Research shows men respond more negatively to workplace gender threats

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When male workers believe their gender status is threatened, they are more likely than their female counterparts to engage in deviant behaviour such as lying or stealing in the workplace, new research suggests. They also become less helpful to coworkers and less willing to pitch in on organizational initiatives.

The findings shed light on the consequences of perceived gender threats at a time when traditional masculinity has become a heated topic of political and cultural debate. The research was featured in the article “Fragile or robust? Differential effects of gender threats in the workplace among men and women,” recently published in the journal Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes.

The article was written by Keith Leavitt, lead author of the paper and associate dean for research at the College of Business at Oregon State University, together with Luke Zhu from York University’s Schulich School of Business, Maryam Kouchaki from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and Anthony Klotz from the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University.

According to the researchers, gender threats occur when an individual’s status as a typical member of the gender with which they identify is called into question. Past research has consistently shown that when one’s sense of manhood is in jeopardy, men quickly respond with behaviours such as out-competing others or amassing resources to reassert their status.

The researchers’ goal was to better understand how this response, known as a social proof reflex, related to bad workplace behaviour. The researchers carried out a series of studies to explore those concepts. Results from three separate studies showed that men, but not women, were more likely to engage in more deviance and fewer instances when they felt their gender status had been undermined.

“Research in the psychology of motivation has generally found that people have three key needs: to feel autonomous and in control, to feel competent, and to relate to others,” said Zhu, associate professor of organization studies at Schulich School of Business. “We found that for men, gender threats erode their sense of autonomy, which in turn motivates them to behave in ways that demonstrate their independence from rules and from others.

“By contrast, because femininity is generally associated with communal behaviour in organizations, women’s gender standing at work does not affect their perceived ability to behave autonomously.”

The current political and cultural debate, including the use of terms such as “toxic masculinity” or “mansplaining,” may also be further fuelling workplace gender divisions, according to the researchers, who argue that society needs to normalize a broader and healthier conceptualization of what constitutes manhood.