Story at a glance
- Men are more likely than women to lash out when their gender is challenged, according to a new study.
- A gender threat occurs when a person is threatened by the possibility of acting like the opposite gender. Gender threats are most prevalent among men.
- For men, gender threats erode their sense of autonomy, according to the study. That response was not observed in women.
Men are much more likely than women to respond negatively when their gender is challenged, new research suggests, and the use of terms like “toxic masculinity” could be inadvertently widening gender divisions.
According to a study published this month in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, men more often than women engage in “deviant behavior” like lying or stealing from their place of work when their gender status has been threatened.
A gender threat occurs when a person is threatened by the possibility of acting like the opposite gender, and is most pervasive among men. Previous research has found that when men believe their manhood is in jeopardy, they tend to respond negatively, defaulting to behaviors like trying to out-compete others to reassert their masculinity.
“The public has rightfully called out companies where frat-like cultures have created terrible places for female employees to work,” Keith Leavitt, a professor at Oregon State University and the study’s lead author, said in a news release. “This research gives us a more nuanced understanding of what actually triggers some of these problematic behaviors among men.”
According to the work of Leavitt and his colleagues, manhood across time has been viewed as an elite status that must be both earned and maintained, while womanhood has traditionally been seen as something much more stable.
While gendered behaviors among men include assertiveness and individual power, for women, gendered behaviors tend to focus on things like sensitivity toward others.
To better test the male response to gender threats – also known as a “social proof reflex” – in the workplace, Leavitt and his co-authors conducted a series of tests in which the gender status of men and women were challenged.
The results showed that men were much more likely to engage in more deviant behavior and report fewer instances of collaboration on days 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,” Lei “Luke” Zhu, one of the study’s co-authors, said in a statement. “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.”
Leavitt said the findings suggest that the political and social debate around traditional masculinity, including the use of terms like “toxic masculinity” and “mansplaining,” could also be widening gender divisions at work by inadvertently creating gender threats.
“As a society, we need to normalize a broader and healthier conceptualization of what manhood is, because behaviors that historically maintained men’s status aren’t conducive to collaborative workplaces,” he said.
“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.”
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