Nice Girls (and Boys) Don’t Get The Corner Office

Business journalism powerhouse Leigh Gallagher has some tough advice for her own, younger self: Be more aggressive. Pay attention to your career, not just your to-do list. And ask for what you want. 

What’s the Big Idea? 

Full disclosure: I’m a guy writing this, and a temperamentally polite guy at that. While it is undoubtedly true, as psychologists and sociologists seem to concur, that women in America are culturally trained to be less aggressive than men, it is also the case that Gallagher’s advice as shared herein is relevant to my demographic – that subclass of guys who are not stereotyped in films like The Boiler Room.  The Mark Ratners of this world (for all the Fast Times at Ridgemont High fans out there), not the Jeff Spicolis. So polite people of every age, gender, race, and creed, this one’s for you. 

Leigh Gallagher is a force in the business magazine publishing industry. An alumna of SmartMoney and Forbes, she’s the Assistant Managing Editor at Fortune Magazine in charge of 40 Under 40 and Best Companies to Work For. And she has some tough advice for her own, younger self: Be more aggressive. Pay attention to your career, not just your to-do list. And ask for what you want. 

Gallagher admits that it’s tough to sort out which traits are culturally conditioned and which are a matter of temperament, but to the extent that women tend to work in diligent silence, expecting recognition somewhere down the line for their valiant efforts, while their male counterparts roam around the office in search of pay raises and career advancement, she advises them to go against the grain. 

VIDEO: Leigh Gallagher: Nice Women Vs. The Corner Office

What’s the Significance? 

Let's be clear: almost a century since they won the right to vote in the US, women still face active discrimination and barriers to advancement in the workplace, the issue of aggressiveness vs. passivity aside.

That said, the question of whether and to what extent women tend to be less aggressive than men may ultimately be of more value to lawmakers, educators, and parents than it is to the individual careerist, male or female. If it is generally true that polite, passive reliability is less likely than pushiness to advance your career, then whatever gender you are it behooves you to take a more active approach.

Taking a cue from cognitive psychology, one good way to change your behavior is simply to change it and to build new habits through repetition. 

So ask yourself this: when was the last time I asked for a raise? How often am I actively in search of opportunities to develop new skills or expand my professional role? How often to I take “no” for an answer? If the answers are a. I can’t remember, b. Rarely, and c. All the time, then pick just one of those areas to work on. The raise, maybe. Force yourself, no matter how uncomfortable it feels, to pursue that raise with diligence and confidence in the fact that you’ve earned it. Once that dragon’s slain, move on to the next.  

I’m not just blowing smoke here. A couple of decades out of college, I’m still working on all three of Gallagher’s suggestions. The good news is it gets easier. And for that awkward period until it does, I have always found Peter O’Toole’s advice as Lawrence of Arabia helpful: “Of course it hurts. The trick . . . is not minding that it hurts.”  

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