Edit desk: Likable leadership

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Meg Kelly

Meg Kelly

Once a week I trek from off campus to Maginnes Hall — that old brick testament to the architectural dark age that was the 1970s.

When I enter, I head to room 101, where I spend around an hour basking in the gentle glow that only florescent lighting can provide, eating way too many of the snacks prepared by a designated sorority’s chef and cramming the lines of my planner with dates and times. The university’s Panhellenic Council meetings are held there every Thursday, and a large part of the meeting is spent covering upcoming events and getting input and insight from the administration.

One of the more engaging components of these meetings comes when the director of the Women’s Center offers “Rita’s Rants/Raves/Reflections.” During this time, Rita Jones, the center director, discusses ideas that relate the tenants of feminine leadership to the Greek system, particularly for those of us who hold officer positions. This week we discussed the results of a survey we had taken earlier in the semester.

The main theme behind the survey was “likability” and the tendency for women in positions of power to curb or adjust their leadership style to remain “liked” within their organizations. Of the 31 women polled, 26 said likability affects their leadership skills, and only one woman said being respected isn’t the same as being liked. As these statistics were shared, few women appeared surprised by the numbers.

If my term as a sorority president could be summed up and magically converted into a Facebook page, I probably wouldn’t be drowning in the likes. Most women accept the job recognizing it can be a loveless position at times — sometimes you have to make a decision that benefits the majority of the chapter but might upset a close friend, or you find yourself instinctively saying, “Just say the president’s making you do it. I can be the bad guy in this case.”

While my experience with leadership in the Lehigh community is mostly limited to Greek life, the concerns that women in positions of power can have regarding likeability can be applied well beyond the boundaries of Maginnes or our chapter houses.

This election season has been a whirlwind case study in examining likability of female leaders. Regardless of how you vote in November — because you will be voting, won’t you? — people would agree a tremendous amount of the criticism directed toward the Democratic presidential nominee has centered around her likability. According to a poll released earlier this year by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic, 40 percent of Americans believe society is better off when men and women stick to traditional gender roles.

Major news outlets publish articles under the headlines “Is Hillary ‘Likable Enough?’” and “Making Hillary Likable.” In an election where likability often trumps experience, the two qualities have at times become equally weighed in voters’ minds.

What effect does this have on young women aiming for positions of power or women who are just hoping to better themselves within their community? What did it mean eight years ago when Americans praised a “hot Alaskan hockey mom,” forgoing any qualifications in favor of her physical attributes?

During that same election, a woman with many more years of experience was referred to as “calculating” and “power-oriented” or “Machiavellian.” Some commended on Hillary Clinton’s composure during last Monday’s debate, but in 2008 there was an uproar when she teared up at the New Hampshire primary. For some, the tears were a sign of weakness. For others, they “had to be” fake.

What does it mean when young people see foreign female leaders becoming almost expendable within their positions or quickly reduced to scapegoats within their own parties, as Brazil’s prime minister or Rome’s first woman mayor? Or when The Sunday Times publishes an article about “Childless Politicians,” but curiously neglects to report any male leaders without children? Why, in high school, was I encouraged to run for student council secretary because “a guy is always going to beat a girl for president”? Why was I told to smile more because people would think I was “super unfriendly and kind of a b—h” if I didn’t?

Election years can be a learning experience or time of reflection with regard to the current state of our nation. Interestingly enough, November is also a time when many chapters at Lehigh are choosing their future presidents and the women who will lead them for the next year. Many senior women are applying to jobs and preparing to enter the workforce.

When you walk into that interview or raise your hand to comment at Panhel — probably still with a mouthful of cheesecake knowing me — how much of your authentic self do you feel you are able to present? How much do you have to, like, be liked?

Meg Kelly, ’17, is a design editor for The Brown and White. She can be reached at mjk317@lehigh.edu.

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