You know professionals come to me to develop Executive Presence; they want to be more potent and persuasive at work.

It’s rare that my mission is: Make this person more likable.

The NY Times Gender Editor is scoffing at a request to recommend a “likability coach” for a woman who comes off as a little too abrasive to suit the men around her.

Men, the editor points out, don’t hire likability coaches. Or use exclamation points (!) to sound warmer. Or ask how to appear less threatening. Or smile whether they feel like it or not.

This is the Likability Trap.

A woman who’s authoritative gets labeled brusque or bossy, or (you’re already thinking it, aren’t you?) a bitch. Women are often penalized for acting as if they’re in charge…even when they literally are in charge.

And yet, if a professional woman softens her style, if she shows up all sugar and spice, people begin to question her competence. She might not have what it takes to be a leader.

Now we’re in a trick bag.

Is Gender Judo the way out?

Law professor Joan C. Williams points to the challenge for women in business. The research is clear: “Americans define the good woman as helpful, modest and nice. Meanwhile, the ideal man is defined as direct, assertive, competitive and ambitious.”

Conveniently for the guys, that view of masculinity correlates with our perception of leadership. Which means women who want to lead in business or in government, must be seen as having those “masculine” qualities.

And yet, when a woman is “direct, assertive, competitive and ambitious,” what do people say? She’s just not likable.

So, Williams says, savvy women figure out how to “do a masculine thing (which establishes their competence) in a feminine way (to defuse backlash).”

She calls it “gender judo.”

Grappling? Flipping? Some Gender Judo moves…

 The Center for WorkLife Law founder says when women lead with strength and find themselves facing a backlash, one solution is to mix authoritativeness and warmth.

  • They might intentionally soften their language a bit, though Williams warns against out-and-out deference. Apologizing and hedging can take you from “leader” to “doormat.”
  • Choosing a new metaphor can work well. Williams cites a consultant whose firm referred to the business-builders as hunters dragging home their new-client kill. She styled herself a gardener who grew business instead.
  • Anthropologists call it “gender display.” Feminine appearance is a way to offset stereotypically masculine manifestations like, say, being in charge of something. A picture of your kids on your desk, wearing a dress, even pink lipstick can be a cue.

Sound like a lot of work?

It can be, and Williams says it’s work men don’t have to do. If men master and exhibit the characteristics we call “leadership,” they’re all set.

Successful women more likely have to display all those qualities plus “some version of feminine-coded traits that do not undercut their perceived competence or authenticity.”

Organizations can share the effort by challenging their own biases. Williams says they’ve long provided an invisible escalator for white men by rewarding behavior that’s considered socially appropriate for them, but inappropriate for women and people of color.

I’d say that’s historically true … and beginning to change.

Yes, there are still hard-charging corporate leaders, applauded for being tough, bottom-line-obsessed, even ruthless. At the same time, even the Business Roundtable is changing its perspective.

The powerful group of CEOs has long promoted relentless focus on shareholder value. Now they’re making a commitment to “stakeholders.” Who include customers, employees, suppliers and communities in addition to the people who own stock.

My own view is that everyone in business, male or female, can benefit from learning to dance between strength and warmth, between commanding a room and connecting with people. Here’s how.

I’d say Williams is right about empathy or a willingness to put the common good above self. Those qualities have been undervalued in business and political life because they have been coded as feminine.

And I think a massive shift is underway. It does require more balance from women…and from men as well. Guys may need to learn some Gender Judo of their own.

That’s why, even though I don’t call myself a “likability coach,” my clients always master the steps in that command-and-connection dance.

Maybe you’re an expert at Gender Judo? Or—balance, schmalance—you’re sticking with your own traditional gender-appropriate moves, no matter what.

Share your thoughts in the comments below.