Success and Likability for Women in the Workplace, The Heidi-Howard Study

Tara O'Neill 12.03.2015

Before I read Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ book, I never knew that for women in the workplace, success and likeability could be a tricky issue. I don't know whether to say "thanks" or that ignorance is bliss!

In her book, Sheryl Sandberg, references a number of fascinating studies, but perhaps the most interesting and telling study of all was that of the Howard/Heidi study.  

Students in a Harvard class were split into two groups. Both groups were given an identical case study about a real life entrepreneur and described how this person became a very successful venture capitalist by using their outgoing personality and networking skills. 

However, for the purposes of the study, one group read about an entrepreneur called Heidi and another group read about an entrepreneur called Howard (the text was identical for both groups, except for the name change).

Both groups were then asked a series of questions about the entrepreneur to ascertain how people felt about the entrepreneur's personality. And what do you think the results were? One would automatically think that the results would be identical from both groups, right? 

The results were surprising. Both sets of students thought Heidi and Howard were equally competent, but Howard was seen as a more likeable colleague and poor Heidi, well she didn’t fair too well. She was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.”

Sheryl Sandberg explained it as follows, “this experiment supports what research has already clearly shown: success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less”. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less Do you feel that this is true in your workplace or can you argue to the contrary? 

As International Women’s Day takes place on 8th March we're asked to “Do our bit to ensure that the future for girls is bright, equal, safe and rewarding”. We can all start to do our bit, by ensuring that this negative correlation between success and likability is no longer an issue.

Tara O'Neill's picture
Online Marketing Manager