Nice girls can finish first, too

Jan 13, 2020

Women must stop apologizing, speak up, and stand tall if they want to be successful leaders.

In the working world, there is a myth about nice girls: they’re weak, they’re push-overs, you can’t be both a nice girl and a leader. In a male-dominated industry like ours, it’s easy to fall into the role of people-pleaser or trying to be tough and ruthless. Women are often told “you’re too nice” or “you need to toughen up” and then when they do, they are put into a category that is construed as ambitious, bossy, and unlikeable.

How can women combat these stereotypes? And how can we advocate for our colleagues? Here are a few things to develop and maintain the confidence necessary to be a leader:

  1. Remove “sorry” from your email. Women often fall into the habit of apologizing for things that don’t warrant an apology, especially over email. Before hitting reply, take a minute to craft your message. An easy way to do so is by swapping “sorry” for “thanks.” Instead of saying “sorry for the delay” try “thanks for your patience.”
  2. Speak up assertively. When speaking to a group or even to another individual, it’s important to speak assertively and with confidence. To do this effectively, clearly define and set your needs or expectations, and make sure to use “I” statements and avoid “you” statements. For example, “I understand your position, and I want to lay out my concerns for the record.”
  3. Establish credibility. At work, your credibility is based on what your peers think of you. Do you meet deadlines on time? Does your work reflect your capabilities? To build your credibility, seek feedback from your superiors and colleagues, be open to constructive criticism, and then make changes.
  4. Build personal relationships. Building strong personal relationships with colleagues will not only make your work life more enjoyable, it could also be a great way to develop your career. It’s a lot harder for someone to treat you poorly when they know you on a personal level.
  5. Say no in a helpful way. In the workplace, people often look to women for help on tasks they can do for themselves. To combat this, the next time someone asks for help, teach them how to do the task themselves. For example, “Let me show you where to look for that information, so that you know for next time.”
  6. Use your body language. To express confidence, use your body language rather than your voice. In a meeting, stand up to make your point. Everyone will be paying attention, so you won’t need to raise your voice.

For those in leadership roles – men and women alike – there are also steps you can take to help build a culture for women to succeed.

  1. Encourage staff to speak up in meetings. Send agendas ahead of time to encourage questions during the meeting. A chance to prepare for meetings can often encourage interactions.
  2. Give feedback kindly, but directly. As a leader, it can be difficult to provide your staff with negative feedback. It’s important to get to know how your staff communicates best, and what works for one person may be different than someone else. Use a compliment sandwich: Provide a strength, something they do well, first. “What I appreciate is ___. You could be more effective by ___.” However, be direct. If you bury the bad feedback it can get lost in translation.
  3. Lead with empathy. You want to inspire and empower your team, not command and control. By having personal relationships with your staff, you improve your understanding of their needs, goals, and communication techniques.
  4. Explain the why. Going along with trust, to be a strong and effective leader, it is best to be transparent and explain the why. When you start explaining why decisions are made, you’ll start sharing more context with your team, allowing them to connect the dots. This enables them to be more willing to work with you and be passionate about it.

By creating environments of open communication, we can allow authenticity to flourish. As demonstrated in a number of recent studies, trustworthiness and likeability rank above competency when it comes to how you are perceived at work.

Bridget Shane is Pennoni’s corporate communications manager. She can be reached at

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.