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03.26.11

The Looming Male Backlash

A recent study revealed that reading about women’s success makes young men nervous—but the finding’s just the latest proof that women still face serious obstacles on the road to equality, say gender studies experts Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett.

You can’t miss Women’s History Month. Every March, posters, books, articles, films, and lectures celebrate female success. These pats on the back can only be a good thing, right?

Maybe not. According to a recent study, spotlighting women’s achievements makes some men very nervous. We might be better off whispering our kudos or toasting each other in out-of-the-way bars.

The research, published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, reveals a major gap in how men and women view female success. In a survey given to American college students, young men reported high levels of anxiety after reading census data that showcased the gains women have made over the past 40 to 50 years, like graduating from college at higher rates than men and excelling in historically male professions.

Seemingly threatened by this progress, the male survey-takers also reported feeling a strong sense of solidarity with their own gender—protective of it, even. And they tended to exaggerate how far women have come and how far behind men have fallen.

The findings are ominous: Despite recent headlines cautioning “the end of men,” women still have miles to go to achieve gender equality—and men’s uneasy response to female success hints at real-world challenges ahead. We know from prior research that when men feel threatened, they tend to energetically protect their status. No study can claim to predict the future—but having spent decades researching gender relations, to us, this new report suggests that men might be less likely to hire women, mentor them, or value them as colleagues.

Equally troubling: The study also found that many young women aren’t concerned about gender-based career obstacles. When female survey-takers read about current opportunities to enter previously male-dominated occupations, they reported low levels of threat as well as a diminished need to bond with their own sex. From our research, too many young women think all the battles for gender equality have been fought and the future will just bring more progress. (This perception likely explains current low levels of feminist activism; as historian Barbara Epstein of UC Santa Cruz stated flatly back in 2002, “There is no longer an organized feminist movement in the United States.”)

No study can claim to predict the future, but this new report suggests that men might be less likely to hire women, mentor them, or value them as colleagues.

 Male anxiety may explain the new conventional wisdom embraced by the media that women are taking over the world and headed for the best jobs, while men are flailing. After all, research tells us that men control opinion journalism; only 10 to 15 percent of talking heads on opinion news shows are female and between 80 and 90 percent of a newspaper's opinion essays are written by men, according to the Stanford Op Ed Project. This narrative, however, is seriously flawed.

Look closely at data about women’s progress, and you’ll see a troubling fact: in many arenas, women’s gains have stalled and are in grave danger of being rolled back. Yes, more women than ever before attend college and professional schools in medicine, law, and business—but there’s a real question as to whether they’ll ever attain leadership positions in the areas for which they’ve been trained. The women’s advocacy group Catalyst reports that women’s representation in senior leadership positions is stagnating. In computer science and engineering, earlier gains appear to have stalled or even shifted into reverse.

And the gender pay gap is far from closed. A 2007 report for the Sloan Foundation found that women’s earnings have not kept up with their gains in educational attainment. Women have enjoyed near parity with men in college classrooms for years, but the wage gap has hardly budged. This month’s report from the White House on the status of women showed that, at all levels of education, women earned about 75 percent of what their male counterparts earned in 2009.

Indeed, female MBAs earn, on average, $4,600 less than male MBAs in their first job out of business school. Women start behind and never catch up. Professionals are hit the hardest. The latest data show that female physicians in the U.S. earn, on average, 39 percent less than male physicians. Women financial analysts take in 35 percent less, and female chief executives, one-quarter less.

Plus, we now have entirely new battles to fight: take “The Glass Cliff” phenomenon, in which female business leaders are more likely to be appointed to powerful leadership positions when an organization is in crisis or high-risk circumstances. These women are set up for failure—blamed for negative outcomes that were set in motion well before they assumed their new roles. To give a few examples, Carly Fiorina (Hewlett Packard), Kate Swan (W. H. Smith) and Patricia Russo (Alcatel-Lucent) were appointed to top positions at a time of tumbling share prices. All were fired or pushed out of their jobs.

All of these facts point to what we've dubbed the new “soft war” on women. The new bias in the workplace is subtler than the old and obvious closed doors, but in many ways, it’s just as damaging. Its tentacles are everywhere, making it harder for women to build on the gains they’ve already made and move forward. And the new Basic and Applied Social Psychology study suggests we may not have seen the worst of this bias yet.

The most anxiety-provoking detail of all? It’s not just men who propagate and accept workplace stereotypes, but women as well. New York University psychologist Madeline Heilman finds that women see competent female bosses as ruthless, strict, mean, and stubborn. But they see equally competent men as professional and capable. Too often, we have met the enemy, and she is us.

Rosalind C. Barnett, Ph.D., is a senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University and co-author with Caryl Rivers of The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children, to be published in June 2011 by Columbia University Press.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University and co-author with Rosalind C. Barnett of The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children, to be published in June 2011 by Columbia University Press.