WOMEN
07/30/2015 05:17 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2016

Men See Powerful Women As Threats To Their Masculinity, Says Study

Cue the smallest violin ever.

Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.

The Background

As more and more women heed Sheryl Sandberg's call to lean in, it's becoming increasingly common for men to -- gasp -- report to female supervisors. This is something that's been a bit hard for men to stomach, according to previous research. But if women are just as -- if not more -- competent bosses, why do men prefer to report to other men? And why do ladybosses face so much negative bias? A recent study provides an interesting answer.

The Setup
The new research comprised of three small studies exploring how men tend to react to women in power. For the first study, 76 men and women were told that they were negotiating their salaries with a new employer via messaging on a computer. Participants were split in half and told that they were either negotiating with a female hiring manager (Sarah) or a male one (David). The opening offer was $28,500, but they could choose to counteroffer up to five times. After that, participants completed an exercise to see how threatened they felt by either David or Sarah, depending on who they negotiated with.

In the end, men who negotiated with Sarah were more threatened than men who negotiated with David, and they responded by pushing back with more assertive counteroffers. For women, the gender of the hiring manager wasn't associated with their likelihood to feel threatened or counteroffer. 

The second study had 68 male participants imagine they worked in a marketing department of an organization and were receiving a portion of a $10,000 bonus that would be split between them and a colleague. Participants were told they were splitting the money with either a female team member, a male team member, a female team leader or a male team leader. After reading their particular scenario, participants completed the same threat-measuring exercise from the first study. They then indicated how much of the $10,000 they thought they deserved compared to their assigned colleague. 

Finally, the third study had 370 men and women follow the same instructions as the second study, but with a twist: Everyone was assigned a team leader, and that man or woman was either ambitious ("committed to climbing the corporate ladder, striving to reach the top and is tireless in [his or] her determination") or administrative ("[he or] she manages projects effectively and carries out projects that are important to the functioning and efficiency of the organization"). 

The Findings
In all three studies, men were more threatened by a female supervisor and responded assertively. The second study showed that men paired with a female boss felt threatened and only offered her about half of the $10,000 bonus, while men paired with a male boss generally did not feel threatened and offered him a larger portion of the bonus. Meaning: A woman's power led men to be more aggressive in how much money they took for themselves.

Things got even more interesting in the third study. When female bosses were described as administrative and focused on the team -- rather than ambitious and likely to fight harder for her share of money -- men were less threatened and not as greedy in splitting up the bonus. Put together, all three studies show men feeling threatened by a woman in power and acting out by asserting themselves. According to the researchers, this pattern of behavior is common for men trying to protect their masculinity.

The Takeaway
By playing with status and gender, the researchers were able to show that status alone isn't enough to make men feel threatened and assert themselves -- it's gender plus status that jeopardizes their manhood and causes them to be more pushy with women in the workplace. Clearly, this is problematic for the many talented, determined women trying to break through the glass ceiling -- or simply earn a living. 

So is the fix for women to pretend they're not ambitious? To focus on the team and never themselves? No. Let these findings serve as impetus to work even harder in the face of aggression. After all, if men are truly questioning their manhood just because they're reporting to a woman, who are the weak ones here? 

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