“Popularity is Overrated:” What Bernadette Teaches us About Likability

“Popularity is overrated.” This may be the best and most telling line for women looking for purpose in their work—in spite of a “likeability problem.” She admits at one point, “I’m nobody’s friend.” Spoken by Bernadette Fox, played by Cate Blanchett in the new film, “Where’d You Go Be rnadette,” these phrases are protest against […]

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“Popularity is overrated.” This may be the best and most telling line for women looking for purpose in their work—in spite of a “likeability problem.” She admits at one point, “I’m nobody’s friend.”

Spoken by Bernadette Fox, played by Cate Blanchett in the new film, “Where’d You Go Be rnadette,” these phrases are protest against shame, judgment, social ridicule and even mean girls.

In the film, adapted from the wildly popular 2012 novel by Maria Semple, the main character, Bernadette is a woman over 40 who admits she “is in the weeds,” suffering from anxiety following four miscarriages and caring for a very ill child, career tragedies, possibly a prescription drug problem and as a result, stasis.

A former MacArthur Genius Award winner, globally innovative architect, mother, wife and introvert, Bernadette is stunted by mental health issues and the need to “launch my second act to show who this true bitch goddess architect is.”

No spoilers here, but hers is the journey every ambitious woman with a complicated life endures, specifics altered.

“Failure has its teeth in me and won’t stop shaking,” she announces.

The likeability thing for women leaders is a real thing, social scientists can avow.

Author and law professor Joan Williams writers recently in the New York Times, that she has interviewed more than 200 women who say, yes, likeability is a trap.

“Why do women need to do this? Even as women have moved into traditionally male domains, feminine mandates remain. More than 40 years of research by social scientists have shown that Americans define the good woman as helpful, modest and nice. In other words, as focused on her family and community, rather than working in her own self-interest. Meanwhile, the ideal man is defined as direct, assertive, competitive and ambitious,” Williams writes.

Women need to disguise their authenticity, research shows, in order to achieve what theu intend. Williams writes, “Women who negotiate as hard as men do tend to be disliked as overly demanding. So they use “softeners” in conversation.”

Likeability is a factor in electability.

“Are women ‘likable?’ Greta Baxter writes in Ms. “According to the polls, voters don’t think so, even though former advisors to Elizabeth Warren are doing their best convince us that she is “warm and affectionate.” But the real question is why ‘grabbing a beer’ with a candidate is still the yardstick used to measure their potential—and why female candidates are (still) unfairly suffering from it.”

Baxter writes, “Measuring ‘likability,’ then, become a way to justify negative sentiment about them—without acknowledging the sexist roots of it. Recent polls revealed that 74 percent of voters surveyed felt comfortable with a woman in the office—but only 33 percent believed their neighbors would be comfortable with a woman in the Oval Office.”

The notion of likeability also plagues women in leadership, women aiming for leadership and women just starting in their careers.

“Psychology research has shown that there are two primary kinds of gender bias that affect women, called the descriptive and prescriptive bias. Descriptive bias is the labels we attach and associate with certain social groups and communities, and prescriptive bias is how they are expected to behave,” Dr. Pragya Agarwal writes in Forbes.

“And, when someone does not conform to these prescribed roles and behaviors they can be penalized or punished. Women, for instance, are traditionally expected to be caring, warm, deferential, emotional, sensitive, and so on, and men are expected to be assertive, rational, competent and objective. So, when it comes to promotion, these traits are sometimes automatically prescribed to people as per their gender without detailed information about their personalities, thereby a man, in general, is assumed to be a better fit as a leader,” Agarwal writes. 

But pretending to be someone you are not, is not wise in the long run. Even Bernadette knows this.

“When women embrace feminine stereotypes like the office mom, they reinforce both the descriptive stereotype that women are naturally nurturing and communal, and the prescriptive stereotype that they should be. But sometimes what women need to do to survive and thrive in the world is exactly the opposite of what they need to do to change it,” Williams writes. ”If you find your effectiveness jeopardized because you being yourself triggers dislike, then you need to decide whether overcoming the backlash is worth the sacrifice.”

In the film, Bernadette is encouraged by a mentor who advises, “People like you must create. If you don’t you become a menace to society. Get your ass back to work and create something.”

Bernadette’s response, is to embark on an almost impossible solo journey of ingenuity and creativity, a second career act, re-establishing her life purpose. She sums it up, “It’s the good kind of heart racing. I’m about to kick the shit out of life.”

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