But is she likable?

A new study finds that women have to act nice to get ahead, but in most situations, men don’t.

That’s the conclusion of a paper appearing in The Economic Journal, which says that likability is an influencing factor in interactions between women, as well as men and women — but not in all-male interactions.

For their study, researchers Leonnie Gerhards of the University of Hamburg and Michael Kosfeld of Goethe University Frankfurt performed several experiments involving groups of eight men and eight women, who were divided into pairs.

Before they were introduced, participants were asked to examine photographs of their partners and rate them. They were then told how their partner rated them.

Teams played games where they were asked to contribute euros toward a joint project, with rewards dependant on cooperation.

“Researchers found that in same-sex pairings, men in low as well as high mutual likeability teams contributed similar amounts, suggesting likeability was not a factor in determining contribution,” reads a statement by the study’s authors.

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“However if mutual likeability in all-female teams was low, women contributed 30 per cent less on average.”

In mixed-sex pairings, men’s contributions were about 50 per cent lower when likeability was low. 

Women in same-sex pairings chose lower numbers in low likeability teams, while males in same-sex duos chose high numbers from the start, regardless of mutual likability.

“Women significantly react to (mutual) likeability in social interactions,” reads an excerpt from the paper.

“In contrast, men react to likeability only when they interact with women; if men interact with men, they don’t care.”

The study concludes likeability is an asset for women in all interactions — but for men, it only seems to matter in interactions with the opposite sex.

The likability problem

The paper offers three reasons as to why genders view likability differently: 

1) Women are more sensitive to details of socials interactions than men.

2) Women form different peer relationships than men, which are smaller and clustered, while men tend to form networks that are larger and less tight-night.

3) The paper points to a 2009 study suggesting female college roommates have lower tolerance for same-sex roommates than men. 

“Results suggest that the likeability factor leads to considerable advantages in terms of average performance and economic outcomes for men,” the authors say.

Past studies have hinted at similar conclusions. In December, a study was published suggesting men are more likely to aggressively promote their research, which could contribute to higher rates of subsequent citations and references from other researchers.

“Women are both socialized from a young age in our culture to be less aggressive or less bold than men,” Jocalyn Clark, executive editor at the medical journal the Lancet told the CBC regarding the December study, which she was not involved in.

“We’re also taught that if we breach those gender norms that we’re met with negative sanctions.”


The paper focuses on gender, and does not provide analysis on how race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability – among other things – could influence the “likability factor.”

In a 2015 article in The Atlantic, Washington University sociology professor Adia Harvey Wingfield discusses the challenges some Black professionals face in predominantely white organizations, suggesting that all minority groups may need to possess a certain degree of “likability” in order to thrive:

In a study of black professional workers in a number of different occupations, I found that these employees worked to carefully manage their emotions in ways that reflected the racial landscapes they inhabited.

In particular, black professionals had to be very careful to show feelings of conviviality and pleasantness, even—especially—in response to racial issues. They felt that emotions of anger, frustration, and annoyance were discouraged, even when they worked in settings where these emotions were generally welcomed in certain contexts—think litigators interacting with opposing counsel, or financial analysts responding to a stressful day on Wall Street.


Eliminating bias

In their paper, Gerhards and Kosfeld argue that “mere awareness” of behaviour can significantly reduce bias, which could help organizations create more inclusive training programs.

“We believe that the likeability factor can provide a useful new perspective on how modern workplaces shape male and female interactions and how they can be further developed to provide equal opportunities for women and men,” the paper says.

Read the full paper here.

Image courtesy: Unsplash.