Research has long demonstrated that men generally approach the workplace with a more competitive mindset than women. But a study published recently in Strategic Management Journal shows female managers are equally competitive when advocating for their subordinates – male or female, while men tend to advocate more strongly for other men.
Cristian Deszö and two co-authors at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business wondered whether women – shown in other research to be “prosocial” in group or team settings — would ramp up their advocacy when working on behalf of others, becoming as competitive as men in that context. They also explored whether homophily – a preference for someone like you – and discrimination would play a role. Such behavior from male managers, according to the study, works to reinforce and even cause gender disparities in organizations.
DeszÖ co-authored the research with Maryland Smith PhD candidate Nathan Barrymore and postdoctoral research associate Ben King.
In a series of experiments in a simulated organizational setting with online workers, they found that when rewards accrue to protégés, female managers would become more competitive, regardless of whether they’re advocating for a man or a woman.
“In essence, these results suggest that female managers are effective sponsors: they are willing to go to bat for their protégés at levels similar to those of their male colleagues,” said DeszÖ. “And that is not because male managers become less competitive when the rewards accrue to their protégés, it is because female managers are more competitive.”
However, even though male managers’ competitiveness remains essentially unchanged when rewards would accrue to protégés, they were much more competitive when the protégés were male. That disparity, DeszÖ said, was notable – and closer examination revealed something else as well. The disparity would essentially disappear when male managers knew their protégés risk preferences.
“While there are small differences in average risk preference across gender in our sample, male managers behave as if they believe, incorrectly, that these differences are large,” the researchers wrote.
“The practical implication of this result is that short of providing information about female direct reports’ actual risk preferences, male managers may perpetuate gender disparities through their decision of who to compete for. Our findings, thus, point toward a novel strategy to improve the effectiveness of sponsorship programs in organizations and hopefully stimulate more research.”
Sponsorship is key to individuals’ career development and firms’ human capital strategy. In this experimental study simulating an organizational setting, the authors investigated one aspect of sponsorship and asked whether managers’ and protégés’ genders affect managers’ willingness to compete on behalf of their protégés. They clearly found that when the rewards from competition accrue to protégés, female managers increase their competitiveness and eliminate the gender competitiveness gap present when rewards accrue to managers themselves. This suggests that, from a competitiveness standpoint, female and male managers are equally strong sponsors. However, male managers compete more for male, relative to female, protégés. This gap disappears when male managers have information about protégés’ risks preferences, suggesting a novel approach that organizations can implement to reduce discrimination in sponsorship.