New Study Confirms Every Female Boss' Fear That She Just Can't Win


There is no shortage of advice for professional women on how to succeed and lead in the workplace.
Women are constantly told to lean in, take charge and be confident, and that gender equality will follow.
But what if the bias against a female boss is so deeply ingrained in some of her male charges, that they find her leadership role threatening and begin advocating for their own self-interest more aggressively?
study published Thursday in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that happens more than we might like to admit and shows exactly how narrow a tightrope a woman must walk in order to gain the trust and respect of her male employees.
The study's co-authors conducted small experiments that looked at whether or not men were implicitly threatened by a female boss. Participants completed two cyber-simulated workplace tasks: negotiating a salary and splitting a bonus.
The gender of the manager made a big difference for the several dozen male participants.
"There are plenty of men out there who could very much believe in the cause of gender equality, but ... still feel threatened," she says. "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."
When negotiating a salary offer of $28,500, men interacting with a female manager provided significantly higher counter-offers. The mean offer given by men to male managers was $42,870 compared to $49,400 for a female manager.
It's no surprise, given previous research showing that women aren't always confident salary negotiators, that female participants gave a much lower mean counter-offer of $41,636 to both male and female managers.
To determine whether or not the men's behavior was influenced by a perceived gender threat, the researchers asked all participants to complete a quick word association test following the interaction. Using words like threat and risk, they saw a clear link between the negative word associations of the male participants who dealt with female managers.
Known as an "implicit threat measure," such tests are widely used in social science to assess subtle bias when it's unlikely a subject will openly admit to such feelings.
The researchers in this study concluded that men who pushed for larger salaries likely felt threatened by a woman whose role defied gender norms.
Leah Sheppard, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor of management at Washington State University, tells Mashable it's possible some men might not dislike the idea of a female manager in theory, but find reality much more complicated.
Sheppard says she was most surprised by another result from the experiment that required men to divvy up a $10,000 bonus between themselves and colleagues. They divided it nearly equally amongst male and female coworkers, and gave more than half to male team leaders, but didn't do the same for female leaders. Instead, they kept $500 more for themselves.
"Men were operating on the principle of fairness with everyone except female team leaders," says Sheppard.
Finally, the researchers tried to determine if certain leadership traits would be less threatening to the male participants, and their findings confirmed the conventional wisdom that women can't be too ambitious without some kind of penalty.
Women described as ambitious and more comfortable with a higher level of power and authority elicited more assertiveness from men compared to women described as effective at their jobs and interested in delegating responsibilities.
Yet previous research shows that emphasizing one's stereotypically feminine traits — such as nurturing and cooperation — comes with its own set of perceptions related to incompetence.
Sheppard says that while these findings could help professional women change their behavior to prevent negative responses from male employees, the burden to change these dynamics belongs to everyone.
In particular, she says men may feel defensive about the suggestion that they could hold deeply-rooted biases against professional women. That defensiveness can become an obstacle to significant change in the workplace.
"There's a lot of denial about sexism," she says. "As soon as women bring up their experience, you get a lot of backlash. I think you just sort of have to sit back and listen."