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In the Office, Nice Girls Finish Last

So do mean girls. Studies show that women's contributions at work are less likely to be recognized than men's, and it's not for lack of ambition.

Picture this: You're a young woman at your first job. You worked hard to get a decent education, believing it was the path to success. You also have a vague sense that the feminist battles of past years have left few political or legal barriers to workplace equality -- if pop culture is to be believed, the only thing left for feminism to do is finally determine whether "do-me" heels are concessions to the patriarchy or an expression of liberated female sexuality.

So, bright-eyed and optimistic, you embark on what you imagine will be a smooth rise to the top of your chosen profession, limited only by your own skills and dedication to hard work.

Instead, you find yourself lingering in entry- or midlevel positions, despite all your work and devotion to the organization. You figure everyone has to pay their dues -- until you begin to notice that male counterparts are speeding past you with better work assignments, more opportunities for advancement and faster promotions. 

If this sounds familiar, that's because it's quite common. Despite significant advances in recent decades, women continue to lag behind men in income and career advancement. Regardless of class, race, educational level and profession, women make less money than their male counterparts -- an average of 77 cents on the dollar. Women make up 2.4 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (and get paid less than those peers), less than one-fifth of partners in law firms (minority women fare significantly worse, accounting for 2 percent of law partners), and continue to be significantly underrepresented in politics. 

Confronted with a complex problem that defies easy, sound-bite explanations, the media -- and many experts -- have taken the time-tested approach of pinning the blame on women themselves. An array of myths, like " opt-out revolution," have sprung up to explain why women have yet to achieve true equality in the workplace. The general assumption behind these shortsighted ideas is that women can't "cut it" in today's competitive work environment.

However, a growing number of studies show that women are more likely than men to be devoted to their employers and to see hard work as the best way to get ahead. But women, conditioned from an early age to be communal and "nice," are generally hesitant to boast about their efforts and are less likely than men to push for raises and promotions. In a workplace that rewards aggressiveness and self-promotion, women often go unrecognized for their contributions.  

A 2004 study conducted by International Survey Research measured the attitudes and behaviors men and women displayed at the workplace and found a noteworthy discrepancy between the priorities of male and female employees. Female executives were primarily concerned with the well-being of the company, smooth employee relations and a well-run workplace. Men cared much more about getting ahead. 

The study found that career development was the top priority for men, with "personal reward" as their second most-important goal. Women put "working relationships" first, "customer quality focus" second, and "communications" third.   

According to Kim Morris, the study's project director, "[Women] tend to focus less than men on their advancement. They assume that focusing primarily on the health of the organization will result in recognition and promotions."  

Women are also less likely than men to grease their career paths by touting their skills and bragging about their accomplishments.   

A 2008 study by psychologist Shannon L. Goodson compared the office behaviors of professional men and women, drawing from an industry questionnaire about workplace attitudes. Goodson found that women were far less likely to draw attention to their achievements and promote their skills and abilities to co-workers and supervisors, whereas men had relatively little trouble bringing attention to their work. At times, men even lied about their accomplishments, taking credit for contributions that were not entirely theirs.