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Can nice women get ahead at work?

Sarah Todd
woman putting on lipstick

If you want to give someone at work a back-handed compliment, try telling them they’re nice.

As a generally sunny person whose niceness gets commented on by colleagues quite a bit, I wouldn’t say the “nice” label is objectively insulting. But it concerns me. Mainly, I worry that in the professional world, getting branded as nice makes me less likely to receive recognition for being good at my job.

Unfortunately, this is a perfectly rational fear. Studies show that women who act friendly and warm in the workplace are often viewed as less competent, regardless of their actual abilities. “For women who conform in certain ways to the expectation that women are friendly and warm, the consequence for them is that their skills can be overlooked,” notes Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab at Stanford University and the lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller Lean In.

Conversely, women who get noticed for their high performance and technical skills are often viewed with suspicion and resentment. They may be denied opportunities to advance at work because they’re seen as lacking the people skills necessary for leadership roles. And if they do manage to get promoted, they’re likely to be deemed difficult.

This puts women in a maddening double bind: Is it better to seem nice and be underestimated, or to seem smart and be disliked? Carly Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, summarized one version of this paradox in her 2006 memoir, writing that throughout Silicon Valley, during her tenure at HP and long after, “I was routinely referred to as either a bimbo or a bitch.”

The ease with which our culture deems powerful women to be cold and calculating is so well-documented that it’s become a cultural trope. “I don’t hate women candidates—I just hated Hillary and coincidentally I’m starting to hate Elizabeth Warren,” a recent headline on the humor site McSweeney’s declares.

But the tendency to treat warmth as a sign of weakness is also a serious issue. For every supposedly unlikable Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren, there are scores of women who’ve been socialized to conduct themselves in a warm, helpful, traditionally feminine manner. We just don’t know their names, because they’ve never been offered a leadership position in the first place. “Friendly, warm people, they can get sidelined pretty easily and not be seen as power players or go-to people,” says Cooper.

Conflating warmth and weak performance puts women at a disadvantage. And it has big ramifications for everyone else, too. Kindness, because it is a quality that’s closely linked with stereotypical femininity, has been systematically devalued in contemporary office cultures and in American culture more broadly. This misconception has made our workplaces, and our society, less functional, less moral, and ultimately, less human.

Either, but not both

Whether it’s better to be perceived as kind or competent is not a dilemma faced only by women. Research shows that people prone to stereotyping by others—whether based on their gender, race, religion, nationality, profession, or socioeconomic status—are especially vulnerable to the phenomenon known as the warmth-competence tradeoff, as identified by social-science researchers Amy Cuddy, Peter Glick, and Anna Beninger in a 2011 paper (pdf) published in Research in Organizational Behavior.

The researchers note that stereotypes about so-called “model minorities”—such as Asian and Jewish people—often characterize members of these groups as “competent but cold.” Meanwhile, groups that are frequently seen as “lower status”—such as working moms, the elderly, and people with disabilities—are perceived as warm but not necessarily competent.

Is it possible to be perceived as both warm and competent, and admired for possessing both qualities? Certainly. “But comparison changes everything,” Princeton psychologist Susan T. Fiske writes in her 2012 book, Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us.

Fiske explains that typically, when we think well of someone for displaying a certain trait—say, a barista who always gives us an enthusiastic greeting at the coffee shop—we’ll assume they have many other positive qualities as well. That barista is so friendly, we think, so he probably loves his job, which means he’s a hard worker, which means he’s devoted to his family. And so on. This is known as the “halo effect.”

But in a comparative context, we’re more prone to box people in, Fiske writes. “Somebody has to be better and somebody worse; usually, each side is better in particular ways and worse in others, that is, distinct domains: high on either warmth or competence, but not on both.”

And so the warmth-competence effect serves as a kind of psychological sorting mechanism when we’re trying to weigh people against one another and decide who deserves an award, or a raise, or a job, or our votes.

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out who to pick in such situations, and it makes sense that our brains try to simplify matters by slotting candidates into certain categories. But there’s no logical grounding to the idea that a friendly person is going to be dumber than a cold one. We’re just falling back on a pattern of thinking that gives the most generous assessments to members of high-status groups—that is to say, in the context of many workplace situations, white men.

Forbes’ recent list of the 100 most innovative leaders, featuring 99 men and one woman, offers a prime example of how this bias plays out every day. We root for the success of people who seem similar to us. So long as white men have the most influence in assessing the achievements of others, they’ll shape the cultural conversation to gaze most kindly upon people who remind them of themselves. (Note: the Forbes list was compiled by four men; the ranking was predicated in part on the executives’ media reputations as innovators, which demonstrably favors men; and it was published in a magazine that is led by a man.)

On the bright side, there is reason to believe that the general tendency to regard women as inherently less competent than men is changing. A recent meta-analysis of 16 polls of Americans, published in the journal American Psychologist, found that women are, at long last, generally perceived as being just as competent as men. According to the American Psychological Association, in 1946, just 35% of Americans thought men and women were equally intelligent. But by 2018, “86% believed men and women were equally intelligent, 9% believed women were more intelligent and only 5% believed men were more intelligent.”

Glick, a professor of social sciences at Lawrence University whose research often focuses on sexism in the workplace, says it’s true that perceptions of women’s intelligence are improving. But when the question of warmth is raised, women “can still get assimilated into this warm but not competent stereotype.”

“If you write a recommendation letter and you praise a woman for her warmth, what are you implying?” he says. “People read into it.” The implication: “Oh, she’s nice, but she doesn’t have what it takes.”

Being nice in a dog-eat-dog world

The women who get dinged for not being nice enough at work are often, in fact, perfectly friendly and collegial, according to Margarita Mayo, a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at IE Business School in Madrid. Because women who display the quality of ambition tend to be perceived as uncaring, women have to perform extra-super-levels of niceness with a cherry on top in order to be acknowledged as such.

In Mayo’s first job in academia, she recalls, her male colleagues were perceived as helpful simply for holding meetings with doctoral students at all. The women on the faculty were expected to devote far more of their time to students, attending special breakfasts and dinners.

Such expectations can put women in a lose-lose situation, as illuminated by a recent lawsuit brought by one lawyer against her ex-employer. The lawyer, Nancy Saltzman, reported that her former CEO demanded she cut the cake at a company celebration because she was one of the “ladies.” Refusing would have made her look hostile, so she complied, knowing she’d been forced into a position that undermined her authority.

These different expectations for men and women are “similar to what happens at home,” Mayo says. If a mother takes a sick child to the doctor, she’s simply fulfilling basic expectations of parenthood. “But if the father takes the child to the doctor, he gets, Oh, my god, such a great dad.“

But why is it that so many workplaces interpret pro-social behavior as a sign of weakness in the first place? Part of the reason has to do with the assumption that people who are nice don’t know how to stand up for themselves. “When you’re likable and agreeable, if you think about the exaggerated version of those traits, you’re a people-pleaser, you get tread on, you’re accommodating,” says Glick. “And what happens to the accommodating person? They get piled on.”

In a patriarchal society, niceness, compassion, and kindness— stereotypically feminine traits—are bound to be culturally undervalued. The result is that many workplaces instead place a premium on stereotypically male qualities like dominance, resulting in “masculinity contest cultures,” a term coined by Glick, Cooper, and Jennifer Berdahl, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s sociology department. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, they explain: “This kind of culture endorses winner-take-all competition, where winners demonstrate stereotypically masculine traits such as emotional toughness, physical stamina, and ruthlessness. It produces organizational dysfunction, as employees become hyper competitive to win.”

Masculinity contest cultures make everyone unhappy, leading to higher rates of burnout, turnover, illness, and depression. “It’s pretty miserable for everyone; even the people who win, win at a high cost,” says Glick. And it’s ultimately terrible for business. Glick, Cooper, and Berdahl point to Uber as an illustration of how sexual harassment and other forms of misconduct can thrive in workplaces that prize aggression and competition over listening and cooperation. Under Uber’s ousted CEO Travis Kalanick, Glick says, “people would openly brag about withholding critical information to sabotage their bosses and try to their take jobs. This is not a functional workplace.”

Workplace cultures that treat warmth as a sign of incompetency do so because they see femininity itself as a weakness. That doesn’t just set women up to fail—it sets the organization up to fail, too.

The praiseworthy performance

Say that management takes a good, hard look in the mirror and realizes that people at the top have been perpetuating a culture in which nice people, and nice women in particular, get the shaft. What’s to be done about it?

For one thing, managers should think critically about the kind of praise that they bestow on women, and whether it may reflect certain assumptions about warmth and competence. One study of 81,000 performance evaluations of military leaders found that men were most frequently praised for being “analytical” and “competent,” while women were complimented on being “compassionate” and “enthusiastic.”

“If you understand women aren’t as readily granted competence as men, especially in science, tech, engineering, math, and leadership, you do want to say how nice of a person they are, because they are, and you really need to talk about their competence,” says Stanford’s Cooper. “Men are more often described with standout adjectives like ‘game-changer’ or ‘brilliant,’ and that helps them. Managers need to be cognizant of that: If I’m doing that for the men I’m sponsoring, I should really be doing that for the women as well.”

More broadly, organizations that say they prize collaboration and generosity need to find ways to reward and incentivize collaborative and generous behaviors. Mayo suggests “making it a requirement to do the helping and be a good citizen.” The Australian software company Atlassian, for example, recently implemented performance reviews that evaluate employees not just on their individual achievements, but on their contributions to their teammates and to company culture. It’s a refreshing idea. That said, Glick notes that because collaboration is a subjective measure upon which to be evaluated, there’s still plenty of room for performance reviews to continue holding women to a higher standard than men when it comes to helpfulness.

That’s why it’s important to ensure that women who are known within an organization for their enthusiasm and kindness are also getting a shot at the kinds of high-profile assignments that lead to internal and external recognition, promotions, and raises. “The helping work is backstage, which is really unfortunate because women don’t get visibility,” notes Mayo.

The various researchers interviewed for this article were unanimous in saying that the onus should not be on individual women to solve warmth-competency biases. “Ultimately, we can all think about how people are perceiving us at the margins, in certain instances we can even be more strategic, but it’s exhausting and there’s only so much we can control,” says Cooper. “There’s a cost to always having to strategize.”

Yes, a woman who fears that she’s getting passed over for promotions at work because she’s too nice to be perceived as leadership material can try to set clear expectations with her manager about the specific benchmarks she’ll have to hit in order to level up. But there’s no guarantee that professional prejudices won’t still come into play. That’s why the New York Times’ Jessica Bennett recently expressed fatigue about the expectation that women perform “gender judo” in order to navigate stereotypes, asking, “What if we tried to change the system, and not ourselves?”

Learning to value kindness

Changing the system, of course, is a big job. It involves dismantling rigid notions of masculinity and femininity that work against all of us. Samuel Culbert, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles Anderson School of Management and the author of Good People, Bad Managers, articulates the task for forward-thinking workplaces this way: It’s “how you get people and processes, in a competitive environment, to own up to the fact that they’re imperfect, to not get so insecure that they have to point out other people’s imperfections, and to create a compensation structure where people have everything to gain by helping others, and nothing to gain by competing?”

Culbert names Salesforce and Starbucks as two companies that are attempting to create this kind of environment. Another, perhaps more surprising example is the oil and gas giant Shell. Back in the 1990s, oil-rig workers at Shell were steeped in the performance of masculine toughness. Then, as detailed on the podcast Invisibilia, the company began offering seminars designed to help workers open up.

The goal of teaching the workers to express their feelings and treat one another with empathy wasn’t just about helping them to become more fully realized people, although this was an added bonus. Rather, the point was to get them to a place where they were okay being vulnerable with one another and admitting to mistakes—necessary skills in a dangerous job when you’re trying to keep people safe. Shell’s company-wide accident rate fell by 84% after the training, while productivity and efficiency soared.

The lesson of Shell suggests that helping boys to develop emotional intelligence while they’re young could go a long way toward changing the workplace dynamics of the future. “The rules of society mean that boys have to censor what they express, and sometimes the only way to do that is to convince yourself that you’re not feeling what you’re feeling,” the psychologist Michael Reichart, founding director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives and author of the new book How to Raise a Boy, recently told The Atlantic. “And if I’ve cut myself off from my own feelings, I’m going to be less perceptive about what you’re feeling, which means I’m going to behave in a relationship with less skill and deftness.”

But teach boys to value their emotions, and they’ll be more likely to grow up into the kind of people who take new hires under their wing or volunteer to head up mentoring programs at work. That both lessens the pressure on women to take on disproportionate amounts of emotional labor, and helps to alter perceptions of warmth and friendliness as traits that are associated with any particular gender.

In the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Clementine (Kate Winslet) doesn’t want to be called nice because she thinks nice people are boring, or pandering, or cowardly. She’s internalized the same stereotypes that made me launch, uncharacteristically, into a not-so-nice diatribe last year when a colleague told me that my niceness was my biggest strength.

But perhaps Clementine and I had gotten things wrong. As Glick says, “it’s nice to be nice”—it’s just unfair to be penalized for it. But in a world where both men and women are expected to be considerate and generous and kind to their colleagues? Where a person’s warmth isn’t treated as a strike against their intelligence, but as an unqualified asset that, more often than not, goes hand in hand with talent? Now that sounds pretty nice.

Correction: This story previously identified Jennifer Berdahl as a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business. She is a professor at the University of British Columbia’s sociology department.

 

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