Paying the price with popularity: Do you hate successful women?

It's rare to see a woman make the cover of TIME magazine, especially a senior business executive such as Sheryl Sandberg.

But read this week's TIME cover line, accompanying a picture of Sandberg, and you'll forget that warm fuzzy feeling of satisfaction you first felt seeing a businesswoman stare back at you from the current affairs section of the newsstand. It reads: Don't hate her because she's successful.

 Obviously, your first inclination upon seeing a woman so successful that she warrants a TIME cover story might be to hate her. TIME feels it necessary to remind us that such emotions are not really necessary. Open the magazine and read the story, and you'll see she really is a decent person who you don't have to hate – despite being a woman and the chief operating officer of the largest social network in the world, Facebook, and having just penned a book that looks destined to go straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

There is a loose reason for such a cover line. It refers to Sandberg's belief that the accomplishments of women can come at the cost of popularity – something that may explain why some women do not talk up their achievements, or put themselves up for leadership positions, and while they may ruthlessly negotiate a deal, they might not put the same amount of effort into their salary package negotiations. She believes people don't like successful women – her case in point is Marissa Mayer, who's copped a battering recently for banning work-from-home at Yahoo.

But if you don't know much about Sandberg, and don't read through to the sixth page of the article, you may miss the point. Instead, as other women browsing past the magazine on a newsstand may notice, you're merely told (or perhaps reminded) that women might want to reconsider the heights of their own success – at least if they hope to retain their popularity.

Question is: could you really hate Sheryl Sandberg, or Marissa Mayer, or any woman for being successful? Do you believe others will hate you for personally trumpeting your own achievements?

Sure you may dislike Sandberg's stance on feminism and her desire to lead a revolution of women to "lean in" in order to obtain better opportunities in the workplace. You may even dislike the fact that Sandberg, who has two Harvard degrees and enough money to buy all the help she could possibly need, should be advising other woman to work harder to get what they want in the office.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike Sheryl Sandberg – and there are equally as many to like what she's doing to single-handedly inspire a new generation of women to think differently about their careers – but her success is not one of them. And to hate her because of her success runs counterintuitive to what so many women are fighting to achieve on workplace equality.

Indeed, as Chief Executive Women found recently, women look to the success of other women in order to believe they too can achieve – particularly within their own organisations where they see women at the top as a sign that their employer supports an inclusive culture.

Last week when we announced the winners of the NAB Women's Agenda Leadership Awards in Sydney, I certainly didn't sense any "hate" in the room. Our award winners, most of whom had nominated themselves for these awards, stood up and told us all about their work while other women and men applauded and celebrated their success. It was an energetic, uplifting and inspiring atmosphere.

But you can see why women may be less inclined to personally trumpet their own achievements if they believe they'll be hated for doing so, and perhaps there's some truth in Sandberg's idea that a fear of being disliked is ultimately holding women back. Statements like the one splashed across the cover of TIME – despite its loose relevance to the story – merely perpetuate the myth.

When Bill Gates graced the cover of TIME, his photo has carried cover lines including "Master of the Universe", and a "Computer Software: the Magic Inside the Machine (it was 1984 and Gates was pictured holding a floppy disk). His direct work was acknowledged, rather than his permission to be successful – and to be liked at the same time.


This week's cover story was a missed opportunity. We should hate the culture that plays off the perceived notion that success comes at the expense of popularity for one half of the population, not the women who break through regardless.

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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