BUSINESS

The Sexist Reason Men Don't Ask For Directions

05/14/2015 02:04 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2015
dustpuppy/Flickr

It's the rare stereotype that seems to hold up in the wild: Men don’t ask for directions. I definitely clocked time as a kid in the passenger seat of our Buick just wishing my father would stop and ask someone how to get back to the highway.

New research offers up a simple and intuitive reason guys don’t ask for help: They’re judged harshly for it.

When male leaders ask for help, they’re perceived as less competent, according to a study published last month online in The Leadership Quarterly.

“Men don’t ask because they’re concerned they’re going to look bad,” Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, an associate professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and the lead author of the paper, told The Huffington Post.

Yet when women ask for help, the study found, they’re not penalized. “Women are expected to ask,” Rosette said. “The behavior that they are engaging in is not at odds with their gender role.”

For years, researchers have looked at the ways women are held back at work by stereotypes and gendered expectations. Studies have found that female leaders are penalized when they act “like men,” exhibiting assertiveness or aggression. Women at work even get dinged for simply speaking up and asking questions.

The new study offers an intriguing look at the flip side: Men are penalized when they act in prototypically female ways, said Rosette. “It’s not just women who have a burden about managing perceptions,” she noted.

Rosette’s paper focused on leadership in the workplace, but it’s easy to see how its findings could translate outside the office -- to dad’s car and beyond.

For the study, Rosette and researchers from the University of San Diego and the University of Pittsburgh conducted experiments in the field and the lab. They surveyed 144 students at a top business school who had gone on trips around the world meant to foster leadership skills -- including climbing a volcano in Ecuador, scaling Mount Kilimanjaro and ski sledding on a glacial ice cap in Antarctica. For each outing, one leader was expected to organize, coordinate and plan the day. Participants were given questionnaires afterwards to find out if leaders asked for help and, if so, how they were perceived.

For the lab experiment, participants were told to imagine they were an employee at a fake company called Lancom and told to judge the competence of a boss based on a description of a meeting. Each participant got one of four scenarios to evaluate: A meeting led by a male or female leader in which he or she did or did not ask for help.

Across the board, the men who asked for help were evaluated as less competent. Women leaders weren’t judged differently either way.

Even if men are judged more harshly for asking for help, sometimes they must. Indeed, a healthy organization is a place where open communication is encouraged -- where the boss can ask for your help in solving a problem, and colleagues can collaborate without fear of repercussions.

“When you need help and can’t ask for it, it’s obviously going to put you at a disadvantage,” said Rosette.

The paper offers up one striking example. Stan O’Neal, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch who was quickly fired in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage meltdown in 2007. The immediate cause of his ouster was clearly financial: billions of dollars in losses at the investment bank.

However, a Wall Street Journal article at the time noted that O’Neal’s departure was hastened along by hubris: “He didn't much engage in debate, kept his own counsel and had little use for the kind of strong-willed subordinates who might have helped him steer clear of the subprime troubles that brought him down.” When crisis came, he had few allies.

In 2015, the idea of the prototypically masculine boss who directs and demands -- and doesn’t ask for guidance -- seems increasingly quaint.

“We are starting to value the feminization of management, and relationship skills -- to know and nurture your employers and not just to talk at your employees,” said Rosette.

You can see things changing in some pockets. The Harvard Business Review recently published a piece celebrating a design firm's "culture of helping," where everyone from the CEO down asks for help without fear of penalty. Companies like Microsoft are turning toward a more nurturing culture as well. The tech company long clung to a performance review system in which employees were pitted against each other -- only a few workers could receive top ratings and thus the incentive to help colleagues didn't much exist.

Nearly two years ago, the company got rid of those so-called “stack rankings,” and ushered in a more collaborative, open culture. It's not alone. More and more companies are turning away from competitive rankings and toward a helping culture.

As that idea of leadership becomes increasingly common, there’s hope that the old stereotypes will fade.

Until that day comes -- at least we have Google Maps.

Suggest a correction
Comments

CONVERSATIONS