By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
Earlier this month a new study revealed yet another dimension of the gender wage gap – how being nice can have a negative impact on your paycheck. According to the study, “Do Nice Guys—and Gals—Really Finish Last?” “agreeable” people earn less than “disagreeable” people. How does gender fit in?
The research revealed that “agreeable” men were penalized far more than “agreeable” women – the researchers, Beth A. Livingston, Cornell; Timothy A. Judge, University of Notre Dame; and Charlice Hurst, University of Western Ontario, posit that the reason is because men are expected to be aggressive, and when they behave in a manner contrary to societal expectations, they are paid less – much less, in fact. Disagreeable men made almost $10,000 more per year than their friendlier male counterparts.
On the other hand, the gap between agreeable and disagreeable women is much smaller. Disagreeable women only earn $1,828 more than agreeable women. According to the researchers, we can take this to mean that disagreeable women are punished for their counter-normative behavior.
They explain, “…because low agreeableness is at odds with norms for feminine behavior, disagreeableness will not likely be the same asset for women as it is for men.”
As Rachel Emma Silverman wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “It may not pay to be nice in the workplace.” Really?
The implications of the study are conflicting – should women aiming to earn a little more money dial up the attitude? Or is the small apparent benefit to disagreeableness negligible, considering the damage that playing to gender biases can do?
How can women use this study to be more effective at earning what they’re worth?
What does “Agreeable” Mean, Anyway?
Sensationalized articles about the research have implied that being mean pays. Well, not really.
According to the researchers, being less agreeable simply means being a better negotiator. They write:
“…on average, people low in agreeableness are basically amicable. They are just slightly more likely than people high in trait agreeableness to behave disagreeably in certain situations by, for instance, aggressively advocating for their position during conflicts (van de Vliert & Euwema, 2004).”
Being disagreeable doesn’t mean mean. It could just mean being confident or assertive in a conflict or at the negotiation table – in which case, it would make plenty of sense that “disagreeable” people make more money than “agreeable” ones.
What is disappointing is that the research shows women don’t get nearly as much of a boost for being assertive as men do. Assertive men get almost $10,000 more per year than their less assertive male peers, yet assertive women make less than $2,000 more than their “agreeable” female colleagues.
“Men are expected to be high in agency and low in communion, while the opposite is expected of women (Eagly, 1987; Eagly & Steffen, 1984; Graziano & Eisenberg, 1997). Both men and women who act in ways that are contrary to expected behaviors in certain contexts may encounter backlash when they do not conform to stereotyped expectations.”
Confidence and Assertiveness
It’s important to remember that being “disagreeable” doesn’t mean being nasty – it means being confident, assertive, and knowing your value. In her new book, Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth, Mika Brzezinski writes about the paycheck challenges faced by notable women – and how they overcame them.
In a recent interview with More, she explained her own struggle with the pay gap. She told writer Amanda Robb about her first attempts to get a raise from Phil Griffin, her boss at MSNBC:
“I went in apologizing: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t mean to take your time. But I was wondering if . . . ‘ Which of course is saying, ‘Please don’t give me a raise.’ Then I said, Feel sorry for me: ‘It costs so much to work here, between hair and makeup and clothes, and I’m just not making enough, and you need to fix all my problems.’ Playing the victim didn’t work either, because it’s not your boss’s job to worry about your problems. But feeling grateful and apologizing had been a lifelong [pattern] for me. I think it’s a very girly pattern.”
Then she said, she tried getting mad, “So I went in and said, ‘F—, Phil, what’s the deal?’ F-bombs flying. His eyes widened. We both stood up. I poked his chest. He awkwardly poked mine back, by my shoulder.” That tactic didn’t work either.
But, according to Brzezinski, what worked was, “Knowing what my value was and being ready to walk.” She knew what she was worth, asked for it, and said she’d quit if she didn’t get it. Getting tough – without getting mean – is what got her a fair paycheck.
Her story illustrates how being “agreeable” – by apologizing for asking – wasn’t the right course – but neither was the other extreme – looking for a fight. Her story, while still illustrating the disappointing pay gap that persists today, shows how being “disagreeable” doesn’t mean being a bitch. It just means standing your ground.