What Men Really Think Of Women in Power

August 3rd 2015

Laura Donovan

A new study reveals that female higher-ups intimidate subordinate men in the workplace and prompt these men to display more assertiveness.

Negotiating with "David" versus "Sarah."

Researchers came to this conclusion after conducting three separate studies on the relationships between women in superior roles and men in inferior roles. In the first study, men and women were told to negotiate their salaries on a computer, and half of the participants corresponded with a hiring manager named "David" while the other half corresponded with a hiring manager named "Sarah." The men who worked with Sarah seemed more threatened than those who negotiated with David and responded with more aggressive salary counteroffers.

The findings also revealed that women were not found to be threatened or likely to put forth a counteroffer based on the gender of the hiring manager.

Splitting a $10,000 bonus with male and female colleagues.

In the second study, nearly 70 men were asked to imagine how they'd split a $10,000 bonus with a male colleague, a female colleague, a female team leader, and a male team leader. The findings revealed that men only wanted to give female leaders half the bonus. Men were also more likely to give male leaders a bigger portion of the bonus, however. In other words, men showed more generosity to males higher-ups than they did toward females in superior positions.

Women who are "administrative" versus "ambitious."

For the final study, participants recreated the bonus experiment, and team leaders were instructed to behave as either "administrative" or "ambitious." Men were less threatened by the women who demonstrated more administrative qualities ("manages projects effectively and carries out projects that are important to the functioning and efficiency of the organization") versus women who seemed more ambitious ("committed to climbing the corporate ladder, striving to reach the top and is tireless in [his or] her determination").

Conclusion: Men are threatened by women, particularly ambitious, female higher-ups.

The research concludes that men view women in positions of power as threatening, particularly if the women are in more powerful positions than the men. There's a lot of previous research to support the idea that women in powerful positions face some form of backlash for getting ahead. Three years ago, Yale University assistant professor Victoria Brescoll published a study that found powerful women are likely to speak out less in their organizations out of fear of backlash while men in power are likely to talk more.

"When men talk a lot and they have power, people want to reward them either by hiring them, voting for them, or just giving them more power and responsibility at work," Brescoll said in a release. "But when women do it, they are seen as being too domineering, too presumptuous. Women perceive this, and that's why they temper how much they talk."

As part of her research, Brescoll had male and female participants critique a hypothetical female CEO who spoke for the same amount of time as a male CEO. The woman was rated significantly less competent and less capable for her role than a male CEO. A female CEO who talked less than other CEOs was rated "equally competent and deserving of leadership as a high-power male CEO who talked more than others."

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has spoken out many times regarding powerful career women and famously started the Lean In movement to encourage women to own their leadership qualities. Sandberg says that she's encountered resistance to her strong female personality, prompting her to start the "Ban Bossy" movement in 2014 to elevate rather than diminish the tendencies of strong-willed little girls.

"From a very young age, I liked to organize—the toys in my room, neighborhood play sessions, clubs at school," Sandberg wrote in a Wall Street Journal piece last year. "When I was in junior high and running for class vice president, one of my teachers pulled my best friend aside to warn her not to follow my example: 'Nobody likes a bossy girl,' the teacher warned. 'You should find a new friend who will be a better influence on you.'"

Many famous figures got behind Sandberg's Ban Bossy movement, including singer Beyoncé: