Women who exhibit "masculine" traits at work can be hurt by what researchers for years have called "the backlash effect." Research has shown women who have stereotypically masculine characteristics, like dominance and self-confidence, are sometimes sanctioned for behaving in ways that are incongruent with the feminine stereotype of supportiveness and submissiveness.
But according to a recent study, women who self-monitor their so-called masculine behavior use it to their advantage and get more work promotions than both men and other women.
"Masculine women who are able to turn on and turn off these masculine traits were more likely able to succeed above female counterparts and male counterparts," said Olivia O'Neill, assistant professor of management at George Mason University. The British Psychological Society has just published research by O'Neill and her co-author, Charles O'Reilly, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.
The two professors followed 132 business school graduates, 43 percent of whom were women. The professors first assessed the participants from 1986-1987, the first year of their two-year business school program. Then they assessed the participants again seven to eight years after graduation.
O'Neill said "masculine" women who were good at self-monitoring, or able to accurately assess social situations and project appropriate responses, received more promotions than others.
In fact, the results showed that "masculine" women who were high self-monitors received three times as many promotions as women who were low self-monitors. And assertive women who were high at self monitoring also received one and a half times as many promotions as "feminine" women, irrespective of whether those women were high or low self-monitors.
O'Neill said she tried to see if other factors contributed to the higher number of promotions, but none were as significant.
"We know everything about these people, like birth order and attachment style to their mothers," said O'Neill. "There are a lot of possible explanations that do not seem to be leading to this."
O'Neill said the participants underwent extensive observations and questionnaires and found, for some reason, self-monitoring did not make a difference in the number of promotions men received.
The results showed that "masculine" women who were high self-monitors received one and a half times more promotions than "masculine" men and about twice as many promotions as "feminine" men, regardless of whether the men were high or low self-monitors.
O'Neill said one possibility is that self-monitoring is especially important for women because they face a double edged sword with gender stereotypes and workplace success. Women often have to display characteristics that are "masculine" which can be associated with competence, but risk losing "likeability" if they behave against gender stereotyping.
She said both men and women exhibit non-conscious biases regarding gender stereotypes, including even punishing men for acting "feminine."
O'Neill said some media outlets have misconstrued the research by concluding that women should act more feminine in the workplace to receive a promotion.
"That was exactly not what we're saying," O'Neill said. "Nobody is saying act like a lady. The point is to learn to assess the situation and act accordingly."