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Men & Women at Work: Do Men Feel Threatened?

New research has demonstrated that many men still have a hard time dealing with women bosses. A team led by Ekaterina Netchaeva, of Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, has found that men tend to feel threatened by women in management, resulting in disruptive power dynamics being played out in the workplace. In three experiments, both men and women reacted in situations with either female or male managers.

Female Boss in Manufacturing

Experiment 1: Negotiating Salaries


In one computer exercise, U.S. college students (52 male, 24 female) were to negotiate a salary at a new job with either a male or female hiring manager. Then they were tested on how threatened they may have felt during the experience. When negotiating with a woman, men had higher “threat” scores than with a man. Furthermore, they pushed more aggressively for money from women than from men, for a $49,400 average salary vs. $42,870. When women played the salary negotiation scenario, they were not affected by the gender of the manager, and they went for less money overall ($41,346 average).


Experiment 2: Splitting Bonuses


In another experiment, 68 male college students had to decide how to split a $10,000 bonus with a male or female team member or supervisor. Male participants evenly split the money with male or female team members, but men had higher threat scores with a female supervisor and chose to keep more money for themselves than they did with a male supervisor.


Experiment 3: Splitting Bonuses with a Twist


A different bonus-sharing experiment was conducted online with 370 adult participants (226 male, 144 female) in the U. S. In this, the female supervisor was described as either proactive and direct or self-promotive and power-seeking. Male participants tried to keep a larger share of the $10,000 bonus if the female manager was described as ambitious or power-seeking. Female participants offered roughly the same bonus amount, whether the female manager was described as proactive or as ambitious.


Nachaevna said that, because men might have a hard time recognizing their difference in attitude, they might be less likely to change their behavior. If men won’t change, she said, women should try to tamp down anything that could be construed as power-seeking. Pragmatic, perhaps, but fair?


Before we hand out blame, however, we should consider that such unconscious biases are often cultural. The research itself has its own cultural bias: It’s based on the assumption that behavior at work is based on power in negotiations, monetary reward, and zero-sum games. There’s no power gained or given up in work relationships based on coaching and learning. In a no-fear work culture, neither men nor women have to see others at threats. Win/win, collaborative work cultures are more successful than those that pit one person against another for reward.


When you change work, you change behavior – of both men and women.


Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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