The Heidi/Howard Study: Success vs. Likeability

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What is the Heidi/Howard study? What do the findings say about the gender double standard in modern workplaces?

The 2003 “Heidi/Howard” study tested perceptions of women and men in the workforce. The study demonstrates the difference between likeability and success for men and women. The more successful a man is, the greater his likeability. The more successful a woman is, the worse her likeability. 

Keep reading to learn about the Heidi/Howard study and its implications for women’s achievement.

The Heidi/Howard Case Study

In the Heidi/Howard case study, the researchers split the participants (business students at Columbia Business School) into two groups. Participants in one group got a case study of an entrepreneur named Heidi, detailing her “outgoing personality” and powerful network. A second group got the same profile, but with “Heidi” renamed “Howard.” Both groups were asked to give their impression of the entrepreneur.

The students respected Heidi and Howard equally, but gave Howard greater likeability scores. They found Howard more appealing than Heidi, though it was the same story. The same data created different impressions depending on which gender it cited. Heidi was seen as selfish; Howard was seen as appealing.

The More Successful a Woman Is, the Less Likeable She Is

The Heidi/Howard study demonstrates the difference between likeability and success for men and women. The more successful a man is, the greater his likeability. The more successful a woman is, the worse her likeability. 

Why is this? Professional achievement is considered a “male” attribute. If a man is high-achieving, it’s normal. If a woman is highly successful, she is seen as pushy, unlikeable and unfeminine. This reflects traditional gender stereotypes: males are providers, decisive and driven. They’re given positive reinforcement for these traits. Women are seen as caregivers, nurturing and communal. They’re given positive reinforcement for these traits. 

When women break traditional gender stereotypes by displaying traits of professional achievement, such as being decisive and driven, they’re deemed “too aggressive,” “not a team player,” and “difficult.” If a woman focuses on getting the job done instead of pleasing others, she’s acting like a man.

Consider these examples of women leaders who had unsavory nicknames:

  • Margaret Thatcher was called “Attila the Hen”
  • Indira Gandhi was called “the old witch” by Nixon
  • Angela Merkel is called “the iron frau” 

Heidi violated our stereotypes; Howard lived up to our expectations. This bias is at the heart of why women are held back and why they hold themselves back. 

Downplaying Success for Likeability

Little girls learn early on that being branded the smartest or most successful can work against them. For Sandberg, being the smartest girl in class made her a target of derision, so she muted her achievements from a young age to fit in and be liked.

This tendency to downplay success follows women from the classroom to the workplace, which creates a problem: striving for success requires women to be able to discuss their achievements, but doing so impedes their likeability — and being liked is a critical component of leadership. When leaders are liked, they gain the support of others to get things done. 

Men can claim credit for past accomplishments and be respected and liked, but women have to strike a balance between owning their success and being liked. For example, data shows that when a woman discusses previous successes in a job interview, she’s actually less likely to be hired — she comes across as bragging. It’s a double-edged sword. A competent woman doesn’t seem nice; if a woman seems too nice she doesn’t seem competent. 

Handling the Hate

Even while delicately balancing likeability and strong leadership, female leaders deal with resentment and wariness. When Sandbeg was hired at Facebook, she was trolled mercilessly online and told she’d ruin the company. It was devastating.

Women in leadership roles will likely have to sacrifice some likeability for success. Mark Zuckerberg even warned Sandberg that her desire to be liked could hold her back, saying, “When you want to change things, you can’t please everyone.”

To withstand the inevitable criticism, poor treatment and resentment, Sandberg’s advice is to  

let yourself react emotionally and then move on. Real change will come as more women enter leadership positions. With more women in power, we’ll move toward a world where both men and women are comfortable with women leaders.

The Heidi/Howard Study: Success vs. Likeability

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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