Don’t be a Nice Girl, be a confident woman

nice girl

Women possess the smarts and skills to succeed in any job.

But here’s the catch (and one reason its taken so long for women to break through): There is a double standard so that the same behaviours that help men get ahead and prove their worth on the job are discouraged in women.

In a Stanford University research project, people (of both sexes) were asked to list desirable adjectives for men and women.  The answers re desirable male traits were all about being assertive, dominant, independent and decisive. Those are all traits that both genders should prize.  But the desirable traits listed for women were all about relationships: loyal, compassionate, warm, cheerful, soft-spoken.

This creates enormous fears in women: we are afraid of being too assertive, we are afraid of not being good enough and we live with an all-purpose anxiety.

Aside from the office and career anxieties everyone faces, women have specific work-related fears that centre on the paradox of maintaining relationships and remaining “feminine” while still doing a good job.

These are the fears of ambition and assertiveness.

According to psychiatrist Anna Fels:

At each historical juncture where women have achieved access to social influence and recognition – legal and political rights, educational opportunities, career options – their capacity to be “real women”  has been impugned

Fels also notes the barrage of fear-mongering magazine articles and news stories that imply women have to chose between being a professional and being a good wife and / or mother.

The internalisation of this fear begins at an early age. Girls begin life with just as much ambition as boys, but they slowly lose steam in adolescence, right when self-consciousness about gender roles begins to seep in.

The result is that women get the message loud and clear that ambition isn’t feminine.  Even when women are able to continue dreaming big, there’s still a difference between the way our successes and those of men are received. When women succeed, we are much more likely than men to be uncomfortable with public acknowledgement of our success.  We shuck off accolades – and any advancement that comes with them.

Indeed, when Fels began researching the role of ambition in women’s lives, she found that the women she interviewed hated the very word ambition:

For them ambition necessarily implied egotism, selfishness, self-agrandizement or the manipulative use of others for one’s own ends.  None of them would admit to being ambitious.

Instead the constant refrain was “Its not me; its the work”…Clearly, these accomplished women were caught up in some sort of fear.

According to Fels:

The underlying problem has to do with cultural ideals of femininity.  Women face the reality that to appear feminine, they must provide or relinquish scarce resources to others – and recognition is a scarce resource. 

Although women have more opportunities than ever before, they still come under social scrutiny that make hard choices – such as when and whether to start a family or advance in the workplace – even harder.

The concept of femininity also interferes with a woman’s ability to be assertive and aggressive. We so want to be liked that we worry about alienating people, so we often try to get what we want behind the scenes while still being careful to avoid seeming manipulative and disingenuous.

It’s nice to be nice, but it can be extremely draining and self-destructive when it mutes our voice, holds us back and undermines our authenticity.

Fear of sticking our necks out because of how we’ll be perceived often causes us to sabotage our careers.  And the consequences of stifling ourselves aren’t just financial. For example, Gail Evans, who worked her way from talk show booker to executive vice president of CNN, making her at the time the highest-ranking woman in broadcast journalism, says that even after she made it to the top of her field, she was still afraid to speak-up at meetings.  Instead, she’d let other people get credit for her ideas.

You’d think, as much power as I have there, that I could be comfortable saying anything…but I still hold back, I’m constantly censoring myself. And it’s always a man who beats you to the punch.

Karen Samuelsohn author of How To Succeed in Business Without A Penis observed that:

Men are more often warriors and women, worriers

Women want to be liked. This is something that starts very early on in life.  They’ve done studies with little girls and little boys, and having lots of little girlfriends around us is very important to us.  It doesn’t go away when we get to be big girls, either.

Guys know that in business nice guys finish last;  girls don’t know if nice girls finish last or if pushy, aggressive girls finish last.

We should, though. All we have to do is look at the science.  A study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that:

agreeable people tend to self-sacrifice and compromise their own interests in order to make other people happy

If you’re still not convinced, ask Lois P. Frankel, president of Corporate Coaching International and author of the book Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers. 

She warns against acting “like a nice little girl” instead of an adult woman, and advises against acting obedient, asking permission and being the last to speak – all nice and polite traits but likely to get you branded as a lightweight.

So the choice that many women see in the workplace is (a) be nice and demure, and just hope that someone notices and gives you a promotion, or (b) be assertive, get labeled pushy and aggressive, and hope you advance before becoming too hated.  As most women know, it doesn’t take too much to get labeled pushy and aggressive.

Who is responsible for this double standard – men or women?

However it began, the answer right now is both.  Deeply ingrained cultural ideals of femininity make it much harder for women to own up fearlessly to their ambitions and pursue them without apology.  We pay the price in opportunity, achievement, success and satisfaction.

Ultimately, to be fearless at work means to find a sense of self-determination, accomplishment, fulfillment and purpose that help us live our best lives.

financial independence

In case you were wondering, The Escape Artist did not write the piece above.

It was written by Arianna Huffington, a woman, mother of 2 daughters, author and the entrepreneur businesswoman that co-founded The Huffington Post.

The section was taken from Fearless which you may have seen on my list of life changing books…I think of it as a woman’s equivalent to Steve Biddulph’s book Manhood.

Just as I said about Dr Robert Glover’s Nice Guy theory, this is not absolute truth…its just Arianna Huffington’s point of view. Which, I hope you will agree, she’s entitled to.

Arianna strikes me as a smart, effective and capable woman (rather than a Nice Girl). She is not anti-men just as Dr Glover is not anti-women. And I don’t see any contradiction between what they wrote. One is offering some advice to men to up their game, the other is offering some advice to women to up their game.

In case you hadn’t yet realised, this is a game where you’re allowed to support both teams. If you see the world through a frame of male vs female gender wars where one sex can only “win” if the other loses, you’re going to be miserable throughout life.

One of the things that I like about Huffington’s piece is that she avoids the temptation to focus on blame.  She’s a practical businesswoman interested in finding workable solutions to problems.  There is no pretense of easy magic wand solutions for issues with deep roots in our cultural history and biology.  The focus is on what women (and men) can control…their own thoughts and actions.

Huffington also offers a few tips on exercise as a path to fearlessness, encouraging women to run, swim, bike, hike, do yoga or hit the gym.  I couldn’t agree more. Doing that stuff is not a chore, it’s a bio-hack towards becoming more confident, assertive and successful.

I’ve highlighted this book because it resonated with me and with the real life experience I’ve gained through giving financial coaching.  In those coaching sessions, I’ve seen plenty of highly intelligent women (and men) that have a touch of Nice Girl (or Nice Guy) syndrome about them.  I’ve helped many of them become more assertive, stand up for themselves and get paid more money.

It was one of those female clients that recently challenged me to write another version of my previous Nice Guy article, but this time for women.  

At the time, I made some excuse about not having the relevant biological credentials.  But I reflected on it and I think she had a great point. Having said that, I decided that the article comes better from a women like Ariana Huffington.

If reading this has made you angry, please feel free to leave comments over at Arianna’s website.  Good luck with that.

But, if any of this resonated with you, I’d encourage you to read Fearless which is an excellent book.

You’re welcome 😉

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  1. Survivor · · Reply

    Hey EA, its a pity you couldn’t have been initially ambiguous as to the originator of the content, I was salivating in anticipation of the aggro brigade weighing in to mysogyny-bash you, [before then looking foolish] just having skimmed the article….. I’m guessing its as you wanted a more adult conversation on an important subject & thought you’d establish that asap to side-step distractions.

    I understand you have to generalise, but as an aside, not all women suffer this reticence, a minority are confident despite socio-cultural pressure – my ex for example would stab anyone in the front any time, without blinking – that kind of superpower gifted her a great career, she definitely punched way over her work-related ability.

    If you think about it neutrally, pressure on women to ‘tone it down & look demure’ is effectively the same handicap that introverts have in life/particularly the work environment. It can be ameliorated to an extent by intelligence – I saw a lot of quiet people observing in meetings while the shouty types warmed up the room – then went off & were a lot more effective with the info they’d learned.

    1. Tru dat 🙂

      I felt it was important to use AH’s words as close to verbatim as possible (I had to edit a bit for brevity and flow) so its her authentic voice

      ps “whilst the shouty types warmed up the room” – classic…I’ll be stealing that one…

  2. donaldtramp1 · · Reply

    And there was me starting to think you were a nasty misogynist because of you trying to help create “good guys” in your previous article 😉 Go Girl power!

  3. It’s interesting to me that the upshot of this and the “nice guy” article are both essentially about assertiveness. Yes, there are gender-specific components and context – but the plan of action for the reader is the same. The books underlying the two articles are targeted at specific genders mostly because that increases sales IMO; in the female case, by jumping on to the popular “powerful women” movements, and in the male case, by generating controversy. A general purpose book on “assertiveness” wouldn’t generate as much hype, or sales.

    Ultimately, yes, most people could do with being more assertive in many situations, but that has to go with a thoughtful and considerate attitude. To me, being a good leader and being nice go hand in hand. Too nice and you’ll bend to the whims of others even when you have good ideas. Too assertive and you’ll ignore others and essentially act like a psychopath. Neither is a good look.

    1. Yep…I agree with that

  4. I was zipping through this post until I got to the point when it said, “This creates enormous fears in women: we are afraid of being too assertive, we are afraid of not being good enough and we live with an all-purpose anxiety.”
    I KNOW you’re a guy… I found you through the Choose FI podcast… I re-read this section again, thinking that maybe I’d missed some punctuation or a by-line that made it clear that it wasn’t you writing…
    I read the rest with great interest, not knowing what your game was (or what you’d been taking!) It’s really interesting that it was Ariana Huffington. I heard a podcast yesterday on ‘So Money’ where she was interviewed about her latest book on sleep. She’s an incisive, intelligent woman.

    1. Ha-ha….I’m busted 🙂 Thank you for the comment

  5. Hi Barney

    I love this… hurrah!

    I read Fearless last year after seeing it on your reading list and thought it was brilliant.

    There’s such a huge gap in the conversation on this sensitive topic. I love the way you (and Arianna!) address it.

    The concept that women need to take ownership of their own behaviour and interactions with men and other women in money, work, love and life to gain equality is a very valid one. So so many women, myself included (although am improving) are uncomfortable with holding power and in turn the responsibilities it brings. I see this constantly with our team at work. Many of them are conditioned to always think of themselves as passive victims whenever they encounter any challenging situation. They instantly roll over and allow fate and others (normally me!) to determine the outcome. This creates a cycle of self affirming victim hood which is very hard to break and also reaffirmed by class, education levels and reliance on social housing; all of which hamper the notion of having ownership and autonomy of your destiny.

    If women act as if they are empowered and believe they are, they will perform better at work, raise children better, put less strain on their partners to provide for them financially and everyone benefits. But … the challenge is… it’s much easier to stay a victim than to drive so we’ve got a long way to go until women are ready to leave the comfort of passivity.

    I actually found Maya Angelou’s work incredibly powerful in helping me reset my mind and to erode my own social conditioning. Coupled with all the great advice you gave me it helped me flick that switch!

    Hope all is well for you.


  6. Well behaved women seldom create history.

  7. Great article. However, I would really be curious to read a post on the topic written by a man. You see, I’m a woman and sometimes even I can’t stand my tendency to prioritize feelings over practical matters. I’ve had to train myself to do it over and over. For example, I am a cat rescuer but one day I fell in love with one of the kittens that was up for adoption. I have this policy about keeping just one cat at home. Because mine is an antisocial cat and because it is the same fun for half the work. However, I spent one entire day crying the day I had to give the kitten up. I was about to keep it. It made no sense, but putting my emotions in order with my head is hard work. I see men really lose their patience with us sometimes over this. A wife that will spend too much money on kids because she loves them, even if this ruins finances for the family and spoils children; a female partner who will spend too much time with her parents even if this means she won’t have time for a relationship; a woman who will sacrifice everything for an ungrateful relative out of love, but with terrible consequences for everyone. What can a man say about all this? What would a man suggest to be more in sync with our rational side? I’m curious.

    1. Interesting comment and not an angle that I was expecting. Sounds like you’ve already learned to develop your rational side…like anything it takes self awareness, a desire to change, some self discipline and repetition over time to embed. It took me ~20 years to overcome my inner chimp and think rationally in my investing. In something like parenting, it’s easier if both parents understand and talk openly upfront about the temptations to featherbed children. And if they are then ready to constructively challenge each other (and themselves) as situations unfold.

  8. I may be a strange woman but I don’t let any of this sh*t bother me. I am not wracked by anxiety about whether men or women will like me because I am intelligent, ambitious, adventurous, and athletic. If I ever thought about it, I supposed that someone’s low opinion of me was their problemi to deal with.
    For the record, am female, minority (whatever that means -tan skin, I suppose), introvert who kicks ass in the field of aerospace engineering.
    I have found that the people whose esteem I value don’t care what’s in your underwear or give a damn about anything other than your ability to do your job and be a team player. If you’re good at what you do and willing to learn, you will be successful.
    The other bozos’ opinions about whether I am nice or a bitchy, or too assertive, too… whatever are unimportant to my career.

    It is the bars you don’t see that keep you trapped and I suppose this is what AH is trying to expose but perhaps she is piling up excuses behind which women can hide.
    I think she is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

    I have never recognized social barriers and therefore, I can walk through walls.

    1. Good for you…thank you for an interesting comment.

  9. Great article! Something that came to me when reading it was the word bossy. When women are assertive, especially as little girls, we are labelled bossy. When men are assertive they are labelled leaders. Girls quickly learn that being labelled bossy is incredibly negative and as your article points out – leads to women tending towards more caring and nurturing stereotypes. There have been lots of articles about banning the word bossy and I wholeheartedly agree with them. Thanks so much Escape Artist for considering women’s issues!

    1. Hey Daisy…thanks for your comment…I agree with you on your main point. 🙂

      But you can’t go around banning words! Otherwise you and me are gonna fall out big time…and that would be a shame 😉

  10. What the article doesn’t address is that women are penalized for being assertive as well. All my life I’ve been told that I’m “Competent but need to work on being likable”. One of my bosses actually told me “You’re too aggressive for a woman”. I’ve had terrific female bosses about whom male colleagues have said “She’s so bossy” when all they are is firm.

    Sometimes you really can’t win. You can’t be both demure and assertive. I wish there was a way out.

  11. Just one addition to my previous comment. There’s no way out but if one has to make a choice, we should choose to be fearless. The mental freedom that comes with not caring about being a “nice woman” is so stupendous that it’s a no-brainer for me atleast.

  12. A very interesting article. I actually found myself thinking about it in terms of being an extrovert (stereotypical positive male attributes) or an introvert (stereotypical female). Sadly, I found being an introvert (and a woman) was very hard in our extroverted patriarchal culture. I learned to put on my persona in order to become successful. Then, ironically, I left my successful career over a decade ago. Even though illness stopped me working rather than choice, I find I’m a lot happier now that I don’t have to force an extrovert persona just to be able to compete. I’m more authentic now than I’ve ever been. I know men who also struggle with this. It’s not as straight forward as gender bias. Sadly, s/he who shouts loudest usually gets listened to.
    I loved AH’s book too. 🙂

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