Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office: Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers

by Lois P. Frankel, PhD

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Introduction

In the intervening years since Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office was first published, the United States elected its first African American president, the world was introduced to the concept of social networking, the Arab Spring deposed male rulers from nearly two dozen countries, and baby boomers began their mass exodus from the world of work. Despite these changes of a huge magnitude, progress for women has remained relatively flat. There's no denying that there has been some movement, but it has been at glacial speed, and the numbers remain largely unchanged and bleak. As of this writing:

  • Women total 3.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.
  • Worldwide, 8 percent of top executives are female.
  • Women make up 23.7 percent of US legislators.
  • There are twenty women heads of state worldwide.
  • Women account for 20.3 percent of elected parliamentarians around the globe (kudos to Nordic countries with 40 percent women!).
  • Globally, the differences in earnings between men and women vary, with Japan and Korea seeing the largest disparity of 28 percent and 39 percent, respectively (Hungary is the lowest with only a 4 percent difference in earnings between men and women).
  • On average in the United States, Caucasian women earn 77 percent of what men earn for doing the same jobs, but African American women earn only 69 cents on the dollar and Latinas only 58 cents on the dollar.
  • Within just one year of completing college, women are earning 8 percent less than the men with whom they graduated, and by mid-career that number increases to more than 20 percent.

Frankly, I wish I didn't have to write an updated and revised tenth-anniversary edition of this book. It's not that I have better things to do or that I don't want to spend the time on it. It's that I wish there was no need for it because in the decade since it was first published, women have made more progress at work, in politics, and at home. Whereas in many instances women have broken through the glass ceiling, there remains a glass tree house—that place where the upper tier of senior executives and directors of companies reside. Although there are notable exceptions (Marissa Mayer, Christine Lagarde, Sheryl Sandberg, Indra Nooyi, and Meg Whitman among them), the vast majority of women are left peering in from the outside. This happens despite the fact that data from the research organization Catalyst and consulting firm McKinsey & Co., Inc., reveal that having more women in leadership roles is correlated with stronger financial returns.

If you're not persuaded by the numbers and instead believe that society embraces the concept of equality for women, let me dissuade you of this notion by sharing just a few of the comments I've heard from women just like you around the world. These are women who read the first edition of this book and then wrote to me or who came up to speak with me after one of my Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office presentations.

•  Janice from Colorado said that despite the fact that she instills in her four-year-old daughter the notion that she is equal to anyone else, and dresses her in sneakers and overalls so that she can run and climb on the playground, her child came home from preschool and announced, "Mommy, my teacher said you should dress me more like a girl."

•  Ingrid from Copenhagen was surprised when her boss told her he was promoting her, because there were several men in the company with more tenure. He told her the change would take place within a month or so. In the interim, Ingrid learned she was pregnant and shared this with her boss. When the promotion seemed to be lagging, she asked him what was happening. The boss feigned surprise, pretended the conversation about the promotion never took place, and suggested she must have misunderstood him.

•  Rosa from Miami is an attorney working for an immigration law firm. Her boss continually makes demeaning remarks to the women in the office about their appearance. If he doesn't like a certain hairstyle, he'll say, "Did you lose your comb?" Or if he thinks a woman's skirt is too short, he'll remark, "Did your grandmother run out of yarn before she finished making that?"

  • Fiona from Sydney changed her major in college to engineering. Her mother's response upon hearing this was "Oh great. Now you'll never get married."
  • Allison, from a small town in West Virginia, had to send her letter to me via US mail because her emotionally abusive husband reads all her e-mails. She wanted to know what she should do about the fact that she wants to go back to work now that her children are grown so that she can gain some financial independence, but her source of primary emotional support, her mother, told her, "Just don't make any waves. You're lucky to have a husband making a good living who provides for you."
  • Farah is an Iranian Jewish physician who dreads going to Friday-night dinner with her parents because all they want to know is when will she give up this crazy idea of being a professional woman and get married and have babies.

There's one more reason why I'm writing this book: The workplace has changed in the past ten years. The biggest economic decline since the Great Depression has caused it to become increasingly competitive, social networking wasn't even a blip on the radar screen a decade ago but is now a must-do, work-life integration is an even greater challenge as women in need of the income work more hours, and educated women are entering the workforce at higher percentages than ever before. Given these new issues, I want to provide additional coaching tips for how you can get and keep the job you want.

These statistics, comments, social changes, and the women themselves make me realize my work is far from over. In the last decade I have been fortunate to travel around the world talking about women's issues. I have learned that women from native villages in Alaska share common challenges with women from South Africa. Despite what we are telling our daughters (and sons) at home about the capabilities of women, we cannot protect them from the external messages that continue to minimize the roles of women in society. And, perhaps most important, I learned that the advice provided in this book has made a difference in the lives of readers.

The mistakes described in each chapter are real, as are the accompanying examples (although the identities have been altered to maintain confidentiality). Many come from more than two decades of interacting with women and men as an executive coach. The coaching tips that follow each mistake work. I know this because my clients and readers have told me that when they follow them, they get the promotions they want, the confidence they need, and the respect they deserve. I measure my own effectiveness through their success stories and am delighted whenever an unsolicited e-mail appears in my in-box, or letters from as far as the Ukraine arrive at my office, telling me, "Your book made a difference in my life."

But you should know from the outset—this book isn't for everyone. Many women have found ways to overcome the stereotypes they learned in childhood and act in empowered ways most of the time (it's nearly impossible to act empowered all the time). Whether it's by honing your own unique style of communication and behavior or adopting and modifying more stereotypically masculine behaviors, you may be one of those women who is satisfied with the degree of professional success you've achieved. If that's the case, then you may find some additional tips in this book to help you further develop your unique style or to use with coaching and mentoring others. To you I say, "You go, girl!" Other women may find they've tried to do the same, only to be criticized by men and women alike for their strident or atypical behaviors. If you fall into this category, this book will seem the antithesis of all you've worked toward and, therefore, will be difficult for you to relate to. Not to worry, though. There are plenty of other books out there written just for you.

How do you know if this book will help you? Simple. First read through the following list of twelve characteristics and check those that you can honestly say are typical of you most of the time:

_____ I make decisions without being overly concerned with what others will say.

_____ I have created a unique personal brand that distinguishes me from others.

_____ I use social networking cautiously and appropriately.

_____ I negotiate effectively for what I want or need.

_____ I exhibit the courage to speak to the unspoken.

_____ I leverage workplace relationships to my advantage.

_____ Others describe me as articulate and persuasive.

_____ When it comes to playing workplace politics, I'm definitely in the game.

_____ My middle name is self-confident.

_____ I market myself effectively.

_____ I compete to win.

_____ I actively advocate for other women.

If you've checked all twelve items, it's time for you to write your own book. On the other hand, if you checked zero through only eight items, this book was written for you. Keep in mind that the corner office is simply a metaphor for achieving the career success you want. You may not aspire to be a senior executive, but you might want a promotion, more pay, or other perks. Not only are the characteristics above critical for success (for women and men), but I have also found that they are the development areas most frequently addressed in coaching engagements with women. The majority of women I coach don't have to work on all twelve areas (although I've known a few who do), but rather identify two or three as requiring development if they are to achieve their career goals.

From the therapy room to the conference room, for more than twenty-five years I have listened to women tell stories of how they were overlooked for promotions and placated when they expressed their ideas. I have observed women in hundreds of meetings. The thread common to those who were ignored was how they acted in and reacted to their situations. I could hear and see the ways in which they unknowingly undermined their credibility and sabotaged their own careers. No one had to do it for them.

I was trained at the University of Southern California as an existential clinician. The title sounds fancy, but all it really means is that it's the therapist's job to illuminate for the client the array of choices available. No matter what hand life deals us, we are ultimately left with the dilemma of how we choose to respond. That is where our control lies. It doesn't lie in the hand that's already been dealt. It doesn't lie in trying to change others—that's an illusion. It lies in the actions we choose to take in response to our particular situations. And when it comes to being women in the workplace, we can choose to behave in ways consistent with what others want and expect or we can choose another course—empowerment.

I am fully aware that there are those who say the term empowerment is outdated and overdone. I strongly disagree. The people who think it's overdone are those who possess the most power. Easy for them to say! They don't really want anyone to have the same power and influence that they enjoy, and so they downplay empowerment's importance in the employment and social arenas. It's a classic case of the desire to maintain the status quo. Those who have power don't really want to share it, so they minimize the need for others to share it. Without embarrassment or apology I say, This book is about empowerment.

Unlike other books that help you identify potential areas for development or point out critical success factors, this book doesn't stop there. Raising awareness is only the first step. Next, you need concrete suggestions for behavioral change that are proven to be effective in moving women forward in their careers. Behaviors that were appropriate in girlhood, but not in womanhood, may be contributing to your career's stagnating, plateauing, or even derailing from its career path. Success comes not from acting more like a man, as some might lead you to believe, but by acting more like a woman instead of a girl. Even if you select only 10 percent of the hundreds of coaching tips provided in this book and incorporate them into your skill set, your investment will pay off.

How to Get the Most from This Book

The book contains 133 typical mistakes women make at work due to their socialization. Keep in mind, most women don't make all 133 mistakes—but they do make more than one. I've found through my practice and experience that the more mistakes you make, the less likely you are to achieve your full career potential. I suggest you begin by completing the self-assessment in chapter 1. It will help you identify the self-defeating behaviors in which you most often engage.

After you've completed the self-assessment, you can go directly to those specific behaviors that get in your way most often. After each mistake, you will find tips for counteracting the mistake. As I said earlier, these are the same tips I give to my own clients when they come for coaching, so I know they work. But like a diet, they work only if you commit to them fully and apply them consistently.

At the bottom of each page of coaching tips you'll find an Action Item box. Put a check mark on the page of tips that you commit to using as a way of overcoming self-defeating behavior. Once you've finished the book, take these checked items and complete the personal development plan contained in the last chapter. Don't make it more complex than it needs to be. Choose just one behavior a week and focus on it. What you will find is that by focusing on the behavior, you'll become increasingly aware of when and how you sabotage yourself. The next step is to replace the self-defeating behavior with more effective action. You can do it. It's your choice. All it takes is acting more like the woman you are capable of becoming than like the girl you were taught to be. There's an A.A. Milne quote I've always enjoyed that I'd like you to keep in mind as you read this book: "There is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."

Chapter 1
Getting Started

Here's your first coaching tip: Don't begin reading this book until you've learned how to use it to your advantage. You'll only end up thinking everything applies to you in equal proportions when in fact you're probably doing better than you think. I'm always surprised when a woman tells me, "I make every mistake you list in the book!" You know how we women can be—more critical of ourselves than necessary and reluctant to take credit where it's due. When I coach women, I often tell them that changing behavior is much easier if they can understand where it comes from and what purpose it serves. All behavior serves a purpose—take a few minutes now to understand what purpose yours serves.

From the outset I want you to know and, even more important, believe that the mistakes impeding you from reaching your career goals or potential don't happen because you're stupid or incompetent (although others might want to make you think so). You are simply acting in ways consistent with your socialization or in response to cultural expectations. Beyond girlhood, no one ever tells us that acting differently is an option—and so we don't. Whether it's because we are explicitly discouraged from doing so, because social messages inform our behavior, or because we are unaware of the alternatives, we often fail to develop a repertoire of woman-appropriate behaviors.

Why do smart, capable women act in ways detrimental to their career mobility (not to mention mental health)? During my career, working with literally thousands of professional men and women and comparing their behaviors, I found the answer to that question through inquiry and study: From early childhood, girls are taught that their well-being and ultimate success are contingent upon acting in certain stereotypical ways, such as being polite, soft-spoken, compliant, and relationship-oriented. Throughout their lifetimes, this is reinforced through media, family, and social messages. It's not that women consciously act in self-sabotaging ways; they simply act in ways consistent with their learning experiences.

Even women who proclaim to have gotten "the right" messages in childhood from parents who encouraged them to achieve their full potential by becoming anything they want to be find that when they enter the real world, all bets are off. This is particularly true for many African American women who grew up with strong mothers (something I address in Mistake 3). Whether by example or encouragement, if a woman exhibits confidence and courage on a par with a man, she is often accused of being that dreaded "b-word."

Attempts to act counter to social stereotypes are frequently met with ridicule, disapproval, and scorn. Whether it was Mom's message—"Boys don't like girls who are too loud"—or, in response to an angry outburst, a spouse's message—"What's the matter? Is it that time of the month?"—women are continually bombarded with negative reinforcement for acting in any manner contrary to what they were taught in girlhood. As a result, they learn that acting like a "nice girl" is less painful than assuming behaviors more appropriate for adult women (and totally acceptable for boys and adult men). In short, women wind up acting like little girls, even after they're grown up.

Now, is this to say gender bias no longer exists in the workplace? Not at all. The statistics at the beginning of this introduction speak for themselves. Additionally, women are more likely to be overlooked for developmental assignments and promotions to senior levels of an organization. Research shows that on performance evaluation ratings, women consistently score less favorably than men. These are the realities. But after all these years I continue to go to the place of "So what?" We can rationalize, defend, and bemoan these facts, or we can acknowledge that these are the realities within which we must work. Rationalizing, defending, and bemoaning won't get us where we want to be. They become excuses for staying where we are.

Although there are plenty of mistakes made by both men and women that hold them back, there are a unique set of mistakes made predominantly by women. Whether I'm working in Jakarta, Oslo, Prague, Frankfurt, Trinidad, or Houston, I'm amazed to watch women across cultures make the same mistakes at work. They may be more exaggerated in Hong Kong than in Los Angeles, but they're variations on the same theme. And I know these are mistakes because once women address them and begin to act differently, their career paths take wonderful turns they never thought possible.

So why do women stay in the place of girlhood long after it's productive for them? One reason is because we've been taught that acting like a nice girl—even when we're grown up—isn't such a bad thing. Girls get taken care of in ways boys don't. Girls aren't expected to fend for or take care of themselves—others do that for them. Sugar and spice and everything nice—that's what little girls are made of. Who doesn't want to be everything nice? People like girls. Men want to protect you. Cuddly or sweet, tall or tan, girls don't ask for much. They're nice to be around and they're nice to have around—sort of like pets.

Being a girl is certainly easier than being a woman. Girls don't have to take responsibility for their destiny. Their choices are limited by a narrowly defined scope of expectations. And here's another reason why we continue to exhibit the behaviors learned in childhood even when at some level we know they're holding us back: We can't see beyond the boundaries that have traditionally circumscribed the parameters of our influence. It's dangerous to go out-of-bounds. When you do, you get accused of trying to act like a man or being "bitchy." All in all, it's easier to behave in socially acceptable ways.

This might also be a good time to dispel the myth that overcoming the nice girl syndrome means you have to be mean and nasty. It's the question I am asked most often in interviews. Some women have even told me they didn't buy the book because they assumed from the title that it must contain suggestions for how to be more like a man. Nothing could be further from the truth. If I've said it once, I've said it literally five hundred times in the last ten years: Nice is necessary for success; it's simply not sufficient. If you overrely on being nice to the exclusion of developing complementary behaviors, you'll never achieve your adult goals. This book will help you to expand your tool kit so that you have a wider variety of responses on which to draw.

When we live lives circumscribed by the expectations of others, we live limited lives. What does it really mean to live our lives as girls rather than women? It means we choose behaviors consistent with those that are expected of us rather than those that move us toward fulfillment and self-actualization. Rather than live consciously, we live reactively. Although we mature physically, we never really mature emotionally. And while this may allow us momentary relief from real-world dilemmas, it never allows us to be fully in control of our destinies.

Missed opportunities for career-furthering assignments or promotions arise from acting like the nice little girl you were taught to be in childhood: being reluctant to showcase your capabilities, feeling hesitant to speak in meetings, and working so hard that you forget to build the relationships necessary for long-term success. I've observed these behaviors magnified in workshops at which men and women are the participants. My work in corporations has allowed me to facilitate both workshops for only women and leadership development programs for mixed groups within the same company. Even women whom I've seen act assertively in a group of other women become more passive, compliant, and reticent to speak in a mixed group. When men are around, we dumb down or try to become invisible so as not to incur their wrath.

The Case of Susan

Let me give you an example of a woman with whom I worked who wondered why she wasn't reaching her full potential. Susan was a procurement manager for a Fortune 100 oil company. She'd been with this firm for more than twelve years when she expressed frustration over not moving as far or as fast as male colleagues who'd commenced employment at the same time she did. Although Susan thought there might be gender bias at play, she never considered how she contributed to her own career plateauing. Before Susan and I met one-on-one in a coaching session, I had the opportunity to observe her in meetings with her peers.

At the first meeting I noticed this attractive woman with long blond hair, a diminutive figure, and deep blue eyes. Being from Texas, she spoke with a delicate Southern accent and had an alluring way of cocking her head and smiling as she listened to others. She was a pleasure to have in the room, but she reminded me of a cheerleader—attractive, vivacious, warm, and supportive. As others spoke, she nodded her head and smiled. When she did speak, she used equivocating phrases like "Perhaps we should consider…"; "Maybe it's because…"; and "What if we…" Because of these behaviors no one would ever accuse Susan of being offensive, but neither would they consider her executive material.

After several more meetings at which I observed her behavior vis-à-vis her peers, Susan and I met privately to explore her career aspirations. Based on her looks, demeanor, and what I had heard her say in meetings, I assumed she was perhaps thirty to thirty-five years old. I was floored when she told me she was forty-seven, with nearly twenty years' experience in the area of procurement. I had no clue she had that kind of history and experience—and if I didn't, no one else did either. Without realizing it, Susan was acting in ways consistent with her socialization. She had received so much positive reinforcement for these behaviors that she'd come to believe they were the only ways she could act and still be successful. Susan bought into the stereotype of being a nice girl.

Truth be told, the behaviors she exhibited in meetings did contribute to her early career success. The problem was that they would not contribute to reaching future goals and aspirations. Her managers, peers, and direct reports acknowledged she was a delight to work with, but they didn't seriously consider her for more senior positions or high-visibility projects. Susan acted like a girl and, accordingly, was treated like one. Although she knew she had to do some things differently if she were to have any chance of reaching her potential, she didn't have a clue what those things would be.

I eventually came to learn Susan was the youngest of four children and the only girl in the family. She was the apple of Daddy's eye and protected by her brothers. She learned early on that being a girl was a good thing. She used it to her advantage. And as Susan grew up, she continued to rely on the stereotypically feminine behaviors that resulted in getting her needs met. She was the student teachers loved having in class, the classmate with whom everyone wanted to be friends, and the cheerleader everyone admired. Susan had no reference for alternative ways of acting that would bring her closer to her dream of being promoted to a vice presidential position.

We're All Girls at Heart

Although Susan is an extreme example of how being a girl can pay huge dividends, most of us have some Susan in us. We behave in ways consistent with the roles we were socialized to play, thereby never completely moving from girlhood to womanhood. As nurturers, supporters, or helpmates, we are more invested in seeing others get their needs met than in ensuring that our needs are acknowledged. And there's another catch. When we do try to break out of those roles and act in more mature, self-actualizing ways, we are often met with subtle—and not-so-subtle—resistance designed to keep us in a girl role. Comments like "You're so cute when you're angry," "What's the matter? Are you on the rag?" or "Why can't you be satisfied with where you are?" are designed to keep us in the role of a girl.

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