Posted by: Nancy | March 26, 2015

Fitting In, Standing Out, Breaking Chains

For women in business, there is a continual dilemma: How can one fit in well enough to be accepted, yet stand out enough to be uniquely valued?

We haven’t cracked the code yet:

  • Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination lawsuit Closeup of rusty but durable forged together chain linksagainst Silicon Valley’s Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers unveils some of the inner workings of a highly respected venture capital firm. There’s an uncomfortable familiarity in the riveting testimony about the divergent perspectives of Pao’s performance and attitude. She had positive evaluations, yet she also was described as aggressive (when she wasn’t being meek), uncollaborative and unlikable.
  • From a Time Magazine excerpt on Lean In: Research shows that “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.” Author Sheryl Sandberg continues: “When a woman excels at her job, both men and women will comment that she is accomplishing a lot but is ‘not as well liked by her peers.’ She is probably also ‘too aggressive,’ ‘not a team player,’ ‘a bit political’; she ‘can’t be trusted’ or is ‘difficult.’ Those are all things that have been said about me and almost every senior woman I know.”
  • And, closer to home, the real dollars-and-cents impact of this is visible in the Women’s Foundation’s compelling research showing that women continue to earn significantly less money than men for the same positions. On average in the state of Missouri, women earn 71 cents for every dollar men earn.

If one of us is chained, none of us are free.

How are we to deal with fitting in, standing out, and being likable? It may be easier to figure out how to fit in and stand out than to solve for likability.

Fitting in: For example, to fit in, one strategy is to start by wearing the same uniforms as the rest of the team at the table. In most cases, it’s men in dark suits at the table. So wear a dark suit.


Betsey Solberg of Fleishman-Hilliard made this point at a recent gathering of the Kansas City chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators. She was wearing a black suit with a bright scarf (see photo), and noted she has about 14 others in her closet, that dark suits are about all that she wears. This isn’t blind conformity or denying a personal style; it  signals professionalism and removing yourself from being the topic of the conversation.

Or not. There’s an alternate viewpoint, most recently articulated in The New York Times, describing the decidedly “girlie” attire of Michelle Obama as a rejection of the Merkelization of women’s political dress. It may be time for an opposition to the dark suit strategy, also known as “bore them into talking about business.” I love the conclusion by columnist Vanessa Friedman:

How do you erase a stereotype? You confront it, and force others to confront their own preconceptions about it, and then you own it. And in doing so you denude it of its power.”

Standing out: So enough about fitting in; how about standing out? All of us want to be a part of the team, but also to stand out apart from the rest of the team. My choices for standing out call for demonstrating service and intellect, and building trust.

Service is an old-fashioned and little-used word at work, but I think it needs some additional attention. Service can be leadership; it is an attitude and it always is honorable. One who focuses on serving others — the team, customers, mission —will always be more valuable than the one who’s working her own agenda.

Another way to stand out is intellectually. Be smart, knowledgeable, and have the data to back up your insights. And there’s no replacement for trust, in any setting: Always stay true to your word; be the one who can be counted on to help solve problems.

Likability: But solving for likability? I’d rather remove it from the equation. You can’t make people love you.

It helps me to remember that the only thing I can control is myself. Focus outward: Start with basic human respect for others and work on ways to help others (service). And then hold yourself — and others — accountable for fairness in how we treat each other. Apply fairness to men and women, all positions, incomes, ages, races, religions, preferences, capabilities, etc. Remove likability from the equation — you don’t have to like someone to treat them with respect, with fairness.

If one of us is chained, none of us are free.


  1. Hi Nancy, I always like your posts. Is there a chance you want them to be shared? If so, i wonder if there is a way to link that little FB icon or something that can be clicked and Shazammm…shared! Have a wonderful Spring! Lucy

    • Hi Lucy,
      Thank you for your kind words and encouragement! I’ve added the little buttons for easy sharing — they appear at the end of the post.
      Hope you have a wonderful Springtime too!

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