Most people strive to be nice. However, a new Israeli-Dutch study shows that nice women finish last at the workplace.

The study, recently published in The European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, founds that the nicer, or more agreeable, a woman is at work, the lower her salary is likely to be.

“We found that women aren’t aware that more agreeable women are being punished for being nice,” said Prof. Michal Biron of the department of business administration at the University of Haifa. “The nice women we polled in our study even believed they were earning more than they deserved.”

The researchers examined status inconsistencies between men and women through the lens of traditional male and female characteristics.

Dominant, assertive women, who clearly express their expectations and do not retreat from their demands, were found to be compensated better than their more accommodating female peers.

According to the researchers, the same goes for dominant men versus their more conciliatory male counterparts — but even dominant women earn far less than all of their male colleagues, dominant or otherwise.

“We have witnessed dramatic changes in the definition of traditionally male and female qualities over the past several decades. But some people still really cling to the idea that some qualities are exclusively male and exclusively female,” said Prof. Sharon Toker of Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Business Management.

“Some professional women are still afraid to exhibit a trait that’s incongruent with presumed notions of female character. The result is financial retribution.”

In addition to Toker and Biron, the study was also conducted by Prof. Renee De Reuver of Tilburg University in The Netherlands.

More effort for less return

For the purpose of their study, the researchers surveyed 375 men and women at a Dutch multinational electronics company with 1,390 employees. The subjects were selected at random from all 12 of the company departments.

The researchers used both objective and subjective criteria for the study. For objective data, they analyzed tenure, education and performance data relative to income and promotion statistics.

For subjective data, they examined how the individuals perceived the fit between their education, experience and performance on the one hand, and their income and rank on the other.

“We found that women were consistently and objectively status-detracted, which means they invest more of themselves in their jobs than they receive; and are compensated less than their male colleagues across the board,” Biron said.

“But dominant women were not punished for reflecting such female-incongruent traits as extroversion and assertiveness,” De Reuver said. “In fact, we found that the more dominant a woman is at work, the less likely she is to be status-detracted. We found a similar pattern among men — the more dominant a man is, the more likely he is to be better compensated. But alarmingly, dominant women were still found to earn less than even the most agreeable men who aren’t promoted.”

Some sugar (niceness) is good but the researchers found the spice (assertiveness) from the saying “sugar and spice and everything nice” is even more important.

In the subjective part of the study, nearly all the employees responded that they felt dissatisfied with their input-compensation ratio.

Surprisingly, agreeable and non-dominant women answered that they felt they earned too much.

“This blew our minds,” said Toker. “The data shows that they earn the least — far less than what they deserve. And they rationalize the situation, making it less likely that they will make appropriate demands for equal pay.”

In fact, a new initiative in Israel – the Woman2Woman program for advancing women in prominent positions in their careers – came about to push talented women beyond any self-planted obstacles in the workplace. According to the women behind the new program, female employees won’t need to rationalize a situation as the study found, but will learn to take control of it instead.

Now the researchers hope to replicate the study in Israel and the United States.