina explored this exact topic in her book, The Likeability Trap. On October 21, Menendez shared her insights in a virtual fireside chat moderated by Amy Yates, the head of human resources for Capital One’s financial services business.
Below are some of the major takeaways of their discussion—and some of Menendez’s top pieces of advice.
Likeability Traps Are Often Subtle
According to Menendez, she landed on the topic of likeability because of its subtlety.
“Very often, the things that are the most subtle can be the most pernicious,” she said.
She notes that women are expected to show up in a way that is warm and communal, while leaders are expected to be assertive and advocate for what they want. A woman who projects a sense of warmth might be liked by her coworkers, but she will not be seen as a leader, Menendez pointed out.
“Women are up against this constant choice between showing up the way we expect a woman to show up and showing up the way we expect a leader to show up. There’s basically no way she can just show up as both and have that feel really natural,” she said. “That comes into play with ambition. When a woman asserts that she is ambitious, shows that she is ambitious, asks for a reach assignment, asks for a higher job title, or asks for more money, there is an immediate bristle.”
Flip the Conversation—and Thus, the Perception
Menendez notes that it’s easy to fall into a cycle of office gossip where people are prone to say things such as, “Amy is a lot”—as in, too aggressive. For this reason, Menendez encourages women to “ease people out” and make them clarify what it is that they mean, exactly. If someone is accused of being too assertive, for example, flip the conversation and say something such as, “Compared to whom?” Ask for an example of when that person’s style impacted the results of their work.
“I think that is really powerful for a woman to do for herself,” Menendez said. “I think it is even more powerful when we do it for each other.”
Drown Out the Online Noise
Women have always been disproportionately targeted in online spaces, and with the dawn of cancel culture, the fear of being criticized has gotten worse. Women are understandably concerned with being negatively perceived.
Menendez advises women to be really clear and specific about their target audience member when cultivating their online presence. She suggests giving that target person a name, an age, a profession, and to think about what they enjoy doing at home in the evenings.
“Have a real sense of who they are and what they want, and then provide them with that content,” she says. “More of us are public people now. If you have a public-facing Twitter account, or if you have a public-facing Instagram account, then people are consuming you in a way that is different than having an actual experience of you.”
On the other hand, if a woman is on the receiving end of negative feedback, Menendez does recommend looking to see who is actually providing the feedback and what that feedback looks like. Sometimes, she points out, critiques are actually honest and can lead to doing one’s job in a better way. The important thing is to stay in tune with the ones closest to us, even (and especially) outside of social media.
“Who’s your core group?” she said. “Who are those are really good friends, family members, and professional peers who know you, see you, get you, and are willing to be radically honest with you? Who can you go to with a piece of feedback you have gotten, whether it is from a manager or a person online, and say, ‘I got this piece of feedback. It is hitting me very hard. Can you and I have an honest conversation about whether that sounds like a way I show up or a thing that I need to work on improving?’”
These valued individuals can be trusted to have good feedback and serve as a sounding board, Menendez said. “And, very often,” she added, “they’ll say, ‘That’s not you at all, and you have to let it go.’”
The bottom line remains the same: it’s not easy being a working woman. However, as Menendez explains, incorporating just a few shifts of thought and perception can go a long way toward ensuring a better work experience and a more successful career trajectory.