Nice guys don't get ahead in salary negotiations, but they don't finish last either, a new study finds. That position is left for women, whether or not they're nice.
Men with disagreeable personalities outearn men with agreeable personalities by about 18 percent, according to research to be published this fall in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Disagreeable women, on the other hand, earn only about 5 percent more than their sweet and gentle counterparts.
That may be because people judge no-nonsense women more harshly than no-nonsense men, said study researcher Timothy Judge of the University of Notre Dames' Mendoza College of Business. The new research also found that disagreeable women were less likely to be recommended for a promotion than disagreeable men.
"Women who appear to be tough or disagreeable get a special kind of scorn directed toward them," Judge told LiveScience. "That sort of neutralizes the benefit that they might otherwise receive" from their toughness.
Nice guys finish second
Agreeableness is as what it sounds like: a tendency toward warmth, kindness and cooperation. It's also one of the basic personality traits discovered by psychologists to have a strong genetic basis. About half of the variation between people's agreeableness is controlled by genes, Judge said.
Warmth and cooperation would seem to be beneficial traits in the workplace, Judge said, but earlier studies had found that, on the contrary, agreeableness is not associated with career success. The question, Judge said, is how the "nice guys finish last" equation changes when you include women in the mix, too.
He and his colleagues pulled data from three large studies of Americans over time: the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth, the National Survey of Midlife Development and the Wisconsin Longitudinal Survey. Almost 3,500 people were included in the final analysis, from workers just out of school to employees in their 70s. The researchers controlled for factors such as education and job complexity that could skew the results.
Across all three studies, people who scored high in disagreeableness earned more than agreeable types. Men who were disagreeable earned 18.31 percent more than agreeable men, a difference that translated to an average of $9,772 a year more for the people in the surveys. Disagreeable women outearned agreeable women by 5.47 percent, an average difference of only $1,828 per year. [Read: Women Intensely Dissatisfied with Pay Gap]
To find out why disagreeableness seems beneficial to men in particular, Judge and his colleagues asked 460 undergraduates to read profiles of eight female job promotion candidates or eight male candidates. In either case, half of the job candidates were painted as agreeable, while the other half were disagreeable.
The study found that disagreeable men were more likely to be recommended for promotion than disagreeable women. Study participants indicated they saw disagreeable men as strong leaders, Judge said, an advantage they didn't find in disagreeable women.
Though it might seem galling that the jerk in the next cubicle has a greater chance of promotion than you, disagreeable doesn't necessarily mean rude, the authors wrote. Rather, disagreeable people may simply set more aggressive goals and negotiate harder than agreeable types, Judge said. The catch for women is that such toughness doesn't win them as many admirers as it does for men, he said. Judge next plans to research what women can do to escape this trap.
"Can one become firm and assertive in what one wants but not be seen as aggressive?" Judge said. "Women probably have to attend more to not just what they ask for but how they ask for it."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.