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The likability dilemma for women leaders


"Y" some men have problems with eXXtraordinary women

Disclaimer: “XX” refers to any person who identifies as a woman

Monkey Business / stock.adobe.com

Monkey Business / stock.adobe.com

The 2023 American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Convention in Denver, Colorado, boasted an impressive list of can’t-miss lectures and keynotes. Among the schedule, one session’s title packed an undeniable punch: "Y" some men have problems with eXXtraordinary women: The likeability dilemma for women leaders in spaces where diversity is not enforced.1 Powerful, right?

Equally as powerful was speaker Laila Proença, MV, DVM, MS, PhD, DACZM, founder and CEO (Creative Envisionary Opinionated) of VetAhead. As unapologetic as she was vulnerable, Proença led attendees through an honest conversation about the unfair disadvantages anyone who identifies as a woman faces in veterinary medicine.

“This will not be an attempt to start a coup,” joked Proença. She also stressed that her lecture was based on her experiences, and recognized her privilege as a heterosexual who is considered white. Furthermore, from the onset, Proença welcomed questions and comments about her stance on the topics she covered. It was clear her message came from a place of comradery and inclusion.

You are extraordinary. Own it.

Proença takes pride in not shying away from being her authentic self. Like many women, however, she has found herself in positions where she downplayed her personality to be liked. “And I keep doing it. I am embarrassed to say I did this a year and a half ago; I shrank to fit in,” she admitted.

Still, she used those moments to reflect on why she felt she had to change herself to benefit others. “I will not stand up here and tell you that your great strengths do not come with consequences because that would be a lie. Sometimes being extraordinary makes you unlikeable in one way or another.”

And that is OK.

Direct or aggressive?

“I am very strong, very driven, quick-tempered, impulsive, direct, and relentless. I am courageous, extremely loyal, energetic, confident, demanding, and quick-witted. Because of these qualities, I make a great leader. That would be a blessing, had I not [been a woman]. Those qualities are well accepted if you identify as a man," said Proença.

"So naturally, because I am not a man, I was called ‘the general,’ impossible, defiant, authoritarian, aggressive, sassy, pushy, bothersome. The problem is I didn’t understand why this was happening to me," she continued.

In her eyes, she was simply trying to push boundaries and exceed expectations. “Thank goodness I am not called that anymore,” Proença said sarcastically.

With an earnest shift in tone, she recognized that even though she cannot choose the adjectives others use to describe her, she appreciates those qualities. “Don’t we teach our children to go after what they want? I am going after what I want!”

Difficult, how?

Proença immigrated to the United States from Brazil at 30 years old with a master's degree, PhD, and a thriving career as an exotic animal veterinarian and professor. “It was a whole new beginning for me,” she said. “No one knew me, and I was not even a veterinarian because my diploma was not validated here.”

Before founding VetAhead–an immersive online education portal focusing on zoological medicine–Proença found herself in roles that she described as toxic and incredibly challenging. “And I am not talking about the workload or medical aspect of the roles. I could not believe some of the things I was seeing, but no one else was saying anything,” she recounted.

In one particular instance, she was called into a meeting where a superior provided feedback. Again, she was told she was difficult. “I don’t know if you get called difficult often, but it is a hard pill to swallow,” Proença admitted to the audience. “Because how do you act on it? What do you do with that feedback?”

In an attempt to pinpoint her wrongdoings, she directly asked her boss: Difficult how? Did she disrespect someone? Was a case managed incorrectly? Were there client complaints?

The answer to each was a resounding no. Yet the consensus remained that she was difficult. With no actionable answers, Proença said she felt defeated. “I had worked so hard in my career to get to that point. I went into such a dark hole that I actually started to consider suicide. It scared me.”

Ultimately, Proença decided that she needed to make a radical shift in her career. If she could not find a path that fostered growth and recognized determination at face value, she would create one for herself.

“I share my story because maybe you are going through something like that, or maybe you see someone going through something like that,” she explained.

Extend your hand

She concluded her lecture by reminding the audience that being extraordinary women comes with responsibility. “When you climb a step, extend your hand for the next woman.”


Proença L. "Y" some men have problems with eXXtraordinary women: The likeability dilemma for women leaders in spaces where diversity is not enforced. Presented at: AVMA Convention; Denver, Colorado. July 16, 2023.

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