Most of us would like to work for a company where we can trust leadership and fellow coworkers. After all we spend the better part of our lives at the office so a modicum of general goodwill and decorum is sensible. But can companies fit that description and still obtain their goals and profits that shareholders expect? When it comes to success, many, albeit sadly, assume that reaching the top requires ethical compromises.
Thoughts of Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko character from the film Wall Street, and his slicked-back hair are an apt metaphor for unfettered ambition and greed. Gekko's famous line: “Greed Is Good," firmly remains a part of the American lexicon that it continues to inspire young Wall Street brokers nearly 20 years after its release.
According to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Beth A. Livingston of Cornell, Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario, and Timothy A. Judge of Notre Dame, levels of “agreeableness" are negatively correlated with the earnings of men. The defined terms, of which there are six facets to agreeableness, are: trust, altruism, compliance, straightforwardness, tender-mindedness and modesty.
Do nice gals finish last?
Why might “niceness" be a disadvantage? It helps to understand the essence of disagreeableness. Being disagreeable does not necessarily mean that you're dealing with a sociopath, far from it. It simply means that “disagreeableness" is the willingness, however uncomfortable it may make others feel, to aggressively advocate for their interests during conflicts.
Conversely, more agreeable people are much more likely to compromise for the good of the group. While conflict is never enjoyable, their disagreeable coworkers insist on holding firm. They do not mind fighting for what they want. To more clearly define the relationship between agreeableness and income, the researchers began with a data set consisting of nearly 9,000 people who entered the labor force over the decade from 2,000 thru 2,010.
The subjects were repeatedly interviewed about their career and given a battery of personality and cognitive tests. Levels of agreeableness, for example, were measured with a standard set of questions, such as, “Do you feel that agreeable describes you as a person, where 1 means quarrelsome and 5 means agreeable?" These ratings were then compared to income data.
The results were depressing
The study's first notable revelation was that women entering the workforce earn much less than men. Even after controlling for education, marital status, hours worked per week and workforce continuity, young women still earned $4,787 less than their male counterparts, or an average loss of 14 percent. Worse still was the news for agreeable men: nearly $7,000 less than their agreeable peers, whereas agreeable women were not quite as bad off, earning $1,100 less. In a series of follow-up studies, the researchers replicated their results, showing that agreeable men earn less even after controlling for a long list of variables, including other personality traits and the possibility that agreeable people choose less lucrative professions. The researchers summarized their data:
“Overall, across the first three studies, men who are one standard deviation below the mean on agreeableness earn an average of 18.31 percent ($9,772) more than men one standard deviation above the mean on agreeableness. Meanwhile, the “disagreeableness premium" for women was only 5.47 percent ($1,828). Thus, the income premium for disagreeableness is more than three times stronger for men than for women."
More bad findings...
What's driving this bleak correlation? In their final study, the researchers conducted an experiment on 460 undergrads in a business management class at a large American university. The students were given eight hypothetical job candidates, all of whom were described as smart, conscientious and insightful. However, their degrees of agreeableness were varied so that some candidates were described as much more trusting and humble than others. These 460 undergrads were then asked to select the best candidates for management fast-tracking.
Yet again, the study results were depressing: the candidates with higher levels of agreeableness were much less likely to get fast-tracked, especially if they were male (Women were slightly less likely to get picked for promotion regardless of their personality). This suggests that nice guys finish last because of an inherent bias against them.
Agreeable people are less likely to get fired, and are just as likely to supervise others. They appear far less effective at negotiating salary increases, thus suggesting that the main (financial) benefit of disagreeableness is a willingness to stubbornly fight for one's own best interests, even as it may make others uncomfortable.
Furthermore, the researchers argue that agreeableness is especially costly for men because it violates our gender expectations, since it is assumed that men will selfishly pursue their interests, albeit generalizations-cloaked, we tend to look down on those men who do not. In short, we expect the worst and punish the best.
What can we learn?
Some people find it difficult to hold firm, particularly when it involves asking for a promotion, or a pay increase. But it's well worth the anxiety-inducing moments that can help to push beyond self-limitations toward the path of self-enlightenment and strength. So let's embrace the challenge of pushing beyond needless self-limitation and perhaps enjoy an additional few thousand dollars pay increase.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."