Women Have To Be “Nice” To Gain Influence At Work — But Not Men

by Madeleine Aggeler

If you've been awake at any point during the past two years, or indeed the past two millennia, it is probably clear to you that sexism and misogyny aren't going anywhere anytime soon. While women have advanced in every field they've been a part of, they've had do so under the weight of society's expectations and prejudices against them. This includes in professional settings where, according to a new study, women must be "nice" at work, on top of being good at their jobs, in order to be considered confident and influential. (Spoiler alert: the same is not true for men.)

The study, which will be published in the Human Resource Management Journal, was conducted by researchers at three different European business schools. It looked at how self-confidence contributes to success at work, and what causes individuals to be considered self-confident or not.

Researchers evaluated 236 engineers working on 22 teams, and found that competent men just needed to appear confident to gain influence at work, whereas competent women needed to appear confident and be friendly and helpful in order to exert the same amount of influence.

Although ideally everyone in a work place is nice and helpful, the study found that men do not suffer professionally if they don't have those traits; they only need to prove their competence.

“The penalty for being [disliked] is not proportionate for women,” the study’s authors wrote in their paper.

These findings did not come as a surprise for the authors of the study. “There’s a lot of literature that shows there is a double requirement for women,” Natalia Karelaia, an associate professor of decision sciences at Insead Business School in Fontainebleau, France, and one of the paper's authors, told HuffPost. “They have to be good performers and show some conformity to gender stereotypes to be successful at work.”

But while women may have to be nicer than men in order to gain influence at work, this very expectation can also prevent them from attaining senior positions. A 2016 study conducted by Lean In and McKinsey & Company found that women who try for a raise or promotion "are 30% more likely than men to receive feedback that they are 'bossy,' 'too aggressive,' or 'intimidating.'" Women are more likely to be penalized for displaying the assurance and self-promotion that is often necessary for rising with a company's ranks.

In short, the tension between society's gendered expectations of women and the myth of meritocracy overwhelmingly benefits men and disadvantages women. This is even more true for minority women, who are put at a disadvantage because of both their gender and their race. According to the same 2016 study, "only 29 percent of Black women think the best opportunities at their company go to the most deserving employees, compared to 47 percent of white women."

As bleak as these studies may be, illuminating hypocrisy and bigotry in the workplace is an important step towards gender parity. After all, you can't fix a problem if you don't even know it's there.