A new paper discusses instances when men feel threatened about their gender in the workplace, and their negative reactions.
Joseph A. Vandello and Jennifer K. Bosson’s seminal theory on precarious manhood questions what it really means to be a man: “The language people use to talk about men often reflects anxiety, as if manhood itself is in jeopardy: We ask whether men have become “too soft,” we implore them to “man up” in the face of difficulties, and we question whether someone is “man enough” for the job (seemingly equating manhood with toughness and bravery).”
Vandello and Bosson note in their research, published in 2013, that “In contrast, one rarely if ever encounters questions about whether a woman is a “real woman” or “woman enough.” To be sure, there are many concerns about the status of women as a group, but an individual woman’s status as a woman is rarely questioned or challenged the way a man’s status so often is.”
A new paper by Keith Leavitt, Luke (Lei) Zhu, Anthony Klotz and Maryam Kouchaki takes the precarious manhood theory one step further and looks at its reflections in the contemporary workplace.
The authors define precarious manhood theory as one that proposes that “manhood is an unstable social status and requires repair when threatened, [as they] argue that gender threats at work motivate deviance and inhibit citizenship behaviour for men, but not women.”
They write that beyond extending the tenets of precarious manhood theory into the work domain, they also integrate it with “self-determination theory and explain why such effects are mediated by thwarted autonomy needs.”
When male workers believe their manhood is ‘threatened’, they are “more likely than their female counterparts to engage in deviant behaviour such as lying, cheating or stealing in the workplace,” a news release announces.
They also become less helpful to co-workers and less willing to collaborate on organisational initiatives, says Oregon State University’s Keith Leavitt, lead author of the paper that was just published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
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,” says Leavitt, a professor of management and associate dean for research in OSU's College of Business.
Gender threats are perceived when an individual’s status as a “typical member of the gender with which they identify” is called into question. The study notes that past research has consistently demonstrated that when men’s sense of manhood is in jeopardy, they quickly “respond with behaviours such as out-competing others or amassing resources to reassert their status.”
“The public has rightfully called out companies where frat-like cultures have created terrible places for female employees to work,” says Leavitt, an expert in organisational behaviour and behavioural ethics. “This research gives us a more nuanced understanding of what actually triggers some of these problematic behaviours among men.”
Across time and in many cultures, manhood has been treated as a status that must be earned and maintained, while womanhood is generally viewed as stable, Leavitt says. According to the news release, “For men, prescriptive gender behaviours tend to focus on individual power such as being assertive or striving for achievement. For women gendered behaviours may include being sensitive or serving others.”
Leavitt and his co-authors’ goal was to better understand how this response, known as a social proof reflex, related to bad workplace behaviour. (Social proof means that humans, as social animals, look to others for clues about how they should behave.) They conducted a series of studies to explore those concepts.
The researchers tested their propositions in a survey study with working adults and an experiment, “demonstrating that men respond with greater deviance when their gender status is threatened, relative to women.”
The researchers explain that for the first study, 186 male and female participants from different industries took a questionnaire measuring perceptions that their gender was threatened at work, with items such as “Others in my workplace have publicly questioned my manhood or womanhood.” Those who felt that their gender was ‘threatened' at work were significantly more likely to report engaging in deviant behaviours at work, though the effect was much stronger among men than women.
The authors write in the paper that they then tested their entire theoretical model in an experimental experience sampling (ie, twice-daily diary) study within an organisation: “Here, our findings indicate that gender threats at the beginning of the workday (but not other threats to self-integrity) uniquely lead to increased daily workplace deviance and reduced daily organisational citizenship behaviour for men (but not women), via autonomy needs thwarting (but not other self-determination needs).”
The paper explains that for the second study, 194 participants were randomly assigned to write about memories of ordinary activities such as eating dinner the night before or about instances when their gender status was threatened. In the negotiation activity that took place after, the men, but not the women, who wrote about a time when their gender status was questioned, were significantly “more likely to lie to gain advantage in the negotiation activity.”
The third study followed 131 employees at an industrial machine manufacturing plant for six work days. Every morning the employees were randomly assigned “versions of the memory writing exercise” from the second study with an additional condition to see if men and women reacted differently to “broader types of workplace threats” beyond those related to gender.
The study notes that at the end of each workday, the employees participating in the study reported “their engagement in good deeds, such as helping coworkers maintain a positive attitude, and negative deeds, such as mistreating others or deliberately slacking off.”
Results suggested that men, but not women, were “more likely to engage in more deviance and fewer instances of helping on days they felt their gender status had been undermined.” Those gender differences were “not present in response to other types of threats at work.
“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. 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,” says Lei “Luke” Zhu, an associate professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University, and one of the paper’s coauthors.
“By contrast, because femininity is generally associated with communal behaviour in organisations, women’s gender standing at work does not affect their perceived ability to behave autonomously.”
Leavitt says there is evidence to suggest that some element of this gender threat response in men is innate. But men who find they need to reassert their gender identity in the workplace could consider alternate methods.
“That reflex can probably be channelled into healthier outlets, such as sporting and recreational activities, rather than just expecting it to go away,” he says.
Instead of using terms such as “toxic masculinity” or “mansplaining” that are pervasive in current discourse on gender, Leavitt offers that focusing the conversation about specific negative behaviours and the harm they cause to others may be “more constructive”.
“As a society, we need to normalise a broader and healthier conceptualization of what manhood is, because behaviours that historically maintained men’s status aren’t conducive to collaborative workplaces,” Leavitt says.
“Additionally, instead of casually using labels such as toxic masculinity, which imply these problems are endemic to manhood, we may be able to better address these issues by focusing on specific toxic behaviors such as sexual harassment or hyper-competition without creating gender threats among men and triggering subsequent negative reactions.”