Although masculinity in our culture is rather heavy-handed about stressing being tough and strong, the construct of masculinity itself is actually extremely fragile. For example, according to a new study men see powerful women as a threat to their masculinity. Which is not a good look, guys. And really, if one person's masculinity can be threatened just by the simple fact of someone else having power, then that certainly seems pretty flimsy.
The study, which was conducted by researchers from both Italy and the U.S., is actually a collection of three small studies. In the first both men and women were told they were negotiating a salary with a new employer. The negotiations were conducted via online messaging, and half the participants were told they new boss's name was "Sarah" while the other half were told it was David.
In the second study, male participants were given a scenario in which they were going to split a $10,000 bonus with a colleague. Participants were told they were either going to split the money with a male team member, a female team member, a male boss, or a female boss. The men were asked what they thought a fair split would be.
And finally in the third study, both male and female participants were once again given a scenario in which they were required to split a bonus, but in this case, everyone was assigned either a male or female team leader who was described as either "ambitious" or "administrative." Once again, they were asked how they thought the money should be divided based on fairness.
So what happened?
For those who assume that society is now egalitarian in its view of female authority figures, the results of these studies is bound to be surprising. In the first, they found that while negotiating their salaries, men were more aggressive in their counter offers when they thought the were negotiating with a woman than they were with a man (although women showed no such tendencies). In the second study, men tended to offer a female boss only about half of the hypothetical bonus, while they were willing to give a male boss a greater share.
And finally, in the third study, men were more likely to offer a greater share of the bonus to a female boss described as "administrative" than they were to one described as "ambitious."
All of this behavior, the researchers note, is consistent with men reasserting their masculinity after feeling threatened. In all three studies, men tried to act more dominant (or just more greedy) when confronted with powerful women than they did when confronted with powerful men, or with women characterized in softer terms. Basically, the take away is that men feel threatened by powerful women.
And obviously that sucks, for both men and women.
For men, this is further proof that the way our society constructs masculinity is not all that healthy. I mean, a social identity that relies so heavily on being stronger, tougher, and more powerful that not having that status causes you to feel anxious about your identity? Who thought that was a good idea? It really only makes sense if you're trying to design a system meant to keep women subordinate at all costs, even if the "costs" are the psychological well-being of men.
Which brings us to why this sucks for women. If men really are threatened by powerful women to this degree (presumably on a mostly subconscious level), then being a woman trying to get ahead in a male-dominate world and especially a male-dominated field is going to be a nightmare.
Which we kind of already knew, of course. Although women are supposedly "equal" in this society, men still hold more political, social, and economic power just about everywhere you turn.
But still, this type of threat response to powerful women means that women's advancement is more than a matter of letting trailblazers inevitably arise and slowly watching more and more women naturally follow after them until, with no real effort at all, our society naturally becomes egalitarian all on its own. Instead for women to do that, they're going to have to go up against resistance in the form of this masculinity threat response at every stage.
Or maybe we could stop conditioning boys to think that being powerful or in charge or socially dominant is somehow an innate part of their identity. Just an idea.