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Work Advice: Am I ‘too nice’ to get ahead in a male-led industry?

Nice gals don’t have to finish last. But a change in environment or outlook may be necessary.

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Reader: I am a 50-something woman with a master’s degree and lots of valuable experience in my field, but I haven’t advanced as far as I and others expected I would. My industry in general is male-dominated, and my current company in particular is a little like a middle-aged frat house at times. I roll with it but am not an “insider.” But if I dig deeper, I think (and am told by several friends) that I’m too nice, and therefore I don’t get treated with enough respect. Mostly I just try to do a good job and be as helpful as I can. I’m up for a new job, which seems like an opportunity to change this dynamic. How do I do that?

Karla: Let’s start by digging even deeper into what you mean by “too nice.” Niceness covers a wide range of behaviors, so identifying where you fall on that spectrum can tell you more about what you need to do to change the dynamic.

Are you modest about your achievements, acknowledging everyone’s contributions? Or are you self-effacing to the point of letting other people take credit for your work?

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By being “helpful,” do you mean you occasionally lend colleagues an extra pair of eyes or hands to get a project across the finish line? Or do you fall prey to Cinderella syndrome, taking on more than your fair share to ease others’ burden and then scrambling to finish your own work because they never reciprocate?

When you “roll with it,” do you mean you tolerate and facilitate discussions of topics and pastimes that simply don’t interest you — or do you find yourself biting your tongue at inappropriate behavior or comments that diminish you as a colleague and a person?

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In each of these cases, the former extreme is the kind of “nice” behavior that should help you get ahead when you find (or create) the right environment. The latter extremes suggest you need to get a bit more, well, nasty.

That’s not to say you need to “man up” and pledge yourself to the frat house mind-set in hopes of becoming an insider. Adopting behavior that goes against your inclinations is stressful and — because behaviors accepted in men are often judged more harshly when women exhibit them — counterproductive. While you might have to step out of your comfort zone and develop more effective habits, that doesn’t mean abandoning your sense of self altogether. Success takes many forms and routes, with a combination of external, internal, drastic and subtle course corrections.

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Moving to a new job is an excellent first step, especially if that job is outside the company where you have spent years nice-ing yourself into a corner. Some traditionally male-dominated industries, concerned that their homogeneity has become a business liability, are taking steps to battle bias in recruitment, hiring, promotion, and day-to-day operations.

Workplaces that are truly committed to diversity/equity/inclusion initiatives increasingly have programs in place for networking, mentoring and otherwise grooming previously overlooked talent for advancement. Even if they don’t have formal programs in place, you can find mentors among female and male leaders whose personal values and style seem to align with yours and who are willing to talk about how they navigated their own challenges.

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Some people who struggle to get noticed in traditional workplaces literally set themselves apart from the crowd by starting their own business. Not everyone has the inclination or resources to go to that extreme, but you can still benefit from thinking of yourself as a one-woman enterprise: Learn to market yourself, define the services you excel at, make decisions based on what serves your individual brand. A therapist or career coach can help you with this process, but you can also start working toward this mind-set on your own. For example:

  • Tally your accomplishments and see what strengths and skills they point to. Own those skills and strengths, and promote them where you see a need for them.
  • Keep being helpful — within boundaries. Replace “sure, I can do that” with “let me consult my [project load/boss/calendar] and get back to you.” It may feel bean-county, but taking that pause to evaluate how each request supports or undermines your advancement goals, and being as selective as you safely can about what you’ll accept, will help keep you on the productive end of that niceness spectrum.
  • Regardless of your own advancement, don’t forget to hold the ladder steady for others behind you who don’t fit the dominant industry demographic because of their gender, age, race, disability or other characteristic. It may seem like just another nice thing to do — but it’s actually the smart and correct thing to do if you want your success to mean something.
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