Women face serious obstacles on the road to success. Despite reporting the same career aspirations and ambitions, women are underrepresented at the top and tend to be less satisfied with their careers than men. Women make up 44% of S&P 500 companies, but only 25% of corporate boards and only 6% of CEOs. Gender discrimination accounts for a large part of this discrepancy: certain attributes that are considered essential for career advancement are stereotypically male, and professional women face backlash when they display these traits.
How do men react to the prospect of working with agentic women in male-dominated environments, and how can we make men more willing to work with agentic women? The final WAPPP seminar of the year figured Chiara Trombini, AY’17 WAPPP Fellow, as she presented three studies on this line of research.
Why focus on men evaluating agentic women in male-dominated environments? Gender differences are more likely to emerge in male-dominated environments, and women are evaluated more harshly when they occupy male-dominated roles, exhibit stereotypically male attributes, or are evaluated by men. In particular, women face a competence-likability double bind: either they are well-liked but considered incompetent, or are competent but socially unattractive and therefore less worthy of hiring or promotion.
Is there a way to overcome the “threat” posed by agentic women? Chiara argues that self-affirmation is one way to reduce backlash and promote gender equality. Self-affirmation is when individuals reflect on values that are personally relevant to them. Self-affirming individuals are less likely to experience distress, less likely to react defensively, and are more likely to be objective in their decisions and less likely to rely on stereotypes. From a cognitive perspective, self-affirmation is effective at reducing the effects of prejudice and stereotypes, makes individuals more likely to accept threatening information and modify their behavior in response to threat, and increases concession-making and openness to compromise in negotiations.
How can self-affirmation reduce backlash? The mechanism lies in men’s emotional response to agentic women. Men dominate the current gender system and are sensitive and responsive to threats to their masculinity. When gender status is uncertain or challenged, men experience anxiety and react aggressively. There is some evidence that self-affirmation reduces cortisol levels and may be able to reduce stress and anxiety responses in these situations.
Chiara hypothesized that self-affirmation would make individuals less likely to rely on stereotypes and prejudices, so men who practiced self-affirmation would be more willing to work with agentic women and would feel less anxious at the prospect of doing so. She presented three studies testing these hypotheses on self-affirmation and gendered backlash.
In the first study, evaluators were asked to rank 11 values (sense of humor, politics, religion, creativity, etc.) in order of personal importance. In the self-affirmation condition, evaluators were asked to write why their most important value was important to them. In the control condition, evaluators were asked to write why their least important value could be important to someone else. Then, evaluators watched a job interview and evaluated an internal candidate for job placement. The measured variable was willingness to work with the candidate. As hypothesized, self-affirmation increased male evaluators’ willingness to work with agentic women.
Study 2 followed the same design as Study 1, but included measures for negative trait perception (whether the evaluator found the candidate to be arrogant, greedy, etc.), level of anxiety, and neutral feelings. The findings from Study 2 replicated Study 1: evaluators were less willing to work with women than men overall, but self-affirmation increased general willingness to work with candidates and particularly increased men’s willingness to work with women. In addition, men in the self-affirmation condition had lower rates of negative trait perception and lower anxiety.
Study 3 set out to evaluate whether anxiety decreases willingness to work with a job candidate. Participants were asked to evaluate a job candidate based on their behavior in a job interview after being exposed to a music clip designed to induce feelings of anxiety or feelings of calm – in this case, either the theme from Psycho or “Weightless” by Maroni Union. Evaluators then rated their current mood in terms of anxiety or calmness. In general, male evaluators were more willing to work with male candidates, and female evaluators were more willing to work with female candidates. Participants in the high anxiety condition were less willing to work with candidate across the board. In addition, male evaluators in the high anxiety condition were less willing to work with agentic women.
These studies lend a cognitive and affective perspective to examining the roots of gender discrimination in hiring. It appears that perception of negative traits and feelings of anxiety are wrapped up in hiring discrimination. Self-affirmation is a low-cost, powerful affirmation that can increase men’s willingness to work with women in male-dominated environments, which could ultimately reduce gender gaps in professional settings. Organizations could institute self-affirmation practices before hiring, promotion, and performance review decisions in order to alleviate gender discrimination and ensure that they are benefitting from the entirety of the hiring pool.