THE BLOG
03/13/2012 10:30 am ET | Updated May 13, 2012

Do Mean Girls Win At Work?

Recently, the Little Pink Book sent out a post titled Do Mean Girls Win? The author cited evidence that "the attitude that you have to be a 'mean girl' to get ahead doesn't seem to be losing steam." I disagree with this perspective, but I do agree with the comments made by the authors of the the books they mentioned, which I share in this post.

For starters, neither a Nice Girl nor a Mean Girl wins at work. Unless a woman is perceived as a capable adult that doesn't fit into these two labels, she won't work her way too far up the career ladder.

Yet even if you aren't labeled "mean" or "nice," I believe being a woman is never an advantage at work. No matter how many books or articles declare feminine traits as essential to corporate success, these traits are only valued in industries that thrive on compassion, insight and nurturing. Even then, a medical clinic for example might want these traits in their employees, but they still only promote people into upper management positions if they demonstrate they are confident, assertive and can speak with both brevity and clarity.

Essentially, being adept at empathy and intuition won't get you promoted. Yet the women who are promoted aren't necessarily cold-hearted and mean. Nor are they considered mean by other senior leaders if they demonstrate confidence, assertiveness and good communication skills in spite of scores of writers who still write about "the curse of being a tough woman."

Confident and assertive women are not "mean." The people responsible for promotions label them "qualified." It is angry, aggressive women bent on changing their dysfunctional workplace who are considered mean and ultimately, not promotable.

In truth, what it takes for a woman to win is not that much different from a man.

Christy Whitman and Rebecca Grado, authors of new book, Taming Your Alpha Bitch, agree. They assert that women who confuse forcefulness with true power ironically end up dis-empowering themselves by creating conflict and competition. They suggest that women who demand changes don't understand the fundamentals of persuasion. True female leaders demonstrate composed confidence and a deep understanding of the business, two traits that apply to successful men as well.

A strong woman isn't necessarily a "woman of strength." Being a Warrior can help you win battles in the field. It doesn't help when you make it to the board room. Here being smart and savvy is more important.

Bernadette Boas, author of Shedding the Corporate Bitch, says that after channeling the "bitchy mindset" so often, "I was full of angst and attitude." To snap out of it, she didn't need sugarcoating. Rather, "I needed to be told this wasn't going to get me where I wanted to go." Boas realized that her skills of connection and persuasion would help her be more successful in the long run.

There are still barriers to women in terms of the old boys club at work and the subtle discrimination they face. These barriers are diminishing slowly, and there is a lot of work still to be done to create parity for women. But being nice, mean or resilient won't make these roadblocks disappear. The best a woman can do is to get superlative results working with others and connect with as many people as she can on a personal level so they see her as a smart, confident human.

In fact, fewer and fewer Americans care whether their boss is a man or a woman. A recent survey of more than 60,000 people by Kim M. Elsesser of UCLA and Janet Lever of California State University shows that the proportion of people who have no preference when it comes to the gender of their managers now stands at 54 percent. This number has risen from 43 percent in 2006 and 36 percent in the 1980s.

Apparently, the stereotypes are melting away. Yes, 46 percent of the respondents did prefer a man or woman with the majority opting for a man, but it is up to us to accelerate this evolution.

How can we do that?

1. Quit speaking in labels, starting with a ban on the phrases Mean Girl and Nice Girl. I wish writers would quit using these terms in their articles and books, especially in the titles. I believe we can best support women in the workplace by putting these terms to rest.

2. Teach women to finesse instead of fight their way up the ladder.

3. Agree on what makes a good leader regardless of gender and recognize whenever ANYONE shows these traits.

4. Help women strengthen their confidence. The reason women don't self-promote as well as men is because they spend more time finding fault in their work than celebrating their wins.

A post for the Harvard Business Review noted confidence as a major factor keeping women out of the corporate suites. As Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath, and Mary Davis Holt wrote: "Having combed through more than a thousand 360-degree performance assessments conducted in recent years, we've found, by a wide margin, that the primary criticism men have about their female colleagues is that the women they work with seem to exhibit low self-confidence."

Cultivating leadership presence can be learned. It's time we take on the mission to advance the inner game of leadership for women.

What types of women win at work? Ultimately, the winners are women who are confident with themselves as well as their skills, who get results, and who model the behavior they would like to see in others.

Read more about the research and techniques for strengthening your confidence and leadership presence in Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction by Marcia Reynolds, PsyD.