Intimidation and Likeability: Dilemmas for Women at Work, at Home, and in Life

At my 20th high school reunion, a classmate I hadn’t seen since graduation apologized for treating me badly throughout our high school years. She said she did so only because she was jealous and intimidated – that she realized later in life, after growing up and maturing (and most likely experiencing this kind of treatment herself), why she responded to me the way she did all those years ago. In all honesty, I hadn’t even remembered her mean treatment, and was rather shocked that she would have been jealous of me at all in high school – definitely not the best years of my life. But then I reflected on the fact that I often find myself in situations where I am told, usually by a third party, that someone feels intimated by me. Maybe it’s because I am fairly direct in conversation (I absolutely hate beating around the bush), or because I am a self-assured and confident woman (something I have had to work really hard to achieve), or because of my academic position (also something I have had to work hard to achieve).

I haven’t entirely figured out what one can do about being intimidating when you are just being yourself. But to be sure, I am not the only one who has asked this question. And plenty has been written about how to recognize whether you are intimidating – the subject brings up about 25 million responses in a Google search. (Interestingly, most of it focuses on how women intimidate men.) Cosmopolitan even offers a quiz to determine whether you are intimidating or not.

So what, if anything, can one do about being intimidating? Or is this something we should even worry about? Certainly, a professional woman must be sensitive (rather unfortunately) to the cues she is giving, and should definitely recognize if she is being a bully (which is never cool). But the fact others find you intimidating may largely be because, among other things, you are not worried about being liked. And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie thinks this is exactly how women should be.

In a recent conversation with The Washington Post about her latest book, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, Adichie says, “It’s not your job to be likeable. It’s your job to be yourself. Someone will like you anyway.” The problem, however, is that women and girls are socialized to be cooperative, likeable and committed to domestic work – and this sets women back in many ways. Adichie writes,

Gender roles are so deeply conditioned in us that we will often follow them even when they chafe against our true desires, our needs, our happiness… they are very difficult to unlearn. […] We want women seeking power to be tempered by a more domestic side. We don’t expect the same of men. Women have to straddle the line so that they are seen as not so forceful that they are a shrew or emasculating, but not weak. It’s a kind of juggling that men don’t even have to consider at all.

As with most things (and especially for women), it’s about balance – being confident and direct, but thoughtful and compassionate. It’s a delicate balance for sure, and men should be just as concerned about it as women. But for me, as for Adichie and many others, the most important thing is to promote equality for all, and to continue to argue that we should all be feminists so that these gender-prescribed roles no longer place limits.