The Upside of Being a Woman Among ‘Bros’

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“Bro” culture is a hot topic these days, most visibly with the mess at the car-sharing company Uber, where a recent investigation into institution-wide sexism forced the resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick. For the longest time, I thought “bro” was merely a contraction for the word “brother.” Today, of course, we know that the term is imbued with gendered connotations of what is stereotypically considered male-oriented behavior.

In business, bros typically form tight, exclusive in-group ties. And we might assume these groups exclusively favor other males. But do they always?

As an organizational scholar and someone who studies gender and leadership in workplace settings, the bro concept is fascinating. I wondered whether there were elements of bro culture that were counterintuitive. Could there be situations where there was an advantage to being a woman in a workplace full of bros?

In research conducted with my colleagues Cristiano Guarana and Jason Li, we explored the question of how a same-gender preference plays out in manager-subordinate interactions. Specifically, we asked: Would managers be more likely to accept advice or feedback from a same-gender subordinate as compared with an opposite-gender subordinate? Our article on this research appeared in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology earlier this year.

The results may seem surprising. We found that in certain circumstances, managers were actually more responsive to suggestions from opposite-gender subordinates.

Here’s how the research went:

Drawing on decades of social scientific theory as well as data regarding gender dynamics at work, we reasoned that because gender is a vivid and salient characteristic — one that is central to most people’s self-concept — it is likely to affect how managers and subordinates interact and influence one another. In particular, we postulated that the gender of subordinates might affect how managers react to those subordinates’ ideas, suggestions, concerns, or opinions about work-related issues that come with the intent to improve organizational or unit functioning — employee input that’s known in our field as “voice.”

Although evidence has mounted that employee voice can help managers identify problems and improve organizational effectiveness, voice from subordinates is often not well received by managers. Employees who speak up with constructive yet change-oriented ideas can be viewed as challenging the manager’s decision-making authority: “We found that when employees speak up about possible improvements, it adds fuel to the fire of the already-threatened egos of managers who lack managerial self-efficacy,” wrote researchers Nathanael Fast, Ethan Burris, and Caroline Bartel in Academy of Management Journal.

In a bro-friendly environment, an in-group bias might mean that male managers are more likely to accept voice from male, as opposed to female, subordinates. Alternatively, if we consider that individuals are sometimes very sensitive to social comparison (especially when it involves others who are similar), managers might perceive voice expressions from same-gender subordinates as an affront rather than as a help. For example, male managers who have strong tendencies to compare themselves with other males might experience intimidation when voice is expressed by male subordinates — but they might feel a sense of gratitude when the same information is expressed by female subordinates.

We conducted two experimental studies to better understand the effect of manager-subordinate gender match on voice. In the first study, we collected data from a sample of 142 managers in Brazil (94 males and 48 females). In the second study, we gathered data from a sample of 150 managers in the United States (72 males and 78 females). Across both studies, participants read a managerial scenario in which the company was going through a change in its performance-evaluation policy. They were asked to adopt the role of a team manager of 10 subordinates. Participants were informed that the company was considering adding peer reviews to the performance-evaluation index, and that their role as team managers was to determine the weight of the peer evaluation in the general performance index. After the announcement and implementation of the participants’ decision, one of the subordinates sent an email suggesting a higher weight for the peer evaluation. We asked participants to evaluate this expression of voice.

Our results indicated that both male and female managers respond more favorably to voice expressions of opposite-gender subordinates than to those of same-gender subordinates, particularly when the manager has strong social comparison orientation (that is, he or she is especially attentive to social cues and similarities). This suggests that when subordinates express voice that constructively challenges the status quo, managers can experience risks to their self-concept and reductions in self-esteem if circumstances activate social cues that prompt social comparison — in short, they can feel threatened.

Given an individual’s need to protect his or her self-evaluation as well as his or her public image, our findings suggest that for managers who are particularly susceptible to social comparison, subordinate voice expressions from opposite-gender subordinates are better received than are voice expressions from same-gender subordinates. Our research also suggests that while managers with a strong social comparison orientation might have a bias against same-gender subordinates, managers with a weak social comparison orientation might favor same-gender subordinates.

In both cases, biases triggered by gender are not desirable, especially when managers are making decisions to incorporate subordinates’ ideas. Ideally, managers should objectively consider the concerns of their subordinates by evaluating the implementation of suggestions on merit rather than on the demographic similarity of the person making the suggestion.

To facilitate a more equitable decision-making process, companies should implement initiatives such as training and performance evaluations that deter managers from perceiving subordinates as competitors or threats. At the organizational level, an effective initiative could be the establishment of committees composed of diverse members who evaluate key suggestions and ideas, instead of relying on the judgment of a single, potentially biased manager.

We also found that gratitude is a powerful social emotion that can affect a manager’s response to suggestions. Subordinates who emphasize the potential benefits of their suggestions to the manager, thus prompting some gratitude from that manager, might have a better chance of having their suggestions acted upon. Because individuals are inclined to feel grateful in response to benevolence, organizations have an opportunity to encourage this kind of behavior: They should create events and reward structures and offer activities that provide opportunities for employees to help each other. The gratitude from such experiences might carry over to situations when subordinates express opinions and offer advice to their managers.

In sum, our research suggests that both who expresses voice and to whom that voice is expressed are critically important. For managers who are prone to social comparisons, recommendations that come from opposite-gender subordinates might disarm possible defensiveness. Put differently, being a woman amidst bros could sometimes have its advantages.



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Comment (1)
Robert Jones
This is a lovely way of framing a very, very old issue. Seeing it from the perspective of the subordinate, your research called to mind a discussion of "dual consciousness."  I quote from "The African American Male's Journey To Success,Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Race, Gender, and Social Class" by Mead Goedert (p.78).  "Rusty's negotiation of conflicting social groups also includes a certain negotiation within himself. He references DuBois (1903), as he has to be aware of himself as seen through the eyes of the mainstream, but he also maintains a sense of himself that feels original and authentic. Rusty explains that he has to negotiate his self while he is in mainstream America so he'll be able to fit in enough to achieve his dream of becoming a doctor. He says, "I immediately need to present myself as the nonthreatening Negro. It's like I'm docile, almost; it's frustrating." 

"Opposite gender" subordinates AND peers (specifically female, for the purposes of this discussion) face the same hurdles. We know the classic difference between assertive and aggressive, and the derogation associated with aggressive women, subordinate or not. In that frame, the person of any gender in a subordinated position, when approaching their superior in the "right" way, will present as nonthreatening, thus opening the way for an attitude of gratitude. 

Well received advice from one seen as subordinate, but also perceived of as from a lower social class, is often portrayed in literature and lore as distant in time from Huckleberry Finn's "Big Jim" (1885) to The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), in both cases, advice from a nonthreatening member of a lower social class and a subordinate (in the moment) was received by the superior with an attitude of gratitude...and it paid off.  

Thank you for this marvelous article and excellent research that seems to validate an age old dynamic.