UCL School of Management

6 March 2023

Should organisations use bottom-up approaches to inhibit sexist supervisors?

In honour of International Women’s Day 2023, UCL School of Management is sharing the many successes and achievements of our incredible community, whilst simultaneously recognising and highlighting the interdisciplinary work that needs to be done in order to ensure and promote true gender equality.

Last year, UCL School of Management Assistant Professor Felix Danbold co-authored a research paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology alongside Corinne Bendersky that hopes to shine a light on the lingering presence of bias towards women in male-dominated industries. Entitled, ‘Perceived misalignment of professional prototypes reduces subordinates’ endorsement of sexist supervisors’, this research explains how companies can help ensure that employees don’t perpetuate the sexist beliefs of their supervisors.

Sexist supervisors create inequality in the workplace

Around the world, significant progress is being made in improving the inclusion of women in typically male-dominated industries. However, these efforts are often thwarted by the presence of supervisors who continue to believe that their occupation is a “man’s job”. In technical terms, in the minds of sexist supervisors, they hold a “masculine professional prototype”. That is, when thinking about what it means to be a member of their profession, sexist supervisors primarily think about traits that are stereotypically masculine (e.g., assertiveness, strength). Because this leads them to hold a mental association between masculinity and being a good member of their profession, they struggle to see women as capable of success. As a result, sexist supervisors are unlikely to give women the opportunities and support they would give to men, perpetuating gender inequality in their profession.

In addition to the direct harm that sexist supervisors can cause, they also run the risk of transmitting their biased view of the world to their subordinates. In our research paper, Corinne Bendersky and I proposed that we could disrupt the transmission of masculine professional prototypes from sexist supervisors to their subordinates, by encouraging their subordinates to hold more “gender balanced” professional prototypes, in which they recognise the importance of stereotypically feminine traits in their profession.

Reducing the endorsement of sexist supervisors by their subordinates

Corinne and I carried out two studies (one a replication of the other) in the context of the U.S. fire service, a historically very masculine profession. We randomly assigned participants to imagine themselves as subordinates evaluating a supervisor who was either explicitly sexist (e.g., saying that women didn’t have what it takes to succeed as firefighters) or explicitly pro-gender diversity (saying that women do have what it takes).

Before evaluating these supervisors, we also manipulated whether subordinates possessed a masculine or gender balanced professional prototype, using a video-based manipulation in which a fire captain explained what it means to be a successful modern firefighter. In the masculine professional prototype condition, this firefighter highlighted the importance of physical strength (a stereotypically masculine trait). In the balanced professional prototype condition, this firefighter highlighted the importance of compassion (a stereotypically feminine traits). Previous research told us that this is an effective way to get our participants to hold either a masculine or balanced professional prototype.

We found that encouraging participants to hold a balanced professional prototype made them less likely to endorse the sexist supervisor (i.e., they were less likely to say he was a good leader worth following). Following past research, this means that they would be less likely to adopt this supervisor’s sexist beliefs.

To explain this effect, we found that participants’ endorsement of their supervisors was driven, in part, by what we call perceived professional prototype alignment. This complex term simply means that we asked participants to think about how similar their answer to the question, “what does it mean to be a true or ideal member of your profession?” would be to their supervisor’s answer to the same question. The more similarity they perceived between themselves and their supervisor, the strong their endorsement would be of that supervisor. Because participants who we encouraged to hold a balanced professional prototype would see themselves as having a very different professional prototype as sexist supervisors, this helps to explain why we were able to reduce the endorsement of these supervisors.

The other good news is that, endorsement of the pro-gender diversity supervisor was high among all of our participants, suggesting that participants have, at least to some extent, internalised messages about the importance of gender equality. This suggests that our video-based prototype manipulation is best equipped to help reduce the influence of sexist supervisors, rather than boost the endorsement of already pro-gender diversity supervisors.

Looking to the future

Although organisations are increasingly taking a firm stance against the expression of sexism in the workplace, there are still many in positions of power who believe that their work is a “man’s job”. Our research suggests that one way to combat this problem is from the bottom-up. By targeting subordinates, and encouraging them to hold more gender balance professional prototypes (i.e., not seeing stereotypical masculinity as a requirement for success in their profession), we may be able to stop the spread of sexist beliefs.

Interested in Felix and Corinne’s research? Access their research paper here.

Last updated Tuesday, 7 March 2023