A favorite pastime of media outlets and their audiences alike is dragging out vintage advertisements from decades or years past and remarking on how profoundly sexist they are. These 25 are outrageous! The 45 here are shocking! The 35 ads here are extreme! In the face of explicit claims that women belong in the kitchen and are probably just a little bit stupid, it is easy to feel superior in our progressive, gender-equal ways. But a closer look at the way we talk about women’s place today shows that our eventual time capsule of media artifacts will hardly be less embarrassing upon review by future generations.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way we talk to women about their workplace behavior. Each day ushers in a new onslaught of advice articles and listicles blaming women for not getting ahead at work. They scold women for the way they talk, for their hesitation in interrupting, and for their failure to ask for enough raises. Even the way we discuss the topic is alienating. “Women in the workplace” positions women as foreigners in someone else’s terrain. Despite the fact that men are known to dominate group conversations in the workplace, where women still hold only 14.6 percent of executive office positions, we insist that maybe women are the ones not taking control of their professional situations. Despite mountains of quantitative data suggesting that women are at a disadvantage, these stories continue to focus on women adjusting their behavior at work to get ahead. But several new pieces of evidence suggest that women’s behavior at work is far less worrying than men’s.
“What makes it difficult is that the men who are most in denial about sexism are sometimes the least likely to admit that they feel threatened by women in the workplace.”
A study published earlier this month in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that, across three separate experiments, even men ostensibly committed to gender equality in the workplace often feel threatened by female bosses and act accordingly. In a simulation of salary negotiation from a starting offer of $28,500, male participants dealing with a male manager counter-offered a mean figure of $42,870. In contrast, men dealing with a female manager counter-offered a mean figure of $49,400. Because it was unlikely that participants would admit to feeling threatened by a female manager, all participants took part in an assessment wherein words flashed on a screen for under a second and then reported on the words they saw. Men dealing with female managers were more likely to see words like “risk” and “fear” than those who dealt with male managers. “We found that men exhibited higher implicit threat, indicating that even if committed to equality in theory, they felt threatened by a female manager,” says Leah Sheppard, a co-author of the study.
A second experiment asked participants to divvy up a $10,000 bonus between colleagues and a manager; male participants split the earnings between male and female colleagues and gave more to male managers. If the manager was female, however, the men kept more of the bonus for themselves. In a third experiment, an “ambitious” female manager was described in terms like “committed to climbing the corporate ladder,” “tireless in her determination,” and “more comfortable with a high level of power and authority than other individuals in the group.” A second “administrative” female manager’s actions were described in less assertive terms like “manages projects effectively,” “carries out projects that are important to the functioning and efficiency of the organization,” and “delegates responsibility to the other individuals in the group and oversees projects from start to finish.” While both managers were perceived to hold equal power, the ambitious woman was considered less legitimate than her more docile counterpart. When the $10,000 bonus exercise was completed within the context of the ambitious and administrative leaders framework, men were more likely to withhold money from the ambitious female leader and share it with the administrative one.
This set of experiments is hardly an outlier when it comes to determining that women are disadvantaged by gender perceptions and expectations at work. A study in Organization Science found that men were perceived as more charismatic in traditionally hierarchical, centralized work settings, while women were perceived as more charismatic in collaborative, cohesive work settings. Business Insider took a positive spin on this with an article headlined, “Why the Future of Work Is Looking Bright for Women” and noted that cohesive workplaces are on the rise. But “on the rise” is hardly “in meaningful competition” with the huge number of organizations that still take a top-down approach to leadership (and where women remain underrepresented). Even if these workplaces do become the norm, the reason women thrive there might still be because of sexist expectations. The researchers conclude:
It may be that leaders are perceived by the followers to be responsible for cultivating the social structure in their teams along centralized and cohesive dimensions. If this is the case, then our research highlights an important boundary condition to the agency penalty normally applied to women leaders in that it suggests that women can be agentic in networks as long as they cultivate cohesive and therefore gender appropriate networks.
In short, it is not necessarily that women perform better in cohesive work networks but perhaps instead that this is the only kind of work network in which they’re allowed to participate without being penalized for violating gender expectations.
Another study co-authored by Sheppard found that same-sex disagreements between women were consistently viewed as a more profound threat to workplace relationships than those between men. “Two women in a conflict at work is seen as more negative, more hostile, and more of ‘a big deal’ overall than when men have conflict in the workplace. We imagine it is going to have more severe consequences and the women involved will be distressed by it, even if the conflict is resolved,” Sheppard says. “But men have conflict all the time, and we don’t make these assumptions.” Again, these assumptions are often predicated on the idea that the workplace is foreign to women, who, obviously, can’t handle their emotions and will grow jealous of their female colleagues. A look at the data, however, suggests that it is men’s fear-based emotions that disrupt the workplace more than women’s envy-based ones.
The most upsetting thing about these findings, perhaps, is the number of men who will see them as a personal attack rather than a professional opportunity. “What makes it difficult is that the men who are most in denial about sexism are sometimes the least likely to admit that they feel threatened by women in the workplace," Sheppard says, referring to the study participants she worked with. I’m inclined to agree about the many men who need this message most. Every time I write about sexism, my inbox and Twitter mentions fill with men defending themselves against a phantom assault on their characters that I never made. The comments sections on articles that gently ask men to acknowledge their own complicity in workplace inequality brim with men’s defensive and highly emotional commentary: They personally have never witnessed such a thing, and therefore, it must be a lady’s flight of fancy, empirical data be damned. Men must come to terms with the fact that they feel professionally threatened by women not just so workplaces are less hostile to women, but because it seems like an awful lot of work to feel endangered all the time.
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