In theory, men might advocate gender equality in the workplace. But in reality, many men may feel threatened by their female managers.
That’s the implication of a new study led by Ekaterina Netchaeva, Ph.D., at Bocconi University in Italy. In the study, featured on Mashable, researchers conducted a series of experiments that found men act more aggressively toward hypothetical female bosses — and that’s likely because they feel challenged by the women’s authority.
In one experiment, researchers asked participants to complete a computer exercise in which they interacted with either a male or female boss and negotiated a salary offer of $US28,500. Results showed that men interacting with female managers provided significantly higher counter-offers than men interacting with male managers: $US49,400 versus $US42,870.
Female participants, on the other hand, provided an average counter-offer of $US41,636, and their offers didn’t differ significantly depending on their manager’s gender.
To test the hypothesis that men felt threatened by female managers, the researchers had all participants take a test in which they had to guess words that appeared on a computer screen for less than a second. This type of test is commonly used to assess bias when participants are unlikely to admit to it openly, according to Mashable.
As it turns out, men who dealt with female bosses were more likely to see words like “fear” and “risk,” which the researchers interpreted to mean that the men felt threatened, even if they wouldn’t say it outright.
In a second experiment, male participants (there were no female participants) had to decide how to split a $US10,000 bonus with some colleagues. Results showed that men divided it just about equally between male and female coworkers, and gave more than half to male managers. But when it came to splitting the money with female managers, men took about $US500 more for themselves.
“Men were operating on the principle of fairness with everyone except female team leaders,” study co-author Leah Sheppard, Ph.D. told Mashable.
Again, the researchers interpreted the findings to mean that men felt threatened by the hypothetical female bosses. Of course, it’s possible that there are alternative explanations. (For example, maybe the men thought the female boss hadn’t worked as hard as the male boss.) But the results of the third study suggest that it’s more about men’s resistance to seemingly power-hungry women.
For the final experiment, the researchers studied how participants would split the $US10,000 bonus with female supervisors described as proactive and direct versus self-promoting and power-seeking. Sure enough, men kept a bigger share of the bonus for themselves when the female supervisor was described as more ambitious.
Women participants offered the same amount to their hypothetical female supervisors regardless of how she was described.
Taken together, these findings suggest that many men may be more uncomfortable with powerful women than they’d willingly reveal or acknowledge.
“There are plenty of men out there who could very much believe in the cause of gender equality, but … still feel threatened,” Sheppard told Mashable. “When they’re picturing their lives in their company, they may not imagine having a female manager. They could be experiencing a threat they don’t want to feel.”
Moreover, men’s unwillingness to confront their resistance to having a female manager could make it difficult to change workplace dynamics.
“There’s a lot of denial about sexism,” Sheppard told Mashable. “As soon as women bring up their experience, you get a lot of backlash.”
As Netchaeva told Science Daily, men’s self-assertive behaviour toward female bosses could disrupt workplace dynamics and hurt team performance. But it’s virtually impossible to fix those issues if men can’t even admit that they might behave differently toward male and female managers.
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