We can probably all agree that we want our daughters to be “nice” above just about anything else. While it’s a given that kids need to be taught to be friendly and have basic manners, many young girls are expected to prioritize niceness over expressing unhappiness or distaste. That pressure to please doesn’t let up for women entering the workforce. In fact, a new study to be published in Human Resource Management Journal finds that for a woman to be considered confident and influential at work, she not only must be viewed as competent, she must also be liked. For men, being liked ― defined in the study as exhibiting pro-social traits, like kindness and helpfulness ― did not matter.
One of the paper’s authors, Natalia Karelaia, an associate professor of decision sciences at Insead Business School in Fontainebleau, France, told HuffPost, “They have to be good performers and show some conformity to gender stereotypes to be successful at work. This means that women literally have to work harder ― and do more ― to get ahead.”
A recent Pew Research Center survey on women and leadership finds most Americans find women to be indistinguishable from men on key leadership traits such as intelligence and innovation. In fact, many of those surveyed think women are actually stronger than men in the key areas of compassion and organization. However, women continue to feel the pressure to focus not only on the job, but on how they can be nice, approachable, and all things warm and fuzzy while doing it.
Marianne Cooper, lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s, Lean In, wrote that, “High-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success – and specifically the behaviors that created that success – violates our expectations of how women are supposed to behave. Since we taught our girls to be nice above all else, grown women are expected to be nice, warm, friendly and nurturing. So, if a woman acts assertively, if she pushes her team to perform, if she exhibits decisive leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she ‘should’ behave. By violating beliefs about what women are like, successful women elicit pushback from others for being insufficiently feminine and too masculine.”
While this new study shows that niceness may help women in the workplace, the burden of carrying the extra pressure to always be nice can also hurt them. Leading Women co-author Lois Frankel, PhD, writes that it can make it harder for women to assume leadership roles and do it effectively. Frankel explains, “When they do, they often try to make everyone happy (which is impossible), delay decision-making by trying to get everyone’s buy in, hesitate to take necessary risks for fear of offending the powers that be, and communicate in ways that undermine their confidence and credibility. Ironically, each of these behaviors could work to the advantage of women – if only they would balance them with new behaviors that contribute to more effective leadership. In other words, stepping fully away from the nice girl messages learned in childhood, and into adulthood, is all it would take for any woman to be a phenomenal leader for this age.”
Frankel shares eight great tips to help women step into leadership in Leading Women, including tips on how to get in the risk game, ways to think strategically while acting tactically, ways to resist perfectionism, and how to consciously build your leadership brand. Simply implementing two or three strategies can create a dramatic shifts in how you feel about yourself, how others perceive you, and the impact that you make at work and in your community.
In order to strike a balance and lead authentically, we need to recognize the full potential of women, and throw antiquated, stereotypical views out the window. We need to embrace our power, take our seat at the table, and lead with our experience and abilities first, personalities second. It is time to level the playing field, achieve full equality and change the world.