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A new study strengthens the theory that men often feel threatened when they have female bosses — so much so that they respond aggressively.
Men pushed for bigger salaries when negotiating with a woman, and while they were happy to offer the lion’s share of a bonus to a male boss, they were far less generous to a female supervisor.
The findings add to an already large body of evidence supporting the idea that men, in general, don’t like being bossed around by women, says Ekaterina Netchaeva, an assistant professor of management and technology at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, who led the study.
That's important to understand as women take on more and more management positions, Netchaeva and colleagues write in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
“Even men who support gender equality may see these advances as a threat to their masculinity, whether they consciously acknowledge it or not,” Netchaeva said.
“We draw from precarious manhood theory, which postulates that manhood is more easily threatened than womanhood and, as such, men ‘often feel compelled to demonstrate their manhood through action, particularly when being challenged,’” they wrote.
“Precarious manhood theory postulates that manhood is ‘elusive’ and ‘tenuous’. In other words, manhood is not something that is guaranteed to be achieved with age, nor is it guaranteed to remain. Instead, men must continuously prove their manhood.”
The team set up a series of experiments to see if this really happens.
In the first, they had college-age men and women negotiate for salaries with the same computer program, which they thought was a real person. Some negotiated with “Sarah”, others with “David.”
“The results of Study 1 indicated that when men negotiated with a female hiring manager, they responded with more assertive counteroffers,” the researchers wrote. In other words, they asked for more. The sex of the hiring manager did not affect what women asked for.
To make sure this wasn’t just because the guys thought they could outwit or bully a woman, the researchers did a second experiment. They had men and women act out a scenario in which their team did a good job on a project and got a bonus. Each volunteer was asked to split the bonus with either a male or female teammate, or a male or female supervisor.
The men were willing to give a male supervisor more than half of the bonus. But they offered female supervisors less — usually what they offered their male or female peers.
A third experiment had men interact with a woman supervisor described as competent and ambitious, or one described as simply effective. “We demonstrated that men act more assertively toward an ambitious female leader,” the researchers wrote.
The findings have big real-world implications, Netchaeva said. “The ideal woman is not perceived as having what it takes for a leadership role,” her team wrote. “Indeed, research suggests that the mere indication that a female leader is successful in her position leads to increased ratings of her selfishness, deceitfulness, and coldness.”
It may even behoove women to tone it down in the workplace, they suggested.
“In an ideal world, men and organizations would be concerned by these findings and adjust their behavior accordingly. But if they don’t, where does that leave women?” Netchaeva said. “Given the strong societal norms surrounding masculinity, it may be difficult for men to recognize or change their behavior.”