It’s a well-documented fact that, although American women hold more than half (52 percent) of jobs, they lag well behind men when it comes to representation in leadership positions. It’s no mystery as to why; at work, sexual harassment and gender discrimination are depressingly rampant.
A new study on the dynamic between male employees and their female bosses, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and led by Ekaterina Netchaeva of Bocconi University in Milan, helps to explain workplace sexism. It found that, in a lab setting at least, male subordinates felt threatened by their female superiors. This high level of implicit threat appears to cause men to demand higher salaries during negotiations with female managers and to keep a greater portion of a bonus when asked to split it with a female superior. “Because women are perceived to be less suitable for leadership positions than men, men might feel particularly inferior working in roles subordinate to women,” Netchaeva explained.
The study involved 76 students (52 men and 24 women) with a mean age of 23. In the first experiment, participants were assigned the role of job recruit. They then had to negotiate with a hiring manager (a computer) for their starting salary. They were told that their hiring manager was named either Sarah or David and began negotiations, which continued for up to five rounds. Afterward, participants completed an implicit threat test. For the test, researchers flashed a threat-related word (e.g. risk or threat) or a non-threat-related word on a screen for a fraction of a second. Subjects were asked to relay the word, and the more threat-related words they selected, the higher their implicit threat level.
The researchers found that men who negotiated with female hiring managers felt more threatened and therefore asked for a higher salary — about $50,000 or roughly $6,500 more than men who negotiated with male hiring managers. Women had the same reaction to both male and female hiring managers and asked for significantly lower salaries overall — about $41,000, as compared to $46,000, on average, for men.
In a follow-up experiment to determine whether this discrepancy was, in fact, caused by men feeling threatened by a woman above them in a hierarchy, the researchers had a separate group of participants (68 male students) choose what portion of a hypothetical $10,000 bonus to split between themselves and a male or female manager, or a male or female team member.
The results supported the hypothesis that men felt threatened by women who were above them in a hierarchy, rather than that they discriminated against women in general: Men offered male managers significantly more money than they offered female managers, but there was no significant difference between the money they kept when paired with a male or female team member. “In other words, to the extent that men can feel autonomous and be in charge of making their own decisions, a female colleague (i.e., a team member) would not be threatening,” Netchaeva said.
The third experiment was designed to figure out what might reduce feelings of threat in male subordinates — in other words, what female managers could do to reduce the assertive reactions of their male employees. The same 68 male students were told to read a description of a female manager that emphasized either administrative agency (“Manages projects effectively and carries out projects that are important to the functioning and efficiency of the organization”) or ambitious agency (“Is committed to climbing the corporate ladder, striving to reach the top, and is tireless in her determination”).
They then asked participants again to decide how to split a $10,000 bonus between a female manager, a male manager, or a female team member. Interestingly, female managers given “ambitious agency” were seen as emasculating by both men and women, and both men and women kept more money for themselves when confronted with an “ambitious” leader. However, men kept significantly more money when dealing with a female ambitious leader than a male ambitious leader.
The results clearly illustrate that men — and, in some cases, women — see female leaders, particularly ambitious ones, as a threat. They don’t see male leaders in the same light because “men are perceived to be more deserving and suitable leaders than women,” Netchaeva explained. “Ambitious agency is also consistent with the male gender role. Therefore, men seeking power doesn’t dismantle or challenge the traditional gender hierarchy.”
To counteract assertive responses by male subordinates, Netchaeva suggests that women emphasize their administrative qualities: “The main thing would be for them not to seem overly power-seeking and to emphasize shared success instead.” Naturally, the same standard doesn’t apply to male leaders, who face no threat of an aggressive response. Women are the ones who have to change their behavior or risk being labeled “too ambitious” or “too domineering,” while there’s no such burden on men.
And although the study didn’t strictly test male responses beyond negotiating a salary or splitting a bonus, Netchaeva hypothesizes that men’s need to assert themselves might manifest itself in even less seemly ways as well. “Previous research shows, for example, that men who have been made to feel emasculated in some way are later more likely to sexually harass a woman,” she said. “To the extent that men feel they can get away with those behaviors in the workplace, we might see them emerge.”