An upward path, instead of a downward one, away from sexist bosses


Encouraging the base to value feminine traits reduces implicit approval from a biased supervisor

To the extent that a workplace cares about gender bias, its typical response is to spend time and money on training/retraining/beg management to do better. This widely accepted top-down approach has helped make executive diversity, equity and inclusiveness training a flourishing field.

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Felix Danbold of University College London and Corinne Bendersky of UCLA Anderson argue for a bottom-up approach to this challenge.

Previous research has established that subordinates tend to learn from their supervisor which traits are important for success in their field. This is obviously a problem when the supervisor’s point of view is sexist.

In two experiments involving nearly 1,900 participants, Danbold and Bendersky found that, in a male-dominated field, raising the value of a stereotypically feminine trait (compassion) without denigrating any stereotypically masculine trait (physical strength) lowers the measure in which subordinates identify with a sexist boss.

While rewiring leadership attitudes will always be an important lever, this research suggests that a new way to reduce a boss’s grip on sexism is to reduce the extent to which his (yes, his) direct reports buy into his bias. (Not addressed in their research is the potentially promising downstream effect of this finding: a subordinate trained not to align so closely with a sexist boss might one day become a boss with fewer sexist tendencies.)

The newspaper’s sexist boss defines his profession by predominantly male and stereotypical traits and therefore sees his job as a “men’s job” in which women cannot succeed.

A 96% male workforce

Danbold and Bendersky focused on perhaps the most gender-unbalanced field of work: firefighting. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up less than 4% of full-time firefighters. That said, their findings seem to apply to other areas with a gender imbalance, such as police officers (15% are women, compared to 43% of the full-time U.S. workforce), systems computer and information technology (27%), aerospace engineers (12%), electrical engineers (9%), business managers (31%) and personal financial advisors (34%).

A persistent belief is that physical strength is a central trait that firefighters need. While we can safely say that many women can more than meet these physical demands, research shows that breaking gender stereotypes is a long game. Additionally, less than 4% of fire service calls in 2021 were for actual fires. The vast majority were for medical help, where other traits – say, compassion – could be very useful.

In a 2019 work published in Organization Science, Danbold and Bendersky argued that when the female trait of compassion was highlighted as a valuable firefighting skill, the stereotype that women are less qualified to serve as firefighters fell.

For this research, they sought to determine whether this broader view of valuable firefighter traits—prototypes in the researchers’ vernacular—could cause subordinates not to reflexively identify as strongly with a sexist fire captain. They refer to this habit as Perceived Professional Prototype Alignment, or PPPA.

A key part of their research is not to downplay or denigrate popular male traits (strength), but rather to bring the female trait of compassion to the table as well, as an additional and complementary prototype to what is already there. valued in a gender-specific approach. Occupation.

“Encouraging subordinates to hold balanced (vs. male) professional prototypes caused them to decrease their perceived professional prototype alignment with gender-biased supervisors,” they write. The drop in the PPPA, in turn, “resulted in a decrease in the approval of sexist supervisors.”

Admittedly, this does not solve the problem of a sexist boss, but it does suggest that change from below could be a valuable addition to management training. Or maybe just serve as a form of pressure, as it becomes harder to lead when the troops aren’t as aligned with you.

A balanced approach to reducing the influence of a sexist boss

In both experiments, participants were asked to imagine that they were a firefighter.

Some participants were willing to focus on the traditional male prototype; in a video, a firefighter explained that “physical strength, team spirit and compassion are important traits to be a good firefighter, but physical strength is the most important trait”. Other participants were poised to have a “balanced” view, as their video reversed the order of the traits to lead with compassion, and compassion was presented as the most important trait.

Everyone read the same brief description of their boss, Captain Jones. For both groups, the captain’s values, personality and behavior were identical. Then there were various descriptions of where the captain landed on the prototype of sexism.

Some participants read that Captain Jones was supportive of gender diversity because he believed that “efforts to increase the number of female firefighters are well-intentioned and worth supporting, and that firefighting is not necessarily a male profession”.

Others took a sexist spin: Captain Jones believed that “efforts to increase the number of female firefighters are well-intentioned but misplaced, and that firefighting is fundamentally a male profession.”

All participants were then asked a series of questions to measure the extent to which (on a scale of 1 to 7) their personal belief of what it takes to be a “true or ideal” member of their profession is aligned with the captain’s point of view, and another set of questions asked whether a participant “approved” of the captain.

Participants willing to think about a more balanced description of what it takes to be a good firefighter were significantly less likely to approve of a sexist captain than participants who got the “masculine” turn. Having a pro-gender diversity captain did not motivate different responses from the two groups of participants.

For organizations intrigued by this research, Danbold and Bendersky note that “the manipulation of the PPPA may be a more effective tool in channeling subordinate approvals away from gender-biased supervisors than toward supervisors who already adopt more inclusive attitudes.”

Their hope is that such interventions “could help end the belief that there is ‘man’s work.’


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