Can't win: Women harassed at work for 'acting like men'

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A really depressing five-year study from the consulting giant Bain & Company has found that after two years in the workplace, many women feel hopeless that they'll rise to the top of their corporate environment.

The consulting firm polled more than 1,000 men and women at a variety of companies on two questions: “Do you aspire to top management within a large company?” and “Do you have the confidence you can reach top management?” After women had been on the job for at least two years, their aspiration and confidence plunged 60 percent and nearly 50 percent (respectively), while men's confidence dipped a mere 10 percent.

Why? According to the researchers, women's ambition is slowly chipped away the more she sees her male colleagues reap workplace rewards for what are culturally perceived as male behaviors, such as hobnobbing on the golf course and pulling all-nighters. "If corporate recognition and rewards focus on those behaviors, women feel less able, let alone motivated to try, to make it to the top," two women leaders at Bain write in the Harvard Business Review. To better understand that sentiment, here's what one female study participant said:

"Watching middle-aged white male after middle-age white male tell their war stories of sacrificing everything to close the sale was demoralizing, I just kept sinking lower in my chair and thinking that I would never be able to make it to the senior ranks if this was what it took.”


But what happens when women do act more like men in the workplace? Is their "masculine" behavior met with reward and career success? In a separate study published this month in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, researchers from the University of Michigan and Carthage College set out to answer that very question.

Turns out, taking on masculine qualities was not beneficial to the female participants' careers—in fact, it led to an increase in workplace harassment. Rock, meet hard place.


What happens when women act like men at work?

Based on a plethora of previous research showing that women are often discriminated against in the workplace for simply being women, the University of Michigan and Carthage College researchers wanted to find out if women who exhibited a masculine appearance and took on stereotypically masculine behaviors (aggression and self-reliance) would fare better.


Despite self-help books preaching the contrary, the authors hypothesized that countering gender norms would actually work against women.

To test this theory, researchers surveyed 425 women in the workplace, aged 22 to 67 years old, representing an array of work fields such as education, health care, law, and construction. The participants were randomly selected from a pool of 3,622 women.


The women were asked to rate their physical appearance on a scale of one (very masculine) to seven (very feminine); this included hair, clothing, and way of walking. They were also asked to rate their masculine-type behaviors such as self-reliance and aggression by rating questions like "I hate asking for help" or  “I am willing to get in a physical fight, if necessary.” Next they reported on the gender breakdown of their workplace (male- or female-dominated) and rated the amount of gender harassment they regularly receive.

Gender harassment is defined as behaviors that belittle and demean individuals based on their gender, and is a form of sexual harassment. As an example, the women were asked how often colleagues “Made sexist remarks about people of your gender” or “Referred to people of your gender in insulting or offensive terms." They were also asked about gender policing in the workplace and how often colleagues “Treated you negatively because you were not feminine enough” or “Made you feel like less of a woman because you had traditionally masculine interests.”


Answer: They're often harassed

Fifty-three percent of all participants said they had experienced harassment in the past year—that means if you're in an office right now sitting next to two women, one of them has felt harassed in the last year. And women who both appeared more masculine and acted more masculine were the biggest targets of all, experiencing more sexist remarks and gender policing than women who exhibited one or the other. The authors explain:

"For women, working in male dominated workgroups, having a stereotypically masculine appearance, and being aggressive were associated with exposure to sexist remarks and gender policing."


They continue:

"This study found that women are caught in a 'catch-22:' Professional success in many highly compensated fields requires stereotypically masculine behavior and appearance, but those same attributes may increase women’s risk for gender harassment," write the authors.


Of course, not all the blame can be placed on men. As the authors point out, women in the workplace may also be reinforcing or endorsing gender stereotypes, inadvertently punishing women they see as less feminine. Which is why gender-nontraditional women also face increased risk of gender harassment when working in primarily female spaces.

The catch-22 lives on

What this study, the Bain study, and any piece written about Lean In have found is that women are stuck in a catch-22. If they don't exhibit culturally male behaviors in the office (aggression, ego, leadership, strength) they are passed up for promotions. However, if they do put their man-hats on, they're targeted for not being feminine enough.


Of course, this oxymoronic predicament can probably be traced to how our larger society still views women. As a viral ad campaign from 2013 pointed out, when men and women exhibit similar behaviors, they are received quite differently.


A male is a "boss," while a female is "bossy." A man is "persuasive," while a woman is "pushy." A man who neglects his family to pull an all-nighter is "dedicated," while a woman is "selfish." You get the idea.

Women make up half the human population. Isn't it about time we treat them like it?


Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.