Monday, September 9, 2013


This is, of course, real.

You know about racism and sexism. But what about likabilism? 

In our society, a lot comes down to just how likable you are. Almost all hiring and promotion takes into consideration some subjective factors -- things like "leadership skills," or "being a good communicator." It's no secret that if people like you they judge you to have these skills, and if they don't, they don't.

Of course, I am not saying that somehow likabilism displaces other -isms as if we're in a post-racial, post-feminist, post-whatever world. world. Obviously not. In fact it's the opposite. Likabilism functions as a conduit for other forms of discrimination. Or maybe money-laundering is a better metaphor. You can't express your racist and sexist and other discriminatory attitudes and judgements as such. But you can still say "Just doesn't have the leadership skills," or "isn't an effective communicator. 

But likabilism expands on and overlaps with the traditional forms of discrimination. Because as long as there are these subjective judgments in evaluations, likability is going to be a huge factor in getting ahead.

I was reminded of this reading the incredible-along-so-many-dimensions NYT story about trying to combat gender disparities at the Harvard Business School. Astonishingly, subjectively measured "class participation" makes up "50 percent of each final mark." 50 percent! Obviously likability is going to influence whether you read someone's remark as challenging something in an interesting way or as not-being-a-team-player or whatever.

The article raises the important issue of social capital: the ways social networks have economic benefits. Not surprisingly, students are attuned to the ways the social experience of HBS would benefit them: for example, "if the professors liked you, students knew, they might advise and even back you." If you aren't living in a cave, you can imagine how that affects the women in school: they can't seem ambitious, and they can't seem non-ambitious. Quotes from the article:
"Judging from comments from male friends about other women ('She’s kind of hot, but she’s so assertive'), Ms. Navab feared that seeming too ambitious could hurt what she half-jokingly called her 'social cap,' referring to capitalization."

"The men were not insensitive, they said; they just considered the discussion a poor investment of their carefully hoarded social capital."
Of course it's not just a gender issue. Anyone who doesn't look right, doesn't act right, or can't afford expensive outings can't become part of the in-group -- in this case, an in-group that will determine in real terms how well you do in your career.

OK maybe you're thinking, "Boo-hoo, people at Harvard Business School." But honestly, this is everywhere now. As I touched on in the previous post, everyone now has to present a certain kind of face to the world, through social networking and the internet, through positivity and team-playerism, and so on: Like me! Pick me! I'm the one for you, world!!

Likabilism functions as part of what Philip Mirowski calls the "entrepreneurial self": you have to market and brand yourself, and you have to develop exactly the "self" that an employer wants to hire -- not just at work, but with your whole personality. Various forces have come together to create a language and framework in which any ill-fit with the expectations of corporations is considered a personal failing, something you need to deal with. For example, Mirowski quotes a passage from Barbara Ehrenreich's description of a boot-camp for the unemployed: "It's all internal .. it's never about the external world... it's always between you and you."

So: what are you gonna do? I often feel like lurking behind discussions of these topics is an unspoken hope that somehow freedom -- of people to do as they please -- and fairness -- everyone getting what they deserve for their talents and efforts -- and equality -- OK, not equality, but not massive inequality either -- are somehow essentially in harmony. Like, if we could just get people to stop being racist and sexist and discriminatory in all the awful ways, you could have a society in which everyone does what they want, and everyone gets their just deserts, and no one is too badly off.

Some of the Harvard interventions seem to reflect a hope along these lines. Like, if we could just get things sorted out, things would all ... get sorted out.

But likabilism means the problems of exclusion and inequality are much deeper than this would suggest. If you let people do what they want, they're going to exclude the people they don't like, and include the ones they do. You can't legislate equality of social capital. So fairness and rough equality are not going to just happen.

My own view is that because these are different and conflicting values, you have to find a way not to let one of them run away with you. You can't legislate social capital, but you can legislate against too much inequality: there are lots of economic policies and institutions that will have equalizing effects. And you can legislate that no one be too badly off as well.

An approach like this won't allow for everyone doing what they want and it won't produce full justice of what people deserve either.

But it might not suck.


Daniel said...

Hi Patricia,

I like your post. And I love the term "likabilism". I've thought about something similar in terms of college admissions, which I've been thinking about lately. The notion of "holistic" admissions has the same pitfalls. In fact, "leadership qualities" are often at the top of the "holistic" criteria, and allow for discrimination similarly (I'm thinking of the article in the NY Times on admissions at Berkeley, and the "you'll see lots of those" comments about Asian applicants).

It's funny. With the admissions example, it seems as if the room for discrimination that comes with lots of subjectivity works both for those in corporations as well as those promoting "social justice."

Allen said...

Great thought piece. I'm in the position of hiring people for the first time and I have to say that I'm proud how much I don't care about gender and race. With that said, I do hold a number of biases against certain cultural norms that I - half-consciously - wonder how they'll fare in my business sphere. I feel there are norms of behavior (talk, gesture, dress, writing conventions, slang use, etc...) that cut straight across race and gender, and sometimes across class lines, but far more rarely. I think these standards of behavior make up cultural capital or social wealth, and perhaps that's "likability." I try to be widely accepting, but what I've realized is that - and this surprises the shit out of me - it tires me out to interact in ways that aren't familiar to me. This is akin to, but lesser than, speaking a foreign language. I kind of worry about my biases, but in the end I wonder if I'm really just exhibiting something like "social laziness," not wanting to do the currency conversion when I interact. Thanks for you post. Got me thinking.

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Daniel, very interesting! I didn't know about "holistic" admissions as a thing -- I mean, I knew there was a trend toward this kind of thing, and that the uses were discriminatory, but I didn't know what the particular mechanisms were.

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Allen, yeah -- in addition to the more obvious forms of implicit bias, I think it's virtually impossible not to have preferences for things like similar communication styles. That's one reason that I think the responses to the problems of likabilism have to include not only bias elimination but also legislated ways of lessening inequalities and making sure things aren't too awful for anyone. Thanks for the comment!

Sunil D'Monte said...

Great post. I read about the HBS experiment yesterday, and just today I was reading about the British Class Survey, where they included cultural capital and social capital as measures of class (along with economic capital). You can find the study PDF here. And I started thinking that the HBS case was an example of how social capital (amongst other things) gives a particular group an advantage. I've noticed this in my profession (software industry), where as a man I have social capital that women in the industry don't have. The norms and values are very male "identified". Here in India there is a clear social capital that upper castes have too. And I'm sure it's the same with race in the west.

As for what we should do - I think the bare minimum we should do is to make people aware of how social and cultural capital work, and that they are vehicles of inequality. And be frank and open about it, so as to counter the usual objections people raise when you propose anything resembling affirmative action ("patronising", "social engineering" etc.). Once it's clear that the status quo is not "natural", that inequality is shaped by factors like cultural and social capital (invisible to those who have it), those objections should get addressed.

Daniel said...

Yeah, Patricia, I think that holistic admissions "accomplish" a lot. On one hand, very wealthy out of state students - or international students - who would pay their full tuition at Cal (or, presumable, other schools with holistic admissions - Columbia for sure, in terms of international students), might be admitted (income is not supposed to be an actual criterion for admission, but school district, tax base, and other identifiers on applications serve as a proxy). On the other hand, high-achieving students who aren't leaders might not make the holistic cut, while medium or sort of comparatively low achieving students who struggled in (specific) ways might get points (at Cal, it's literally points) for the struggle. A chunk of this emerged after affirmative action was challenged in California. I think "holism" and "leadership" and other vague terms are probably quite effective ways to achieve something specific without identifying it (a cynical view, I know).

I didn't read the whole piece in The NY Times on HBS, but the subjectivity in grading thing is familiar to me at Columbia, where it is not unusual - at least in Core Curriculum classes - to set aside a big chunk (I've seen it as high as 95%) of grade to participation.

Protagoras said...

It's been a theory of mine that this helps explain why members of disadvantaged groups who manage to be successful sometimes are among those who deny discrimination exists or remains a large problem. Some people are really good at being likable, enough so to largely overcome other biases against them, so they really don't notice much bias (because it doesn't seem to affect them). I definitely know a few highly successful women who aggressively distance themselves from feminism and seem to fit this pattern.

The existence of a handful of such people also helps members of the privileged groups convince themselves they're not biased, since they have a few examples of members of the disadvantaged groups who they get along with perfectly well to point to. To make matters worse, those people, the members of the disadvantage group they trust most, agree with them that bias isn't a big problem! And so privilege is, as usual, masterful at remaining hidden.

Patricia Marino said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patricia Marino said...

Hi Sunil, thanks for the glimpse into another context and for the link to the British Class Survey -- very interesting. I totally agree about the importance of awareness AND transparency -- being frank and open.

Patricia Marino said...

Hi again Daniel,
"the subjectivity in grading thing is familiar to me at Columbia, where it is not unusual - at least in Core Curriculum classes - to set aside a big chunk (I've seen it as high as 95%) of grade to participation."


Patricia Marino said...

Hi Aaron, I hadn't thought of it that way but that's a great point -- likabilism works to the quiet advantage of the very likable, who, especially if the come from typically disadvantaged groups, then find it possible to underestimate discrimination against others.