The New Self-Help

What Women Give Up to Be a ‘Culture Fit’ at Work

Book jacket cover for The Likeability Trap: How to Break Free and Succeed as You Are by Alicia Menendez
Book jacket cover for The Likeability Trap: How to Break Free and Succeed as You Are by Alicia Menendez

This story is part of The New Self-Help: 21 Books for a Better You in the 21st Century.

Amanda is in her midthirties and has worked in finance and tech — industries that are dominated by men. She has developed a work uniform of dark button-downs and black pants that fit well but not too well. She tries to slow her cadence in order to be taken more seriously. She drapes her jacket over her chair to make herself appear larger and more commanding.

“I have gotten distracted in meetings trying to do these fucking power poses,” she says with a laugh. But by all appearances, the performance is believable. Amanda has ascended to the highest level of her tech company. Plus, she seems genuinely well-liked by her peers.

And yet, Amanda admits that she’s exhausted. It’s not the demanding job that is depleting her; she thrives on that pressure. She’s tired because she’s constantly doing a well-curated performance of leadership that is not entirely authentic to who she is.

This trap — the pursuit of likeability at the expense of authenticity — is arguably the biggest and the most all-encompassing pitfall for women who aspire to lead. To be a leader we must be authentic, but others either see our authentic selves as not-leaderly, or they see our authentic selves as leaderly but unlikeable. No wonder Amanda feels tired.

When “be yourself” means “be what I was expecting”

Many companies have embraced the call to allow employees to bring their “whole selves” to work — to show up in a way that is vulnerable, true, and authentic to them. But often, in practice, “Be yourself” turns out to mean “Be a little bit more of what I was expecting.” This can be doubly true for women with a minority status, in addition to gender.

As a Latina, I am often given the impression — and on occasion have been told — that I would benefit professionally from being more, to quote Cardi B, “spicy mami, hot tamale” and less Latina-ish Liz Lemon. I’ve spoken to many other women who have similar stories.

When Adaora, who is Black, was an associate at a prestigious law firm, a White female partner pulled her into her office. “I want to help you make it here,” the partner told Adaora. “I can relate to you. I grew up in a rough neighborhood, too, and so I know what you’re feeling.” Adaora didn’t know how to tell her that while she wasn’t rich, she didn’t grow up struggling. In fact, she attended a private boarding school.

Regardless of the partner’s intention, the message Adaora received was full of assumptions about who she was and how, based on those assumptions, she must feel in an elite workplace. “That isn’t bring your whole self to work,” she tells me. “There’s a certain self that they want you to bring: The person who was rescued. I wasn’t rescued.”

Individuals’ lack of awareness of their biases, combined with preferences for those who are like us — and harbored in the midst of an ongoing shift toward more inclusive workplaces — means that likeability often becomes a cover for unconscious bias.

If White, straight, able-bodied women without children find themselves navigating narrow expectations around how they should behave, those paths to leadership are narrower yet for women of color, for queer women, for disabled women, and for moms.

The cost of the “culture fit”

Bring your “whole self” to work may be the aspiration, but the United States is far from there: More than half of workers report some form of “covering” at work — downplaying a part of their identity to minimize potential bias against them. In a 2014 survey of some 3,000 employees across more than 20 large U.S. firms, 66% of women reported covering on the job. That figure was even higher among respondents who self-identified as, respectively, gay or Black, regardless of gender.

“Covering,” a term first coined by sociologist Erving Goffman, and further cultivated by law professor and legal scholar Kenji Yoshino, can take many forms. Women dying their grays to hide their age, Spanish-speaking Latinos avoiding speaking Spanish in the office, and a gay man not bringing his partner to a work event are all ways of covering. These practices are, of course, more prevalent among those with more marginalized identities.

“You feel like you have to be someone else all the time so that you can be part of the ‘culture fit,’” Daisy Auger-Dominguez, a workplace culture strategist who has spearheaded talent and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at the Walt Disney Company, Google, and Viacom, tells me. “That feels like you’re being smothered from the inside out.”

Covering requires daily emotional labor in the form of death by a thousand cuts: being conscious of how you sit or hold your wrists or do your hair or talk about your girlfriend, whether to announce that you are stepping away from your desk for afternoon prayers, or thinking twice before microwaving arroz con pollo in the communal kitchen. It is boatloads of energy that could be spent on actual work, or actual life.

Shifting the paradigm

While I was speaking with Amanda, the worn-out tech professional, it dawned on me that I should find out who her authentic self is — the person she wishes she could be at the office. The person underneath those power poses.

“Someone who really values making a serious impact on the world by bringing out the best in other people, making the hard decisions, and having the tough conversations when need be,” Amanda told me. Then her voice shifted. She knew that was a bullshit answer. “I don’t even know. I just gave you CEO interview talking points.”

The truth is that I asked an impossible question. It’s impossible because, rather than reimagining leadership, we’re asking women to reimagine themselves in the likeness of what we think a leader “should” look like: a White, straight man. What would it take to change that?

This is the true challenge at the heart of the likeability and success paradox: So long as “leadership” is considered synonymous with traditionally masculine qualities, it will be incredibly challenging for women to be seen as leaders, especially in male-dominated fields. Women will either act the way society expects women to act and be told they’re not leaderly enough, or they’ll act the way society expects men to act and they’ll be penalized for violating gender expectations. Throw in factors like race and LGBTQ+ status, and the performance of self becomes a virtual minefield.

There are no easy answers to this conundrum. What’s clear is what won’t work: encouraging women to care more, care less, or any other prescription that shifts the full weight of fixing this problem back to the individual.

Leaders can continue to squeeze themselves into boxes that do not fit, or we can blow up the boxes and create something bigger and better.

From the book THE LIKEABILITY TRAP: How to Break Free and Succeed as You Are. Copyright 2019 by Alicia Menendez. Reprinted by permission of HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Author of The Likeability Trap: How to Break Free and Succeed as You Are and an anchor for MSNBC.