Career / Speaking Out / Work Culture

Does it pay for a woman to be “nice” at work?

. 3 min read . Written by Vanshika Goenka
Does it pay for a woman to be “nice” at work?

We’ve sighed and rolled our eyes enough at the “Nice guys finish last” adage which always seems to come from guys who are decidedly not nice and love to parrot toxic words like ‘friendzone’ and ‘brozone’.

But what about the Nice Girl™? She’s very much a real entity. The term conjures up images of a girl who’s frequently underestimated and bypassed for rewards, never asking for what she wants.

Being a nice girl may not cost you much in your personal life, but at the workplace, it’s synonymous with soul-crushing mediocrity. If you’re worried you might be one, take this test to find out for yourself.

For starters, a male-dominated office means that every interaction in the workplace is gendered, right from male colleagues who stomach a female boss like she was an ulcer, to those who think female colleagues can’t be taken seriously if they put effort into their appearance. Most times, men in positions of power see women as unambitious, or disinterested in moving up the ladder if they are not the right amounts of “assertive”.

It seems like women just can’t win. You’ve all seen plenty of water cooler talk that involves terms like “bitchy” or “uptight”, almost always directed at female bosses who just want to get work done. If you’re nice, you’re branded as a “pushover” or “doormat” instead.

Mark Peters writes for BBC Capital about gendered terms in the workplace, and how it extends beyond just casual sexism. Apart from common sexist terms like “gentleman’s agreement”, Peters points to a Stanford study that found that “In performance reviews, women tend to receive feedback that’s vague (“you had a great year” for example) or sexist, such as a disproportionate amount of comments on communication style, while men get clearer feedback about specific skills related to actual job performance.”

This isn’t the only study that has shed light on gendered behaviour in the workplace. Harvard researchers found way back in 2003 that women often don’t get what they want at work because they don’t ask for it. Women were less likely to negotiate, instead passively accepting the starting salary they were offered. Earlier this year, another Harvard study found that women were more likely to engage in “office housework”- tasks like organising parties or filling in for colleagues.

This is probably because women are socialised to focus on others’ needs rather than their own and to be less vocal about what they want. If they do dare to be vocal, their aggression is perceived very differently, as we saw with Serena Williams’ meltdown at the US Open a few weeks ago.

Since the Harvard study, this phenomenon of the ‘Nice Girl’ losing out at work has been addressed by multiple women. Of them, my favourite is Fran Hauser, venture capitalist and author of The Myth of the Nice Girl: Achieving a Career You Love Without Becoming a Person You Hate who gives us a refreshing take.

What Hauser says is that doing things your own way and finding the most efficient balance is what will ultimately help you become successful, whether you decide to kill them with kindness or put your foot down.

Putting on an artificial “Tough Girl” persona or constantly toeing the line of “pushover vs pushy” as she puts it, only does your true self a disservice. Instead, why not embrace your pleasant personality and use it to your advantage?

Nice girls bring to the workplace qualities it’s desperately in need of- empathy, kindness and a leadership style that doesn’t rely on bullying. If there’s anyone who can restructure the ethos of the corporate world, it’s them.

It sounds ridiculously optimistic and easier said than done, but it really does put things in perspective. It makes us ask the all-important question of ‘How to Deal With Workplace Sexism’ without being demotivated by its all-consuming grasp and instead saying, “I’m going to be myself if it kills me.” I don’t know about you, but I think that attitude is as hardcore as it gets.

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