A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Likeability versus doing what is right for students
Are women leaders able to sacrifice societal roles to get the job done?
By Jennifer Zanke | September | October 2023
As women leaders, we struggle with a desire to be liked. We are mothers, protectors, warriors, caretakers, innovators, partners, homemakers, entrepreneurs, lovers, friends, disruptors and sisters. Society has taught us to be humble and do what you are told: Play nice and look pretty. Don’t get dirty. Listen to your elders. Sacrifice and give until you can’t give any more. Being liked is at the heart of society’s roles that have been handed to us.
Alicia Menendez, a journalist, podcast creator and author of“The Likeability Trap,” states that “likeability is a moving target — an invisible scorecard that we internalize but that those around us fill out for us. And the stakes of that scorecard are even higher in the workplace” (Tagle, 2021).
The question for us as women leaders is, in terms of likeability, are we willing to earn some wins and losses on our scorecards? And is this scorecard more important than moving students or schools forward? Leading becomes a challenge if we are being governed or controlled by being liked over what is needed for students.
One of my favorite leadership quotes is from Rosalynn Carter: “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be” (Goldin, 2018). Let’s keep our focus on students and ensure they receive the best education possible. Keep the goal in mind. How can we move schools to their highest potential? What type of structures and policies need to be put into place? Will our likeability suffer for the sake of taking people where they ought to be?
A Harvard Business Review article describes how high-achieving women can experience backlash because of their success. If a woman pushes a team to perform, she violates social norms. If she exhibits decisive and forceful leadership, she isn’t feminine, but masculine (Cooper, 2013). Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of The New York Times, was called “impossible to work with” and “not approachable” after the paper won four Pulitzer Prizes (Cooper, 2013).
Is there truly a balance between likeability and doing what is right for students, or does one get sacrificed over the other? How do we manage this as female leaders? According to Bateson, it is a process of demystifying, where hidden processes are made visible (Williams, 2018). Let’s challenge “how things are” because awareness can motivate change. More female leaders with different personalities and perspectives can change this stereotypical “likeable” role. Exposure to different female leadership styles can shift the paradigm.
According to a 2022 Education Week article, women superintendents say that criticism they have received on the job was not only abusive, but also gendered. “I didn’t hear communities say to male superintendents: ’You hate children,’ the way they would to women. Or, ’You’re trying to hurt children,’” said Sharon Contreras, then the superintendent in Guilford County in North Carolina. She also notes that she had to get police protection after a misleading video about her on YouTube. She continues to say that she has noticed women’s personality types being discussed over knowledge, skills and performance. Likeability should not triumph over getting the job done.
Let’s expose our unconscious bias for what it is and how it can limit our growth as leaders. If this isn’t called out, how will the culture change?
Let’s increase the amount of female leaders in education. How can we achieve this? Several points given by Haar, Palladino, Peery, and Grady include:
  • Provide more opportunities for women to broaden their leadership experience.
  • Provide networking opportunities to broaden skills.
  • Develop mentorships and internships to encourage potential.
According to a recent article in USA Today, only 24 percent of superintendents are women, yet 76 percent of women are educators (2020). The article cites women as not applying to the position as the number one reason why we are not represented in this space. Needless to say, several factors are standing in our way such as unconscious bias and the lack of a pipeline. Mindsets will need to be shifted in order for more women to apply to the superintendency.
More female leaders with different personalities and perspectives can change this stereotypical “likable” role. Exposure to different female leadership styles can shift the paradigm.
Another way we can combat bias is by remaining consistent in our leadership decisions. Consistency will show that female leaders do not lead with their emotions. A female superintendent notes: “If I continue to follow district policy, follow the law, and stay consistent, it demonstrates that I make my decisions based on facts. No matter how hard those decisions are” (2020). Consistency will allow us to always place students first in our decision making. Following district initiatives, goals and strategies will provide a clear path to defend our decision making.
Hiring decisions also need to be reconsidered. Let’s evaluate the manner in which search firms make final decisions on candidates. Are all decisions fair, equitable and unbiased? Is it a popularity contest, is it political, or are skills and knowledge placed at the forefront? Let’s do what we can to attract women to the superintendency. More female leaders will show others that we are capable of the position and our unique styles can move schools forward. Let’s name and face the struggles that we have as female leaders in order to bring about systemic change. More female superintendent applicants will even out the playing field. With more mentors, support, access to positions that give us the experience, and superintendent preparation programs, women will be more inclined to apply.
Cooper, Marianne. For Women Leaders, Likeability and Success Hardly Go Hand-in-Hand. 2013 April 30. https://hbr.org/2013/04/for-women-leaders-likability-a. Accessed 11 June 2023
Goldin, Kara. Great leaders take people where they may not want to go. 1 Oct 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/karagoldin/2018/10/01/great-leaders-take-people-where-they-may-not-want-to-go/?sh=1e1743e1421b. Accessed 23 May 2023.
Haar, Jean M., Palladino, John, Peery, Kaye, and Grady, Marilyn. Female Superintendents: Serving the Needs of Rural School Districts. https://cehs.unl.edu/documents/edadmin/students/IAEL-Rural%20Female%20Superintendents%203-0511.pdf. Accessed 1 June 2023.
Sawchuk, Stephen. Why Aren’t There More Women Superintendents? 10 March 2022. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/why-arent-there-more-women-superintendents/2022/03. Accessed 10 June 2023.
Tagle, Andee. What ‘likeability’ really means in the workplace. 22 June 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/06/15/1006695654/women-gender-bias-work-likeability-career-advice. Accessed 23 May 2023.
Williams, Alison. Likeability and the double bind. Brill, 2018.

Jennifer Zanke is an interim assistant principal in Santa Barbara Unified School District.