Why the 'nice guy' penalty disadvantages all workers
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Research suggests that men are distrusted and passed over at work when they exhibit qualities stereotypically assigned to women. Fixing this would benefit all of us.

David Wyatt has worked in public relations for more than 20 years, having worked his way up to become a senior vice-president at an Austin, Texas-based firm. He recognises his privileges as a straight white man whose education was paid for.   

Yet even with all of his advantages, he believes his career has been impacted by a subtle bias: one against men who shun macho stereotypes, even in a field largely made up of women. His work style is gentle; he believes the adage about catching more flies with honey. And although he’s never been formally reprimanded or punished for his way of working, he believes that it’s meant he’s climbed the ladder more slowly than more traditionally masculine colleagues. 

“I’ve had a lower profile than many of my other male colleagues who portray a sort of sportsman-like sharkiness in the business world. Many of them act more cutthroat in going after the big accounts whereas I have been more of an observer and a server,” reflects Wyatt. “For my entire career, the alpha-male types who make fun of co-workers as a matter of course, goof off but largely deliver, use denigrating terms for women and junior staffers and generally behave in a cocky manner have been advanced more quickly, been recognised more vocally.” 

Wyatt is among others who believe men’s career trajectories can depend on how well they fit gendered preconceptions. How this plays out depends enormously on class and sector, of course – a surgeon will face different expectations than an oil worker – but, overall, there’s a great deal of research suggesting that men are disliked, distrusted and passed over when they exhibit qualities stereotypically assigned to women. As the pandemic has shifted so much of working life into homes and private spaces, it’s also important to consider how rigid gender norms hurt men, and how everyone can benefit from easing them. 

The links between gender and perceived competence 

It’s impossible to understand how gender roles constrain men without considering how they do the same thing to women, and much more harshly. 

For one, there’s a persistent belief that women have less agency, or the ability to achieve goals and mastery. Around the world, “we ascribe more agentic qualities to men, such as being confident, assertive and competitive, and more communal qualities to women, such as being sympathetic and caring)”, says Janine Bosak, a professor of work and organisational psychology at Dublin City University’s Business School. So, women who aspire to leadership roles face a “competence–likeability dilemma”: if they’re clearly good at their jobs and successful, they’ll likely be seen as unfeminine and unappealing.

David Wyatt believes that 'alpha-male types' get more recognition and climb the career ladder faster (Credit: Roxanne Rathge)

David Wyatt believes that 'alpha-male types' get more recognition and climb the career ladder faster (Credit: Roxanne Rathge)

However, men don’t necessarily lose out on likeability by proving their competence – in fact, they can be viewed suspiciously if they don’t big themselves up. Masculine stereotypes include an expectation of self-promotion and self-interest. So, men who care too much about their colleagues may be penalised for this compassion, as they’re considered to be less agentic. This can manifest in being disciplined, being overlooked for promotions and even being sacked. 

A study by Bosak and her colleagues, mainly of Irish HR managers, involved participants reading a fictitious promotion application and quotes from a performance review. Some quotes showed that the applicant displayed concern about others at work (“other-advocating”), while other quotes indicated the applicant’s self-interest (“self-advocating”). Both men and women rated the other-advocating male candidate much lower than the self-advocating male candidate, who they considered more competent. 

Sadly, as this example suggests, it has traditionally paid off for men to be selfish at work. Indeed, agreeable men earn less money, particularly in the prime earning years. One estimate is that over a lifetime, a very agreeable man will earn about $270,000 less than average. 

It has also traditionally been a lot of work to adhere to standards of acceptable masculine behaviour. Research on precarious masculinity suggests that proving ‘manhood’ is even more exhausting and anxiety-inducing than demonstrating ‘femininity’. While white-collar workers generally aren’t clubbing each other in the breakroom to assert their ruggedness, they are taking part in “masculinity contest cultures” to reward those who take the biggest risks, work the longest hours and express the most confidence. Conversely, men earn less, are liked less, and are given fewer opportunities if they seek out flexible work, if they call themselves feminists, if they discuss their caregiving responsibilities or if they express emotion at work.

Agreeable men earn less money, particularly in the prime earning years

So much of the masculine stereotype about competence is about the appearance of competence, rather than actual aptitude. For instance, some pilots find it emasculating to ask for help, and unblinking confidence is central to some conventional ideas of masculine leadership. (This can lead to dangerous consequences: male pilots take more risks and are more likely to be involved in fatal accidents than female pilots.) In contrast, being more sensitive to risk and different opinions can get someone branded as weak or ‘girly’, when of course being aware of the limits of one’s knowledge is actually a sign of effective leadership. 

Backlash for going against gender stereotypes 

The research on gender backlash is mainly on the US and Europe. While gender stereotypes may be nearly universal, they play out in different ways for different groups. For instance, while cooperation is coded as feminine in the West, it’s coded as masculine in China and Korea, which tend to prize collectivism and social harmony more. And women are more assertive negotiators in Peru, which runs counter to the pattern observed for instance in North America. 

There are differences within countries as well. In the US, where black masculinity is sometimes stereotyped as threatening, black male executives may actually be rewarded for presenting a softer image, in contrast to white men.

Failing to conform to masculine norms - in and out of work - can affect how a worker is perceived, experts say (Credit: Alamy)

Failing to conform to masculine norms - in and out of work - can affect how a worker is perceived, experts say (Credit: Alamy)

Michele Rene Gregory, a sociology professor at York College at the City University of New York, explains that especially “for ethnic minority men, including immigrants, deviating from these norms can be difficult and affect workplace opportunities”. She gives the example of a financial-industry worker in New York City who had immigrated from China. His new colleagues often talked about sports and played golf together, although golf hadn’t been so popular in China. He was invited once to play golf with his white American boss – and never again, because he wasn’t athletic. 

This isn’t just a trifling social exclusion, notes Gregory. “In this employee’s experience, sport was very important for networking and promotions in his company. In some work cultures, athletic skills and a dominant physical presence are equated with acceptance, competence and ‘a good fit’.” 

There isn’t enough research on whether queer and trans men and gender-nonconforming people are penalised professionally, outside of overt discrimination and harassment. But psychology studies do suggest that like women, gay men are considered lower in competence and higher in warmth than straight men – and gender-variant people are often assumed to be gay. So, gay men and straight women can face similar scepticism about their suitability to lead, at least regarding positions stereotyped as masculine. 

As for trans men, attitudes can be complex. One study of Belgian students showed that they considered trans men more assertive, more autonomous and less likely to take parental leave than cis men. In other words, they saw the trans men as more stereotypically masculine in some ways. Of course, there will be generational and cultural differences in attitudes around the world. 

Softening rigid gender roles 

Although the pandemic-linked recession is disproportionately hurting women, it may also be a turning point toward a fairer (though still unequal) division of labour at home. Both men and women are working from home, if they can. This could change attitudes toward family responsibilities – and, in turn, toward appropriate leadership. Rather than emphasising their machismo, Bosak points out that leaders these days are increasingly expected to focus on developing their team members, acting as mentors who embrace a more transformational, empowering style.

Some men have taken on more household responsibilities during Covid-19 - something which could feed into workplace perceptions of masculinity (Credit: Alamy)

Some men have taken on more household responsibilities during Covid-19 - something which could feed into workplace perceptions of masculinity (Credit: Alamy)

Organisations can combat bias at the recruitment stage by, for instance, preparing identical questions and ensuring a gender balance in recruitment panels. This would help limit the unfair advantage of a more forceful negotiating style, which is typically socialised into men (in certain countries), and could encourage a more diverse pipeline of leaders who can act as role models. 

The tone at the top matters in influencing an organisation to break down gender stereotypes, says Bosak. Yet existing leaders need to model positive behaviour, too. Chris Parke, CEO of the international coaching consultancy Talking Talent, explains, “Something I greatly encourage is for business leaders who are also parents to champion a culture of openness, so that employees feel comfortable to share other pressures outside of work and expect support without penalties. For example, a male leader who will leave the office to attend their child’s school performance will set the example for similar behaviour, in both men and women.”

I don’t think nice guys need more credit or advantages so much as I think aggressive, rude and exploitative men need to stop being rewarded and defended – David Wyatt

Gregory urges organisations with a locker-room culture to “question how their workplaces have contributed to masculinities becoming a job skill, and even a form of merit”. Organisational subcultures like these are more subtle and harder to change. Company policies are far from the whole story, points out Jeff Hearn, a sociology professor at the University of Huddersfield in the UK. “You could have an organisation that has a lot of very nice policies in terms of, say, gender or sexual identity. But actually your local boss might be totally a pain in the neck who actually chooses to ignore that.” Both organisational support and colleague support are particularly important for trans and non-binary people – affecting how likely the employee is to stay in a job, for instance. 

Wyatt thinks that those in privileged positions have a particular responsibility to de-centre themselves. This also matches his more modest style at work. “If I capitalise on all the opportunities I naturally get being a white male in the workplace, then there are fewer for others who may not speak up first or be a ‘go to’. So, I think part of this whole approach is about listening more, being quiet and getting out of the way,” believes Wyatt. “I don’t think nice guys need more credit or advantages so much as I think aggressive, rude and exploitative men need to stop being rewarded and defended.”  

More broadly, it may be helpful to provide reminders of the ways that rigid ideas of gender hurt everyone, from an executive who wants to take several months of paternity leave without being shamed for it, to a new recruit who needs a lot of help but feels that asking for it would reflect poorly on him. Gender roles can be a straitjacket, says Bosak. “If we can make life more egalitarian for both men and women, we will all basically benefit in the end.”