Men with female bosses become assertive to protect masculinity, new study claims

The study appears to confirm the 'precarious manhood theory' of psychology

Steve Connor
Friday 10 July 2015 21:19 BST
Only 40 per cent of department heads are female
Only 40 per cent of department heads are female

Men tend to be more assertive when working for a woman because they feel threatened by having a female boss, psychologists have found.

A deep-seated fear of their masculinity being questioned could explain why many men react against a female colleague in a more senior role by behaving in a more self-assured and difficult manner, the scientists suggest.

A study has appeared to confirm the “precarious manhood theory” of psychology which supposes that men react more strongly against more senior women because the concept of masculinity is more easily threatened.

“Male subordinates experience especially strong levels of threat when interacting with a female superior, which further leads them to act self-assertively,” said Ekaterina Netchaeva of Bocconi University in Milan.

“The explanation is rooted in the idea that men’s masculinity or manhood is elusive and tenuous. It is something that needs to be continuously bolstered, especially when it is threatened by close association with femininity,” Dr Netchaeva said.

The study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, involved 76 college students – 52 male and 24 female – who were asked to negotiate their salary in a hypothetical job interview with a male or female manager.

At the end of the negotiation they were asked to carry out a psychological test to measure how threatened they felt.

Male participants negotiating with a female manger exhibited more threat and consistently pushed for a higher salary compared to men negotiating with a male manager. Gender did not affect female participants, who negotiated for a lower salary than the male interviewees, which reflected a common trend for women to be less aggressive in negotiations, Dr Netchaeva said.

Further studies where the participants were given a hypothetical bonus to share with colleagues indicated that men were less likely than women to split the money equally when it involved sharing with a female supervisor.

“The concept of masculinity is becoming more elusive in society as gender roles blur, with more [females in] management positions and becoming the major breadwinners for their families. Even men who support gender equality may see these advances as a threat to their masculinity, whether they consciously acknowledge it or not,” Dr Netchaeva said.

“There is a general consensus that women are under-represented in the positions of power relative to men,” she added. “While that is true for the upper levels of organisation, the reality is in the middle and lower levels, women are represented almost at par with men.

“So, rather than examining reasons for discrimination and prejudice toward women accounting for the gender gap, we instead examined how people react to female mangers.”

Last year, research in the US suggested that women dislike having a female boss more than men do. Nearly 40 per cent of female workers in America would rather be managed by a man, the Gallup survey found.

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