Economy

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.   

"We found that women typically are concerned about being seen as pushy and intrusive, and they may hesitate to ask for the raise, ask for a promotion or do anything that makes them stand out and appear to be boastful," says Goodson.  

In a culture that offers up sweet-voiced Disney princesses as role models for young girls, it's hardly surprising that many women have trouble being aggressive in the pursuit of advancement or blustering about their achievements. According to career counselor Karyl Innis, who has seen this dynamic play out in her work, "you have to roll it all the way back to how little girls are brought up and often they're told to work hard; they're told nice girls don't do this, little girls don't do that. And largely they're being told, 'don't put yourself out there, don't brag.' "  

Meanwhile, men have been primed to pursue their self-interest from childhood. Economist Linda Babcock found that men are far more aggressive when they www.womendontask.com negotiate raises and promotions. According to Babcock, men "are encouraged to go for it growing up. The world is their oyster, they're in charge, they're encouraged to take risks, and they just have so much more practice initiating negotiations growing up and with so much more encouragement from our society that this is an acceptable thing for them to do. So they get more practice. It's not as if women are missing a negotiation gene or something!"  

In fact, Babcock's research reveals that women are great negotiators -- just not for themselves. "[Women] negotiate for their family members, they negotiate for the causes they believe in. So it's not that we don't have these skills. It's that society has told us that it’s not appropriate for us to use them for ourselves -- because that would be selfish or greedy." 

Furthermore, women who buck gender expectations by engaging in what's considered "masculine" behavior face a whole other set of problems in the workplace: when they shed the buffers of femininity, they risk being vilified as bitches. (See: the Hillary Clinton nutcracker, and all the other creative ways some male commentators vented their anxieties about what Clinton would do to their genitals.)

While aggressive self-promotion might make women appear more competent, it poses its own hazard.  According to social psychologist Peter Glick, who has done extensive research on the subtle ways gender expectations affect workplace relations, "There's a very strong prescriptive stereotype that women should be nice. The problem is that some of these self-promoting behaviors that are about "me, me, me" can be seen as not being nice … this can effect decisions, like who you want to promote, who you want to work with, who gets resources." 

This double-standard is not lost on women who perceive, in the behavior of co-workers and supervisors, that being aggressive does not pan out for them in the same way that it does for men.  

In a series of experiments, Harvard psychologist Hannah Bowles (with Linda Babcock and Lei Lai) asked participants to evaluate potential job candidates based on a script that had them either aggressively push for more money or accept the initial salary offer. Not surprisingly, Bowles found that evaluators were more likely to want to hire aggressive men than aggressive women. But her results also showed that women who had previously been evaluators in the experiment were far less likely than men to negotiate when they switched roles, suggesting that their experience in the experiment affected their future behavior.  

"I was frustrated with the implications of, ‘Wow, women need more confidence, women need to negotiate more like men,' " says Bowles. "I think it's pretty clear that part of women's hesitance is reasonable in that they're correctly reading society's perceptions of women who try to negotiate."  

And it’s not only women who suffer in a corporate culture that privileges aggressive self-promotion over talent and hard work. Firms also lose out in myriad ways when skilled, hard-working women don't get ahead. Mary Boughton, senior director of Catalyst Western Region (a nonprofit devoted to expanding opportunities for women in business), points out: "The ability to recruit/advance a diverse workforce is crucial because diversity leads to agility, open-mindedness and a willingness to change and overcome bias."  

One possible advantage of diversity in the workplace, of course, is that if more women held leadership positions, corporate work culture could become more sensitive to the particular problems women face as they attempt to scale the career ladder.  

And that's not only good for women, but for companies, too, since organizations that lack the mechanisms to notice and reward hard work may end up filling their leadership ranks with underqualified individuals (Michael "heck of a  job" Brown, anyone?) After all, is rewarding self-promotion over quality work really the best way to discover and cultivate talent -- male or female? If an employee spends more time bragging about his or her accomplishments than actually accomplishing things, it's easy to see how the company suffers.

"Is pushiness your criteria for excellent worker? Well, maybe in some organizational contexts it is, but for most there's a broader array of talents that you want to be promoting," says Bowles. "You can have someone who really serves the organization and the people that work for them. So, does your system advance people who are 'other-oriented' as well as people who are 'self-oriented?' "

Babcock concludes that the modern workplace is hardly a magical meritocracy where the best workers soar to the highest positions. 

"We really think and want to believe that the workplace is fair, and if you just work hard and do a good job that it will be rewarded. And I wish that were true -- that the world we lived in were like that."

Tana Ganeva is an editorial assistant at AlterNet.