Research Brief

A Bottom-Up, Instead of Top-Down, Path Away from Sexist Bosses

Encouraging the rank-and-file to value feminine traits reduces the implicit endorsement of a biased supervisor

To the extent a workplace cares about gender bias, its typical response is to throw time and money at training/retraining/imploring management to do better. This widely accepted top-down approach has contributed to making executive diversity, equity and inclusiveness training a thriving field.

In a paper forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology, University College London’s Felix Danbold and UCLA Anderson’s Corinne Bendersky make a case for addressing this challenge from the bottom up.

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Past research has established that subordinates tend to take their cues from their supervisor on what traits are important to succeed in their field. That’s obviously a problem when the supervisor’s take is sexist.

In two experiments that involved nearly 1,900 participants, Danbold and Bendersky find that, in a male-dominated field, elevating the value of a stereotypically feminine trait (compassion) without bashing any stereotypically masculine trait (physical strength) reduces the extent to which subordinates identify with a sexist boss.

While rewiring management attitudes will always be an important lever, this research suggests that a new way to reduce the sway of a sexist boss is to reduce the extent to which his (yes, his) direct reports buy in to his bias. (Unaddressed in their research is the promising potential downstream effect of this finding: A subordinate trained to not so closely align with a sexist boss might one day become a boss with less sexist tendencies.)

The paper’s sexist boss defines his profession by primarily stereotypically masculine features and, as a result, sees his work as a “man’s job” in which women cannot succeed.

A 96%-Male Workforce

Danbold and Bendersky focused on perhaps the most gender-imbalanced field of work: firefighting. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women represent fewer than 4% of full-time firefighters. That said, their findings would seem to be applicable to other gender-imbalanced fields such as police officers (15% are women, compared with 43% of full-time U.S. workforce), computer and information systems (27%), aerospace engineers (12%), electrical engineers (9%), sales managers (31%), and personal financial advisors (34%).

A persistent belief is that physical strength is a central trait firefighters need. While we can argue that many women can more than meet those physical requirements, research shows that breaking gender stereotypes is a long game. Moreover, less than 4% of calls to fire departments in 2021 were for actual fires. The vast majority was for medical aid, where other traits — say, compassion — might be highly useful.

In work published in 2019 in Organization Science, Danbold and Bendersky made a case that when the feminine trait of compassion was highlighted as a valuable firefighting skill, the stereotype that women are less qualified to serve as firefighters fell.

For this research, they sought to explore whether this more expansive view of valued firefighter traits — prototypes in the researchers’ vernacular — could compel subordinates to not reflexively identify as strongly with a sexist fire captain. They refer to this habit as perceived professional prototype alignment, or PPPA.

A key element of their research is to not minimize or denigrate popular masculine traits (strength), but rather to bring the feminine trait of compassion to the table as well, as an additional and complementary prototype to what is already valued in a gender-biased occupation.

“Encouraging subordinates to hold balanced (vs. masculine) professional prototypes caused them to decrease their perceived professional prototype alignment with sexist supervisors,” they write.  Lower PPPA, in turn, “led to decreased endorsement of sexist supervisors.”

Granted, that doesn’t fix the problem of a sexist boss, but it does suggest that change from the bottom might be a valuable complement to management training. Or perhaps just serve as a form of pressure, as it becomes harder to lead when the troops aren’t as aligned with you.  

A Balanced Approach to Reducing a Sexist Boss’s Influence

In both experiments, participants were asked to imagine they were a firefighter.

Some participants were primed to focus on the traditional masculine prototype; in a video, a firefighter explained that “physical strength, team orientation and compassion are important traits for being a successful firefighter, but that physical strength is the most important trait.” Other participants were primed to have the “balanced” view, as their video flipped the order of the traits to lead with compassion, and compassion was presented as the most important trait.

Everyone read the same brief description of their boss, Capt. Jones. For both groups, the captain’s values, personality and behavior were identical. Then there were varying descriptions of where the captain landed on the sexism prototype.

Some participants read that Capt. Jones was pro-gender diversity as he believed “efforts to increase the number of women firefighters are well-intentioned and worth supporting, and that firefighting is not necessarily a masculine profession.”

Others got the sexist spin: Capt. Jones believed “efforts to increase the number of women firefighters are well-intentioned but misplaced, and that firefighting is fundamentally a masculine profession.”

All participants were then asked a series of questions to measure the extent to which (on a scale of 1 to 7) their personal belief of what it takes to be a “true or ideal” member of their profession aligned with the captain’s view, and another series of questions zeroed in on whether a participant “endorsed” the captain.

Participants primed to think about a more balanced description of what it takes to be a successful firefighter were significantly less likely to endorse a sexist captain than participants who got the “masculine” spin. Having a pro-gender diversity captain didn’t motivate different responses from the two groups of participants.

For organizations intrigued by this research, Danbold and Bendersky note that “manipulating PPPA may be a more effective tool for directing subordinate endorsements away from sexist supervisors than towards supervisors who already espouse more inclusive attitudes.”

Their hope is that such interventions “may help end the belief that there is such a thing as “a man’s job.”

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About the Research

Danbold, F., Bendersky, C. (2022). Perceived Misalignment of Professional Prototypes Reduces Subordinates’ Endorsement of Sexist Supervisors. Journal of Applied Psychology.

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