Nice Girls Get Ahead…of Themselves

 Do nice girls get ahead? Only if they manage ‘nice’ like any other skill.

I once had a client who was anything but nice. I sent her a holiday gift of ready-to plant tulip bulbs with all the fixins for a longlasting living bouquet. From a ritzy florist, no less. When the box landed in her office, she emailed me her thank you: “Nobody ever sent me a box of dirt before.”

I fired her. She wasn’t paying me enough to put up with her.

Was I being nice to send her the bulb basket? Was she playing to the opposite boss-lady stereotype with her nasty response? Did I sink to her level by canceling our contract? Yes. Yes. And no.

The ongoing debate about whether women hurt or help themselves by being nice at work is starting to come into focus…a little.

Recent research by Madeline Heilman of New York University underscores earlier research that – drum roll please – it’s harder for women to be liked at work when that workplace is dominated by men.  When women are in male-dominated fields or workplaces – think engineering, technology and hard sciences – they are more liked, more accepted and more quickly perceived as competent when they act like….women. Being one of the boys doesn’t work, at work.

This bolsters earlier research , also at NYU, that found that women lost credibility when employer-sponsored women’s initiatives were overtly motivated by fuzzy diversity goals or by legal fears. Highminded talk that doesn’t translate to practical programs that equip women with skills to get and keep business just makes women look weak and coddled. Casting women’s initiatives as a way to keep the EEOC at bay makes women look toxic. That’s not good either.. 

 Employers need to keep women’s initiatives focused on equipping women to achieve measureable business results. The business case for advancing women should always be front and center. It’s not naughty to be nice. Nice just needs to be managed like any other workplace skill: useful in its place, a nuisance where it’s not.

Image courtesy of Morguefile contributor clarita.

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