Nice gals finish last: Agreeable women earn less money, says study

A new study out of Europe proves that it doesn't pay to be nice at work. Wodicka/ullstein bild via Getty Images

If ever there was a time to lean in and not say “excuse me,” this is it. According to a new study published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, women who are perceived as being nice in the workplace earn less money than their more aggressive counterparts.

Researchers surveyed 375 employees from 12 different departments at a Dutch multinational corporation. The data collected was analyzed on objective criteria (tenure, education, performance relative to income and promotion statistics), and subjective criteria including the employee’s perception of their worth.

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“We have witnessed dramatic changes in the definition of traditionally male and female qualities over the past several decades,” lead researcher Professor Sharon Toker of the Tel Aviv University Coller School of Business Management said in a statement. “But some people still really cling to the idea that some qualities are exclusively male and exclusively female. Some professional women are still afraid to exhibit a trait that’s incongruent with presumed notions of female character. The result is financial retribution.”

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The gender wage gap is no surprise to anyone — in Canada, women earn 72 cents for every dollar that men make — but what is astonishing about this study is the fact that even women who are perceived as aggressive and earn more than their “nicer” female colleagues earn less than “nice” men.

“The more dominant a woman is at work, the less likely she is to be status-detracted,” said Dr. Renee De Reuver of the Department of Human Resource studies at Tilburg University in The Netherlands, who also worked on the study. “We found a similar pattern among men — the more dominant a man is, the more likely he is to be better compensated. But alarmingly, dominant women were still found to earn less than even the most agreeable men who aren’t promoted.”

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Even more alarming, though probably less surprising, is that when questioned on subjective criteria, all employees said they were dissatisfied with their input-compensation ratio, but “nice” women said they thought they earned too much.

“This blew our minds,” Toker said. “The data shows that they earn the least — far less than what they deserve. And they rationalize the situation, making it less likely that they will make appropriate demands for equal pay.”

So, what can be done to correct this discrepancy? The Canadian Women’s Foundation has some suggestions, including helping women enter high-wage occupations, helping girls enter STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), and addressing discrimination in male-dominated fields.


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