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Study finds backlash against men who stand up for others at work

As part of the #MeToo movement, a lot of people have been sharing stories about sexual harassment and gender discrimination they have experienced in the workplace. From that discussion will come a general sense of the severity of the problem and, a lot of people hope, some solutions.

One possible solution is asking powerful men to speak up when they notice sexism. A hashtag for that was created: #AskMoreofHim. Men in positions of power are ideally situated to call attention to problematic behavior and advocate for fair and equal treatment. Wouldn’t workplace equity be easier to achieve with powerful proponents speaking out on the issue?

That might be the case, but there could be hidden costs for men who stand up for their female colleagues. Researchers at Dublin City University recently performed a study indicating that men who advocate for others can face a backlash from both men and women. Why? They’re going against a stereotype.

Previous studies have demonstrated this backlash when people go against gender stereotype. Unfortunately, it’s common for people to perceive men favorably when they focus on promoting themselves and their accomplishments. Meanwhile, women are typically seen more favorably when they emphasize other people’s interests and feelings over their own.

In order to reveal these hidden biases, the researchers designed a study to gauge how favorably study participants felt about people they thought were applying for jobs. The researchers recruited 149 working professionals to participate in an online survey. Half of the participants were men and the other half women. They held a variety of jobs, although the majority worked in human resources.

Each participant was given application materials to evaluate for a single job applicant. They were asked to rate the applicant on likability, competence and overall suitability, as measured by how likely the participant would be to lay off that worker in the event of downsizing.

The study didn’t delve into sexism directly. However, it did find that male applicants who were described as advocating primarily for their own interests were perceived more favorably than men described as diligent stewards of successful teams.

Both male and female participants rated the men who advocated for others less favorably than the men who focused on their own success. Furthermore, both men and women preferred the women who advocated for others over the men who advocated for others.

This gives a sense of what could be happening in our workplaces. If men who advocate for the interest of others face a backlash, they are incentivized to avoid doing so. Given a strong enough backlash, men will hesitate to go against the gender stereotype and stand up when they see gender-based discrimination or harassment.

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