Stop Telling Me I’m “Too Nice” To Succeed.

By Paige Sheffield

It seems like for every man there is claiming that he’s a “nice guy,” there’s also a woman trying to prove that she’s tough enough to make it in a society that is still influenced by patriarchal thinking. 

People often perceive me as a “nice girl.” I’m quiet enough and polite enough to fit into their box of what a nice girl should be. 

Being a nice girl is a good thing – until you want to break into a male-dominated space, apparently.

I once interviewed for a job where the interviewer asked me if I’d be able to lead effectively given that I’m such a “sweet girl.” I guess being a nice person means that I can’t be a leader. I can’t imagine a man being told that he was “too sweet” to do his job.

It’s clear that his idea of leadership was stereotypically masculine. Tough. Aggressive. The issue here was not that I was sweet – it was that I had this supposedly feminine trait and was trying to invade a masculine space. Being nice is one of the ways I perform my gender (I don’t do this consciously. I think being nice is a good thing, but it conforms to people’s expectations). Society tells women that, to succeed, we should abandon feminine characteristics. Success is masculine. Think like a man, and you will succeed! 

This kind of advice masked as “women’s empowerment” makes me uneasy. Women should be able to succeed by being themselves. They shouldn’t have to change who they are or jump through a bunch of extra hoops to achieve the same thing as a man, and still be held to higher standards. I’ve never been a fan that women should try to conform to the current culture. I would rather change the culture. Being nice is not a bad thing for a leadership position. We’re conditioned to look down upon feminine characteristics, and view masculine traits as ones compatible with management.

But under this model, women can’t win. Women who conform to feminine stereotypes are appreciated, as long as they stay in their place and don’t try to enter male-dominated spaces. The other option is to act tougher and more stereotypically masculine – but when women do that, they’re labeled as bitchy, or referred to as “snakes.”

People try to tell us that men are in positions of power because they worked hard to get there. The implication is that they worked harder than women, and women just don’t have what it takes. They’re too soft. Too delicate.

To survive these ridiculous standards, many women develop thick skin. They face more criticism. They constantly walk a fine line between being too nice and not nice enough. Being a “tough” woman often means sucking things up. The kind of “tough” society wants us to be is the kind where we let sexist or unfair things slide because we’re just so chill.

After that job interview, I was angry. But I later realized it was never about how sweet or tough I was. I’m a woman, and people will find ways to judge me regardless of how I present myself.

Nice and tough are not mutually exclusive, and being nice or sweet is nothing to be ashamed of – at home or at work. I might be nice, but I’m not nice enough to be boxed into a role that I’m not interested in conforming to. Society gave me the thick skin and the strength to destroy that box – not “like a man,” but like myself. 

Paige Sheffield is a writer from Michigan. She is currently based in China. On her blog, Passport Paige (passportpaige.wordpress.com), she writes about women-owned businesses and organizations in Asia. 

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