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When being the 'good girl' is actually bad

January 30, 2014: 9:36 AM ET

Lessons from Top Chef: Being too nice could cost women the top job.

By Jean Chatzky

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FORTUNE -- Spoiler alert: If you've been saving the entire season of Top Chef: New Orleans to watch over a single weekend, stop reading. If you're caught up, or not watching at all, read on.

A few weeks ago, season 11 of Top Chef was coming down to the wire, and it was a nail-biter. Six of the original 19 contestants were still standing, and they were handed a challenge that broke them into two teams of three. One chef from the winning team would be the winner; one from the losing team would be sent home. The wrinkle: One contestant would have complete immunity. Before the team challenge, there had been a "Quickfire" challenge, won by a chef named Nicholas Elmi from Philadelphia. The prize was immunity for the next round, so that even if Elmi ended up at the bottom, the judges couldn't send him home.

And that's what happened. Nicholas's dish, a Cornish game hen with a spiced chocolate sauce and a corn silk "nest," was a disaster -- so bad it couldn't keep his team, the other two members of which collaborated on what was said to be the best dish of the night, from being named the losing team. That's when things got interesting: Uber-chef Jacques Pepin, a guest judge for the evening, asked Nicholas if he thought he should resign. Citing his immunity, Nicholas said no. His teammate, Stephanie Cmar from Boston, went home instead.

I turned to my husband. "I would have been out of there," I said.

"You would have resigned? Are you nuts?" he replied.

"Yeah. I would have felt too guilty to stay."

For him, it was cut and dry. This was a game, and immunity was a part of it; Nicholas had won, based on the rules of the game.
For me, though, there was a bigger question: Are these tendencies of mine (and many of the women to whom I posed the question) part of the problem? Even in this Lean-In world, are they still holding us back?

Without a doubt, says workplace expert Nicole Williams, author of the career-guidance book Girl On Top. "I see a lot of women who throw themselves under the bus for the sake of others and/or appearances," she says. Women have a natural inclination toward empathy and instantly put themselves in the shoes of others, she points out. "If we're responsible -- and sometimes even if we're not -- we want to make others feel better."

Kate White, the former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and author of I Shouldn't Be Telling You This: How to Ask for the Money, Snag the Promotion and Create the Career you Deserve, agrees. "Many women do make the mistake of being too much of a good girl," she says. "They let the need to be nice override the importance of tooting their own horn, claiming an idea as their own, or confronting someone who is clearly trying to undermine them."

The degree to which this behavior is responsible for the continued lack of advancement of women in the workforce isn't clear. But there's no disputing the statistics. On average, women still earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. (Paying women equally would produce $447.6 billion in additional income, according to The Shriver Report.) According to Catalyst, 16.9% of Fortune 500 corporate board seats are held by women -- and the needle hasn't budged on that statistic in the past eight years. And just 23 Fortune 500 CEOs are women. So what do we do about it?

• Question yourself. If you find yourself taking yourself out of the competition -- either personally or professionally -- dig a little deeper into why, Williams suggests. Focus on whether it's in your best professional interest to do so or whether you're simply trying to protect, or not hurt, someone else. "Men are more readily able to dissociate themselves in the face of competition," she notes. "Even if there is a question of fairness, they can move on and continue to work together thinking, 'I would have done the same thing.'"

• Dip a toe in the water. Changing your behavior means doing things that are going to be innately uncomfortable. (Confession: I've been in the workforce for a quarter-century and successful for much of that time, and it's still uncomfortable for me.) One way to make it easier is to take small steps forward. "Often, the payoff is so good it empowers you to do it the next time," White says.

• Consider the long-term implications of your short-term behavior. White relayed a story of a woman who wanted to move up at her company. She decided she'd start dressing better -- more like the top executives, less like the middle-of-the-pack. A female colleague pulled her aside and said, "What are you doing? You're going to make the rest of us look bad." For a moment, the woman felt guilty. Then she got over it. "Her long-term agenda was serious career growth," says White. It wasn't pulling a Nicholas Elmi, but it was playing by the rules -- and it worked.

More from Jean Chatzky:
5 investing lesson from climbing Mt. Everest
When waiting for Social Security isn't the most lucrative
You may be saving too much for retirement

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Jean Chatzky
Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky is the financial editor of NBC’s Today show. Sign up for her free weekly newsletter at JeanChatzky.com. Follow her at @JeanChatzky.

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